The call came to Green Valley police late one Friday in January 2014. Throughout Sydney's west, people were preparing for the year's first weekend, but in Ferraro Crescent, West Hoxton, a newish community of land-and-home packages and multiple cars, not everyone was settling into the languor of mid-summer.
A resident had become suspicious of a woman hovering around bushland abutting one stretch of the street. For a year, she had been seen near the local playground, cleaning herself at a tap or collecting washing from a stretch of barbed wire as suburban life bustled around her. She wore long tops and pants and her hair was obscured by a cap, but it was clear she was scarred. There were marks on her face and bandaged hands, and the hair that protruded from beneath her cap appeared to be just fuzz.
She was conspicuously anonymous, her air of destitution so improbable in this neighbourhood of drive-in, drive-out residences, and she might have been homeless had it not been for the sightings of her shuffling down the side path of one local house, where onlookers presumed she was staying. She had a habit of dragging around black garbage liners, and at least one resident, concerned she was doing something sinister, had considered calling police. But until January 3, no one did.
Late that afternoon, a resident heard a call for help from the bush. At 7pm, two general duty officers waded into the overgrowth, just beyond a patch of discarded bikes and tyres, and found the woman, in tracksuit pants and a beanie at the height of summer, lying behind someone's back fence on an old patch of concrete. As police helped her to her feet, her long-sleeved top shifted.
"Her whole back was black," says Green Valley police superintendent James Johnson. His officers were horrified at the extent of the woman's disfigurement, so severe that just by looking at her they could not even be sure she was who she claimed to be. "From the eyebrows up, she had no hair. It had all been burnt off."
She said she was Monika Chetty and that someone had thrown acid on her in a Liverpool park days earlier - the latest in an uncannily dire series of events that had left her with shocking burns on at least two prior occasions. Her skin, which looked dirty, was actually charred. Yet her cries for help had nothing to do with the excruciating pain she must have been enduring: she simply needed a hand getting up.
With a level of stoicism that seemed super-human, she had been living rough in the middle of suburbia, without medical attention, despite full-depth burns to 80 per cent of her body. Horrifically disfigured and homeless, at 39 her existence seemed to have been reduced to the garbage bags she habitually hauled around with her.
Yet even in her abysmally reduced state, she had quietly managed to maintain some of the accoutrements of 21st-century life: a mobile phone, a bank account, a Facebook page. They provided some of the few enduring links to who she had been.
She had the most contagious laugh," says Rani Thind, a warm, 30-something woman who, having spent several periods helping homeless people, still cannot believe that a friend of 24 years could have fallen into this category. "She was always bubbly, always had a smile."
Monika Chetty came into Thind's life in her early teens, when she was still Monika Prasad and dreamed of love and domesticity. They met as school girls through mutual friends. "She talked about growing up, getting married, having a home, having children."
Born in the Fijian town of Lautoka, Chetty arrived in Australia as a teenager with her parents and her sister, Mohini, in 1988, another family joining the exodus from post-coup Fiji, and settled in western Sydney. She attended Burwood Girls High in years 9 and 10 and finished her schooling in Blacktown, where her parents opened a corner store.
She and Thind shared similar ambitions. "You know, those girly dreams that you have when you are young: a happy home, a husband who kisses you goodbye when he goes to work in the morning. She was at my wedding and danced all night. She was always saying that she was so excited about getting married and having all that."
Insurance advisor Anujay Singh, who met Chetty through his cousins around the same time, remembers a nice young woman who loved dressing up. "She was smart, intelligent, a good girl - funny, with a great sense of humour."
She attended TAFE and studied business administration, and by 19 she was married. Her idealised life seemed to have begun. But the union did not last.
At 23, she married again. Her second husband, Ronald Chetty, had spotted her at a party. "She was quite friendly and talkative and was open-hearted; she was a very cheerful person," he says now.
They were married in 1998, and with her mix of warmth and assertiveness she assumed the role of homemaker, eventually presiding over a family of three children. "She was the boss," says Ronald. "She was making all the decisions, and we had a good time."
Like many others, their union was sometimes patchy, but Ronald seems to have tried to please his wife. "He looked after her like a queen," says Shelly Zammit, who was a year ahead of Monika Chetty at school. "He did everything for her. He paid all the mortgage, he paid the bills and if she didn't want to work, he said, 'That's fine.' "
Chetty had been a shop assistant at Myer and Target earlier in her career, and she worked for a time as a nursing aide in Fairfield after the births of her two sons. But with the advent of parenthood she was mostly at home, living in a comfortable three-bedroom place in Bonnyrigg, with no outward indication of the darkness that was to come.
