A Pencil is Mightier than a Gun: The Making of a Police Sketch Artist

True Crime

A Pencil is Mightier than a Gun: The Making of a Police Sketch Artist

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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itin Yadav looked over his glasses at a blood-smeared man. Only a couple of hours prior, a longtime servant had been killed at a wealthy businessman’s house in Central Mumbai. Standing before Yadav the distressed man, the new servant, claimed two masked men had barged into the house, killed his co-worker, then attacked him, and fled the scene.

As a police sketch artist, Yadav’s instinct is sharp as a tiger’s tooth. Something seemed amiss.

“You see, I have played kabaddi, cricket, and even chor-police,” says Yadav, 53, in his sandpaper voice, sitting in a room by his residence in a Kurla chawl, “If I’m standing on a street and a bird flies over my head, by glancing at its mere shadow on the ground I can tell whether it was a crow or a dove. Chapter tha main bachpan se (I’ve always been a smart cookie).”

Even as the servant went rambling on about the “robbers”, Yadav had sussed him out. “In kabbadi, if somebody catches you by your leg and drags you, you are likely to be on your back, not stomach,” he says. Yadav was struck by how the new servant’s body was streaked with blood only on parts that his own hands could reach. There were no blood stains on his back or butt. “Besides, nothing was stolen from the house.”

To establish a starting point for the dialogue, Yadav presents the witness with his “software book” — a vast collection of skull shapes, hair styles, nose-lip shapes, and side profiles.

Then Yadav brought the hammer down on the nail. “Are you left-handed?” The servant nodded yes. Clearly, the huge knife wound on his right arm was self-inflicted, Yadav inferred. Still, wanting to be dead sure, Yadav asked him to describe the two men again. This time, his details of the two imaginary men had changed. “I told the cops, take him inside and whack him good. If he is not your man, I will shave this off,” Yadav says, petting his bushy, half-horseshoe ’stache.

Indeed, the new servant had killed the other servant after learning of the latter’s secret affair with the businessman’s wife. “It was a murky story,” Yadav recalls. It was also the only time where he didn’t have to put his pencil to paper to help solve a case.

Despite his sharp skills of deduction and observation, Yadav is happy to have found his calling as a sketch artist, even though he did not realise his childhood dream of becoming a police inspector. His 28-year-old career – during which he has made more than 4,000 sketches — kickstarted when he harnessed the fleeting glimpse a waiter had caught of the killer to whom he had served tea. The latter was nabbed in Hyderabad based entirely on the strength of Yadav’s sketch.

Nitin Yadav

It’s only after Yadav is inundated with all sorts of information that he actually puts pencil to paper, first drawing lightly, leaving a faint trace on the white paper.

Image Credits: Anand Holla

A drawing teacher for 30 years, Yadav had discovered a flair for portraits while studying at Sir JJ School of Art and painting sign boards and rickshaw number plates on the side. Yet, he’s never charged the police any fee for his sketch work, until about three years ago when his son’s education expenses mounted.

Every Yadav sketch begins with him first intently listening to the witness for minutes on end. Usually, the details are sparse, but sometimes, people can go on and on. In that case, Yadav asks them to enact and mimic.

To establish a starting point for the dialogue, Yadav presents the witness with his “software book” — a vast collection of skull shapes, hair styles, nose-lip shapes, and side profiles. Once a template is chosen by the witness, Yadav asks for standard details like age, skin colour, hair style, moustache/beard shape, clothes, and so on. That’s when the questions become specific: Was his shirt button open? Was he wearing a chain? How dense was his chest hair? What were his teeth like?

In this line of work, the devil is literally in the details. “So if the witness says the accused was chewing gutkha or wearing a citrus-flavoured perfume, any such detail, when the cops have closed in on suspects, helps them pick the real offender,” says Yadav. It’s only after Yadav is inundated with all sorts of information that he actually puts pencil to paper, first drawing lightly, leaving a faint trace on the white paper.

Following the success of his first sketch, the policemen became Yadav’s friends, spreading the good word about him. So far, Yadav’s skills have helped police detect around 450 cases. These include the Shakti Mills gang rape and the Spanish national’s rape in Mumbai, as well as the German Bakery blast in Pune. “Some of those really upset me,” he says, shaking his head.

That’s always the upshot of a satisfying career busting crime – the ghosts of the past might disappear, but are never quite exorcised.

About a decade ago, a 14-year-old boy was waiting for a bus near Kurla’s Kalpana Talkies at night. An old man, about 52, approached the adolescent and offered him good work and money at his nearby factory. The boy accompanied him in the rickshaw to a dark alley in Dharavi… where the old man overpowered and raped him. “Back then, my son was of the same age,” says Yadav. “When the police called me to the hospital to meet the boy, I saw his anguish.”

Yadav agreed to do the sketch on a condition: If the rapist got caught, Yadav would get to slap him.

It took him two hours with the traumatised teen to gather details — long white beard, white kurta-pyjama, kohl-lined eyes — and draw. Forty eight hours later, the law had caught up with the monster. The man owned five shops in Kurla, had three wives, and 18 children. The cops called Yadav to tell him that he had drawn the rapist perfectly. “As I entered the police station, I saw him refusing to have his photo clicked,” he tells me. “He was asking for it. Right in front of the cops, I leapt at him and whacked him soundly.”

In the Shakti Mills gang-rape case, Yadav spent four hours — from 3 am to 7 am, the morning following the incident — with the survivor’s friend, sketching, fine-tuning. “Apart from the need to catch those b*******, this was a matter of Mumbai Police’s honour.” Within hours, Yadav’s sketch led cops to the first accused. In 72 hours, all five accused would be caught.

It’s clear that Yadav derives some satisfaction from fighting crime. And yet, there’s the rub. “I am satisfied and yet I can’t really claim so,” Yadav admits. “Because there already has been a murder, a rape, or a robbery.”

The damage is already done. But at least there is a semblance of justice. And there is some cold comfort in that.

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