In the gloaming of the longest day of the year, Durba Mukherjee awoke from an after-work nap to an empty apartment.
Arka should have been home by now, she thought. Her son, a spindly 12-year-old who loved books and animals, had had a rough week at school. There had been a dust-up during lunch one day. And he’d been accused of taking a video game console from another student.
The apartment, a one-bedroom in a North Toronto highrise near the middle school where Arka was soon to finish Grade 6, was silent.
Maybe he’d gotten into video games at a friend’s place, the single mother thought. Maybe he’d lost track of time.
Then she saw the open notebook in the darkened living room. She read the first lines of a note, and then she dialed 911.
I have been a disappointment to you. I have not been popular at school. No one will miss me if I’m gone.
Arka Chakraborty was found at the base of the highrise next door to theirs. Toronto police, Mukherjee said, told her the boy jumped from the building’s rooftop terrace. Instead of spending a Friday night with her only son, Mukherjee looked upon his dead body at the Hospital for Sick Children.
Mukherjee has written to the Toronto District School Board, the provincial ombudsman, and politicians demanding answers, and has hired lawyer Barry Swadron to help her get them. A friend has set up a Gofundme campaign to help with legal costs.
“She is determined to do all she is able to shed light on the sheer goodness of Arka and to dramatize the societal failures that led to his death,” Swadron said in an email.
Swadron’s law firm is pushing for a provincial public inquiry into Arka’s death, and has filed freedom of information requests for official documents such as school records and police notes surrounding the case.
Months after Arka’s death, as he would have been starting a new school year, there are many questions, some of which may be unanswerable.
Was bullying a factor, and if so how much was Arka bullied? Did he bully others? How was the console situation handled — by Arka, who appears to have later admitted to taking it; by other boys; by school officials; by Arka’s mother? What was in his mind? How can we ever know what really happens in a schoolyard, in a conversation, in the mind of a troubled boy?
This much we do know: a coroner’s report has ruled Arka died by suicide and requires no inquest, and Toronto police say their investigation into the boy’s June 21 death has concluded and “no foul play was suspected,” said spokesperson Allison Sparkes.
And school board spokesperson Ryan Bird said details of the school’s investigation into events before Arka’s death “must remain private.” There has been no formal review conducted by the board, he said.
Arka’s “death was very difficult for staff and students, particularly those that were with him every day,” Bird said. “Our hearts are with Arka’s mother, family and friends following his tragic passing.”
At home in her empty apartment, Mukherjee pours through his notebooks, many drawings and cartoons for signs her boy may have been depressed. She has so far found none.
“My son meant everything,” Mukherjee said. He had been made out to be a criminal, she said. “He was a child. He was intelligent. But he was still a child.”
But, she said, if it was a suicide, it was because people “made a child feel that he cannot show his face to anyone.” And whatever can be learned from the death of a 12-year-old boy, Mukherjee feels, might help save another.
This story of Arka’s life and death is based on Mukherjee’s account, email exchanges with the school and police, comments from parents, notes from classmates and teachers, and artifacts Arka left behind.
The Star is choosing not to reveal details of the case that may identify other children Arka interacted with in the days before his death.
If you or someone you know is in distress, there is help. Resources are available through the government of Canada. You can also call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.
When Arka Chakraborty was born in Chennai, India, on Feb. 11, 2007, his parents’ relationship was already in bad shape. Mukherjee, a computer engineer, felt she should keep the marriage going for the sake of the child. His father, a nuclear scientist, wanted a divorce.
They fought in front of Arka, and Arka — pronounced Ar-ko — was throwing up. A doctor was certain the then three-year-old was well physically, and believed the strained marriage was at the root of the illness. They tried couples counselling and visited mental health professionals, but nothing improved.
One doctor, Mukherjee said, told her the answer was a divorce, and the papers came through in early 2013. Arka lived with his mom, who had custody, but would see his father on weekends.
For Arka’s sake, she moved to Bangalore in 2015. But he had trouble in school, where classmates singled him out because she was a single mom. She remembers Arka made up a story for his classmates: his mom was married, she had moved for work. Mukherjee’s friends suggested a bigger move, abroad.
“All the decisions I made, every one I took looking at his face, because I had to give him a good life,” Mukherjee said. “And I thought Canada is very open, very inclusive, very liberal country.”