By 2007, "she still seemed to be quite a together person", says Thind. She enjoyed family day trips and picnics, and spent time with her children and her friends and their children, although the complexities of family life were sometimes straining. She had become gloomy about her sometimes-rocky marriage, but was determined it would survive. "She wanted it to work out for the kids as well, so that she and their father were together for them," says Thind.
"Sometimes she was unhappy," says Zammit, who was always struck by her friend's fierce independence. "It wasn't the husband; it wasn't the kids she was unhappy [about]. It was something about her. She would never ask for help. She thought she could look after herself. She didn't need anyone."
Eventually, however, the marriage ended. "When the third child was born, she wasn't happy," says Ronald Chetty. "I was home and she said, 'It's not going anywhere' ... And I said, 'Why, what's wrong?' And she didn't say anything."
Her husband was left to assume that money was a contributor to their marriage breakdown. "She wasn't working and probably I wasn't earning that much to entertain her," he says. In 2008, she moved out with her two primary school-aged sons and infant daughter, and moved in temporarily with her father, Jitendra, and sister in Blacktown. (Her mother had died several years earlier.) By 2009, she was divorced.
In her early 30s, Chetty was now a single mother living at first off Centrelink benefits and later from her cashier's job at a fruit market. After several months, she moved into a Toongabbie flat and the children would see their father at weekends. There was still a semblance of domesticity to life, but already its once measured rhythm was shaky. Chetty fell out with her father and sister. She developed breast cancer. Soon the tensions of her complicated life were overwhelming.
In late 2010, she contacted her ex-husband. "It was the last day of school," he recalls, "and she rang me and said, 'Can you have the kids for a while?' because she didn't have a place to live." She had been given notice after failing to pay rent, but promised to take the children back once she was settled in a housing commission place. Ronald Chetty had no reason to disbelieve her: "She was always a good mother." But even a plan this simple would prove to be wishful thinking.
Away from her immediate family, Chetty's movements, like her welfare, became unclear. A photo taken in October 2011 shows no signs of scarring, but as that year morphed into 2012, she was becoming increasingly distant from those who had once been among her closest circles.
She phoned her children at least weekly when they first returned to live with their father. But within a year her calls had become sporadic, and the gap soon spanned months.
In late 2011, she called her ex-husband asking for money. They met at a car park near his Fairfield home and he was shocked: "If I saw her on the street, I wouldn't have known who she was." Her face and neck were blistered, her hair was gone, even her skin colour had changed. "She was very dark, and wasn't well at all."
Chetty provided few details. She said she had been burnt by a car radiator on a freeway, and that her hair had fallen out from chemotherapy. But that was not all that disturbed her former husband. He had started hearing that she was asking strangers for money in nearby suburbs: Fairfield, Parramatta, Cabramatta. The location kept changing, but the thrust of the rumours did not. This was not the woman he knew.
Chetty was broke. On her own and impoverished, she began begging, an especially difficult proposition for a woman who had been so fiercely independent. Her plight was made more difficult by the way she now looked, so badly scarred on at least her face and hands, sometimes wearing bandages, that no outfit seemed to completely hide the external signs of the hardships she was enduring.
By December 2012 she was working through a list of potential helpers when she phoned Anand Kumar, a family friend for 20 years. After several calls, he finally agreed to see her. They met in January 2013 on the footpath outside his home (she had refused to come inside, saying, "You might get scared if you see me") and Chetty's head was covered and her hands were burnt. She mentioned the car radiator and Kumar did not inquire further. He gave her $200 and did not help her again.
Around the same time, Chetty also contacted Jarvis Prasad after 15 years. They were friends in their early 20s, and Prasad was astonished that she now wrote to his brother on Facebook, then phoned Prasad himself. "How come she called me after so many years?" says Prasad. "I thought she must be really desperate." Chetty avoided answering how she was, saying only that she needed $100. For someone frantic for money, it seemed a surprisingly paltry amount.
Prasad was happy to help. "I told her I would meet her anywhere; I wanted to see her." But she never showed up, leaving Prasad so unsettled - by her dire financial state and her refusal to meet him - that he contacted other old friends, among them Rani Thind. Around March last year, Thind phoned her schoolmate and said she could move in.
Chetty sounded desperate. Although Thind had heard she was living in a car, she claimed to have secured a housing commission spot in Liverpool. What she really needed, she said, was $500 in her bank account to stop her car being repossessed. Thind did not have the money. "But I said, 'Come and see me and I will talk to the car company and come up with some kind of arrangement with them.' And she said, 'No, no, I have an arrangement that I have to pay them and they won't give me any more time.' "
Thind thought Chetty's response was odd. "If you are in a situation where you are really desperate and someone you knew since you were kids was giving you a place to stay ... it surprised me that she didn't want to come and see me ... She wouldn't even meet." Their friendship had always seemed open, but now Chetty was intensely secretive. "She wouldn't give me an address. She wouldn't give me anything. She said she would call me, but she didn't. I tried to call her over and over." But Chetty never answered her calls again.
By early 2013, Chetty was frequenting West Hoxton. She had told her children's father that a woman she called "Aunty" lived there and that she had been helping her but, as ever, she provided scant details. Her presence on Ferraro Crescent, however, was noted.
"I could hear her crying in the bush late, late at night," says resident Giola Motti. "I used to wake my husband up and I would say, 'Can you hear that?' and he's going, 'It's just cats', and I said, "It's not cats, that's a human cry.' "
Around March, Motti first noticed Chetty hovering around the bush carrying garbage bags. Sometimes she would move them from outside a nearby house, where Motti assumed she was staying, to the bush reserve. Each time Chetty was covered head to toe. Then, late one hot night as she went for a run, Motti spotted her in a small green car parked a few houses away. A streetlight was shining on her, but Chetty seemed oblivious as she sat in the front seat in a singlet.
"She had massive gouges, like her skin had been burned down to her cheekbones," says a horrified Motti. "It looked like she had just come back from war. All I could see were craters. Everywhere, her skin, her arms ... it was like something out of a horror movie."
Still, Motti did not alert anyone to what she had seen. Chetty had been going to the property a few houses away. The residents there, Motti figured, must have seen her. Surely that meant she wasn't homeless?
By the time Jameel Ahmed and his wife, Firoza, saw her at Carnes Hill shopping complex in May 2013, Chetty's scarring was noticeable even from a distance. "You could see that she was in trouble," he says. "She was looking for help." As Chetty left her car and approached the couple for money, Jameel Ahmed began to learn about the unlikely unravelling of her once ordinary life.
With her belongings in storage, she told them, she had left a women's refuge in Liverpool after some youths tormented her, and for several months an Indian-Fijian woman had given her shelter and money and the chance to work as a cleaner. When that had started to impinge on the woman's family life, the woman had bought her the cheap car that now doubled as her bed.
Chetty's existence was unrecognisable from the comfortable life she had known so recently. She was still in the suburbs, but now she wandered by day as far afield as Liverpool and Parramatta. She spent her nights, friends heard later, sleeping on back verandahs if she was lucky, or more often in her car, which was both a saviour and a curse. She said she had been badly injured opening the radiator cap, then the bonnet had fallen on her hands. She had been burnt another time by hot cooking oil, on both occasions receiving medical help. Still, the indelible legacy of those accidents was apparent each time she stepped beyond the shadows.
Yet she seemed most troubled by money. At the car park, Ahmed gave her cash and later transferred more to her bank account, around $500 in all. Over several ensuing phone calls, he also directed her to a Hindu temple and found her a job in a Parramatta restaurant. But again she declined all but monetary help. "She felt embarrassed and non-presentable. She looked disfigured ... I can't blame her," says Ahmed, whose persistence eventually waned.
"I felt frustrated because she never sought [out] all those avenues I presented to her," he says. "She was not helping herself." But he remained so deeply affected that he emailed community leaders in late May, feeling then that "if she doesn't find shelter and doesn't get back on her feet again, she is going to end up in a worse situation than she is now".
Ahmed's letter spawned the first of several email chains among Sydney's Indian and Fijian communities. In May 2013, Dr Yadu Singh, president of the Indian Australian Association of NSW, found Chetty at the same shopping complex, covered up in long clothes and a cap, her hands bandaged. "I didn't feel that she was in health troubles because she was walking around," says Singh, a cardiologist. "I didn't see anything that said she was in fear, at that time at least."
She told him she was okay and needed no help, so he offered no more. "If a person says, 'I am okay', you have to walk away, you can't intrude."
Several other community members also spoke to her. One offered her the use of an office space. Another said he might be able to assist with a job, food and clothing, and would even help her approach Centrelink, her own direct efforts having apparently failed. But she resisted them all.
Chetty's movements over the following months are unclear, although she was spotted in various suburbs of western Sydney with obvious injuries. At a Liverpool street function one night in October, bandaged and heavily clothed, she approached a man for money. As he handed her $10, he failed to recognise her as his wife's cousin.