Only mother and child knew of the plan, and when her visa came through in September 2017, they both thought, “yes, let’s go.” That night, Arka slipped a note under his mother’s pillow.
“Thank you maa for trying so hard for my passport and visa!” it reads in neat, handwritten cursive. “You had your passport and visa, so you could have gone alone but you fought just to take me to Canada. I am grateful!”
She landed a job in Toronto, with the Royal Bank of Canada. They arrived on March 8, 2018, and eventually settled in a North Toronto apartment and, for Arka, a nearby junior school.
Arka appeared to thrive in his new home country. He had never experienced snow. Within a year, he was ice skating without fear.
At school, a teacher encouraged Arka to apply for a spot on the CBC game show “Canada’s Smartest Person Junior,” which was in line with his academic achievements — he excelled in math and was a voracious reader. He devoured the entire Harry Potter series in a month and, just age 11, read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984.”
Mukherjee — and Arka — loved the teachers at all the schools he would attend in Toronto. In turn, they loved him back.
“One thing I liked about Canada was the schools, first because I thought that the teachers were affectionate,” Mukherjee said. “They understand that my son is good, and I appreciate that.”
Arka wrote about his brief time at the junior school in a note for his Grade 5 graduation. In it, he reflected on lessons learned and shared some advice for other students: you should avoid, he wrote, “troublesome kids and bullies even though I have not seen any bullies yet. Because as they say, a rotten apple also corrupts a good one.”
Things did not go so well socially when he moved on to middle school the next year, however. Mukherjee says her son faced bullying, including verbal threats and physical interactions; while the mother of another boy said Arka could bully back.
Mukherjee says one interaction resulted in a visit to hospital for Arka, while another apparent scuffle resulted in Arka facing a reprimand at school the week before he died. Mukhherjee told the Star there was also non-physical bullying going on that caused her son to lose friends, but that she withheld it from the school.
Arka used to fight with his mother about the alleged bullying and his friendships; his mother says he told her he had to be friends with them “because they are saving me” — a comment Mukherjee said she still doesn’t understand. Mukherjee said she sought advice from teachers, who suggested she enrol Arka in after-school programs to keep him busy, and she urged her son to get outside.
Mukherjee describes one particular incident with a student last October, which led her to contact police and to take her son to the hospital. There were no internal injuries, though she says a doctor advised Arka to get self-defence training. She says she declined to escalate things with police due to the boys’ young age.
In an email to his teachers after the incident, Mukherjee wrote: “Arka is now scared to go to school alone. I am also scared. Not sure what to do. Can you please advise?”
The school’s principal was soon in touch and told Mukherjee in person that her son would be safe. A board social worker was assigned to Arka as well, and the two would meet regularly.
“We will get this sorted out,” the principal said in an email to Mukherjee. “I was very disappointed by what has happened and I feel very sorry for Arka.”
The Star reached out to the mothers of boys Mukherjee alleged had bullied Arka. They told a different story.
One spoke at length with the Star and said her son never threatened to harm Arka, and broke into tears when he learned of Arka’s death. She said Arka had been bullied by others, but not by her son, said Arka himself had “a tendency to bully other boys.”
After his death, she said, her son was in shock and called Arka “a very nice boy and it shouldn’t have happened with him.” She hopes more facts come out about the events that led up to Arka’s death.
The mother of another boy told the Star that her son was also deeply impacted by Arka’s death. She said none of what Mukherjee says Arka told her about her son is true, and that he is not a bully. She said he is kind to other children, does volunteer work at church and helps seniors in her building.
She did say there had been “usual problems” at school involving her son and Arka and the other boy, but not bullying. “They were classmates and something happened, but it is not (over) very important problems,” she said.
“Arka’s gone, and has died, and we are very sorry about him and his mother,” she said, asking not to be contacted further.
In the months that followed the October incident, Mukherjee said Arka told her not to tell the school that he was still being bullied, saying he had already lost friends. “Maa, you should never ever talk to any parent,” she remembers he said. “You talked to (one boy’s) mother — she shouted. Now see what happened.”
It was around then, she said, that Arka started taking taekwondo lessons at the YMCA.
According to Bird, the school board spokesperson, “staff at the school did not observe any bullying, nor were they made aware of any pattern of bullying” during this period.
And academically, Arka was doing fine. “Arka, you nailed it!” one of his favourite teachers wrote on an assignment.
He was in the newspaper club, where he wrote op-eds and reviews and drew illustrations. In one article, he wrote of a “wave of awareness” following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla.
Though Arka did poorly in music, the music teacher, who was also in charge of the annual Kids’ Lit Quiz competition at the school, marvelled at the boy’s appetite for reading. Mukherjee remembered he told her not to worry about her son’s C in music because he had never seen a child his age read like him before. In an accomplishments gag in one of his school yearbooks, Arka “the professor wins a Nobel Peace Prize.”
While continuing to excel at school, the boy, and his mother, embraced Toronto, soaking up all of the attractions in visits that live on in photos and videos on Mukherjee’s phone.
“I did not have a partner, but I had my son,” she said. “His company was very interesting because my son had weird hobbies. He used to read the encyclopedia. He used to give trivia every now and then. He used to crack jokes every now and then.”
He could get emotional at times and, in a school exercise to write down his goals for 2019, he vowed he would improve his behaviour at home, including “not yelling as much as I do as my mom gets a headache when I do.”
Meanwhile, Mukherjee was thinking of ways to get Arka away from the boys he was having troubles with and into another school, including having him write a test for gifted students.
With less than two weeks to go in the school year, Arka had another physical run-in with a boy. The boys called each other names. Arka, said Mukherjee, partially blocked a punch to his face. The school told her that Arka pushed the other boy, and he then punched Arka in the face. Mukherjee said her son was punished by the school, and was asked to apologize.
The night after the run-in, on June 18, Mukherjee emailed the principal to say Arka can be emotional, sometimes cannot control his outbursts, but was not a bully. “I request you not to judge Arka by this incident. He will not behave this way again.” She also for the first time raised the alleged ongoing bullying she said her son was experiencing. She noted that Arka was getting “lonelier by the day.”
“We will keep an eye on him and the others,” the principal replied.
Colleagues at work — Mukherjee had moved from RBC to another bank — urged her to get Arka out of the school. “I was thinking, OK, one week, and school will be over. I will try to move somewhere. But I did not get the chance.”
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The exact order of events over the next few days is unclear.
On what was likely June 19, a Nintendo Switch gaming console went missing at school. On the night he would die, Arka, said Mukherjee, told her that he was given the console by a the boy he had had a the run-in with, saying he wanted to make up for what had happened.
Arka, said Mukherjee, told her he brought it home and kept it from her, fearing she would not let him play video games in the apartment, but later told her he had tried it out. He created an account using his school email address and, he told her, played one round of Fortnite, an online game hugely popular with kids his age.
But the console actually belonged to another student, who was also a friend of Arka’s, and at school the hunt was on to find out who had taken it. Arka told Mukherjee his locker and school bag were searched, though Mukherjee said she does not know exactly when or by whom.
“They searched my bag, in front of everyone,” Mukherjee said her son told her the day he died.
When asked by the Star, the school board did not say who at the school searched Arka’s locker, or when.
The console, in any event, wasn’t in Arka’s locker or bag. He told his mother he next talked to the boy who had lost his console, then had him come to his apartment after school on June 20, where he gave it to him.
It wasn’t the first time the boy had been to the apartment. He and Arka had teamed up to make a video for a school assignment, and dreamed up a business where the two would make key chains with a 3D printer, said Mukherjee.
The school’s vice-principal called Mukherjee on the Friday afternoon of June 21, at 2:40 p.m., but accounts of that conversation differ.
Mukherjee says that the official told her about the affair, how Arka’s email was on the account, and that she had sought a confession from Arka. “You should talk to him and you should tell me what he says,” Mukherjee said the vice-principal told her, adding that the other parents might go to police because the console was an expensive item.
Bird, the school board spokesperson, disputed that Arka had been asked to confess — “based on the information we have, no, he was not,” he told the Star.
Mukherjee arrived home around 5:30 p.m. to find Arka reading a book. He’d had a bowl of soup and left another bowl out for her.
Mukherjee said she spoke with the father of the boy who owned the console, in a phone call that started at 5:53 p.m. She said he threatened to go to police if Arka did not confess.
She wishes she would have told the boy’s father to go ahead and go to police, as Arka insisted he had done nothing wrong and, after all, he had returned the console on his own. Instead, she said she kept apologizing and offering to make things right.