By January 2014, Chetty had become a ghoulish site around West Hoxton, an unknown but non-threatening presence in Ferraro Crescent. "My kids would say, 'That scary man is up at the park again', " says Joanne Malloch, who lives with her extended family on a curve of the street just beyond the bush reserve.
For half a year, her husband, Joseph, had noticed clothes and towels strung out on a nearby barbed-wire fence and had often seen a short person shuffling on the footpath. But it was not until late afternoon on January 3 that Joanne Malloch drove past Chetty, who appeared to have a surgical mask on her face, and spotted the horrific burns.
Malloch did not contact anyone about what she had seen. But within a couple of hours, her neighbour Giola Motti did. On a recent early morning run, she had stumbled upon Chetty sleeping in the bush. "I thought she was dead. She was just lying there covered in old clothes. I coughed to make some noise and she sort of rustled around and picked her stuff up and started going."
Having repeatedly seen the woman moving bags into the bush, Motti was convinced she was up to no good.
Chetty was meant to see her children on January 3. She had phoned her former husband in the morning, not having hugged her sons and daughter in close to a year, and had made a loose arrangement to visit them at home some time after 6pm.
Instead, she found herself trapped on a rough bit of land in someone else's neighbourhood, her isolation shattered by the arrival of emergency crews. She was quiet and reserved as police helped her stand. They called an ambulance when they saw her horrific wounds and only then did she become upset, insisting vehemently she would not go to hospital. She did not say why. She was moved to a specialist burns unit and the difficult task of saving her from the wounds that had not seemed to trouble her began.
With no idea who had caused her injuries, or even if acid had been thrown, police launched an investigation. That night they began to circulate an old photograph of Chetty in the hope that someone might reveal the source of her wounds. "I looked at the picture of her in the paper and it was actually nice to see," says Green Valley Police crime manager, Detective Inspector Brendan Bernie, who was on duty that evening. "If you saw what she looked like [on January 3] and you saw the face as it appears in that photo, you couldn't say that they were the same people."
Chetty's fate morphed into a collective burden. Another chain email began circulating among community members wondering how to help her. Within days, more than 150 names were on the list. After all this time seemingly alone, a circle began to re-form around her. Her former husband, Ronald, and her eldest son, now well into his teens, visited her in hospital, where she was eventually placed in an induced coma. Her elderly father, Jitendra, and her sister, Mohini, from whom she had been estranged, became key links for the health and community officials working towards her recovery.
But before any semblance of a future could be planned, Chetty died. After the isolation of her final months, the grief at her demise was collective and audible. Her death, on January 31, was announced on local Hindi radio. Close to 150 people attended her funeral: women in saris, men in white business shirts, her father and sister, her children and their father, old school friends, community leaders and a minibus load of young men dressed neatly in high-school uniforms.
Chetty's elderly father was especially distraught. The day after the funeral, as he went to collect his daughter's ashes, he suffered a suspected stroke.
He was rushed to hospital, but died later that day.
Police are unsure about much of Monika Chetty's demise. They don't know why she chose Ferraro Crescent, with its tract of supposedly snake-infested bush, to spend her final nights. Her endless need for cash is also unclear, given the regularity with which she was helped. "I don't think she was starving, because of the amount of people who gave her food and coffee," says Green Valley police's James Johnson.
But her death has dispelled some of the myths that accumulated as she moved quietly through suburbia. The garbage bags that worried some residents contained nothing more than clothes. What remained of Chetty's former life had become confined to the inside of those flimsy liners, and the house in Ferraro Crescent where she had been allowed to store some things. An occupant of the house refused to be interviewed for this story, but Johnson says the residents there also fed her. "They did take a little bit of care of her as neighbours."
Chetty left other bags around West Hoxton, presumably for safe-keeping. But like her former life, nothing was guaranteed protection in the end. A neighbour found some of the clothes-filled liners in the bush and, figuring they were rubbish, threw them away.
Monika Chetty's life, once hopeful and unexceptional, ended bitterly and prematurely. Old friends and family still struggle to reconcile her final months with the laughing young woman who loved dressing up like a Bollywood star.
"What happened to her?" wonders former husband Ronald Chetty, ruling out whispers about drugs and depression. "She was a very, very nice person when I met her. She was still a very nice person when she left me. And in the last two-and-a-half years, I don't know what happened. No one can tell me."
Rani Thind desperately wants her old friend to be remembered for who she was for the bulk of her 39 years, and not just at the end. "She was alive before everything went wrong. She was asking people for money and she was living on the street. This is not the person that she was. It feels like a stranger."
This article originally appeared in Good Weekend