“If I could show that strength at that moment, maybe my child would be alive today,” Mukherjee said. “He saw that maa was on her back foot, and I kept on apologizing and kept on saying, ‘Don’t go to the cops. I will make up for all your losses.’”
Ths Star reached out to the parents of the boy who owned the console. They did not address Mukherjee’s recollection of the phone call she had with the boy’s father. “The loss of Arka is an incredible tragedy, and our blessings are with his family, along with his fellow classmates and teachers,” the boy’s father said in an email. “We have no comment to add.”
Mukherjee said she regrets and “I feel so guilty” for immediately assuming Arka had done something wrong. “Babu, tell me, what did you do?” she asked him. After hearing Arka’s side of the story, she said she asked if anyone else knew that the first boy had given him the console. Yes, she said Arka told her, two boys heard the other say he had given it to Arka.
Mukherjee felt things had calmed.
“OK, Babu, don’t worry. I will sit with you and we will draft an email to school,” she said she told her son. Then Arka announced he would go out to talk to one of the boys he had told her was a witness, and be right back.
Arka left the apartment shortly after 7 p.m.
Less than two hours later, right after she had found the note and called 911, Mukherjee grabbed her keys to meet police in the lobby. They quickly went to her apartment and seized the notebook.
The officers asked about Arka’s clothing, and they showed her a photo of part of a jacket and she confirmed it was his. Then they showed her a still photo from a CCTV camera from the nearby building. It was Arka, she confirmed.
In August, Mukherjee received the first of her requested documents: a coroner’s report, which concludes Arka died by suicide and requires no inquest, and from police, the note taken from the apartment.
The narrative contained in the coroner’s report states security cameras show Arka on the 24th-floor roof deck at 7:11 p.m., looking over the edge, and then walking off camera to an area where there was no camera coverage. “Cameras show him to be alone,” it states. The 911 call for an unresponsive boy in shrubs at the base of the building comes at 7:24 p.m.
Mukherjee is seeking more information from the autopsy, which determined his death was due to multiple traumas.
She said police told her Arka must have followed someone into the next-door building and to the rooftop terrace, where there is also a pool, and from there jumped to his death.
Now that she has seen the note left in the apartment again, she wants a handwriting expert to confirm or rule out that the writing is her son’s. She has lingering doubts about its veracity and authenticity.
To an untrained eye, there are similarities and differences to his handwritten school assignments. In an email to Mukherjee, the detective in charge of the investigation said he had visually compared the handwriting in the note with other work in the seized notebook and “in my opinion the writing is consistent,” and said he had concluded his investigation.
In another email, the detective told Mukherjee that he had reviewed video from her building from the day of Arka’s death and “there was nothing to show that Arka met with anyone else at that time.”
The note is heartbreaking.
And out of character for her son, says Mukherjee. It says Mukherjee “didn’t like me” and that she “can go get a boyfriend and enjoy your life.”
It also reads: “I hereby confess to stealing (the) Switch.”
The note wills the “$20 that I have” to go to the boy who owned it, and said the boy who he said had bullied him “wasn’t involved whatsoever.”
It ends with: “Thank you for all you did for me. Goodbye.”
Only more answers to her questions will help Mukherjee deal with the loss and feelings of anger and deep sorrow. The school’s handling of the bullying allegations and the console investigation. To the events of her son’s last day. To what police did and didn’t look into.
She returns to what her boy may have been thinking on his last day. That, after all he had gone through that last week, if he had made a mistake and was under pressure, he wasn’t in a state of mind to forgive himself.
A week after Arka’s death, there was a small service in a west-end hall. Arka’s favourite teachers brought condolence cards penned by classmates. There were also drawings, including one that used the letters in his name to describe him as Awesome, Rainbow, Kind, Astonishing.
“Arka was a great student, friend to many,” read a note from one of his homeroom teachers. “So wonderfully inquisitive with a great sense of humour. My favourite memory will always be teaching Arka to skate for his first time.”
Mukherjee is Hindu, though not overly religious. On the afternoon of August 24, she adhered to one tradition. She and two friends went to Bronte Creek Provincial Park in Oakville, and released all but a little of Arka’s cremated remains into the water, as is permitted.
On the day Arka should have begun Grade 7, Mukherjee stood near her workplace and opened her brown leather purse to reveal a plastic bag.
“I just wanted,” she said, “to have a little of my son with me.”