June 3, 2016 / 1:57 PM / 3 years ago

UCLA shooter remembered in India as level-headed; struggled as postgrad

KOLKATA, India (Reuters) - The former student who killed his estranged wife and then drove 2,000 miles (3,200 km) to shoot dead a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, was known at home in India as calm, smart and unassuming by former teachers and classmates.

A residential building, where Mainak Sarkar used to stay, is pictured in Durgapur in West Bengal, India June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

Mainak Sarkar, 38, shot himself dead after this week’s killings. He studied at one of India’s elite engineering institutes where admission is fiercely competitive and there is huge pressure to excel, and may have been demoralized by the long struggle to earn his doctorate in the United States.

“My initial reaction was one of shock and disbelief,” said Gautam Biswas, who taught Sarkar in the 9th and 10th grades of St. Michael’s School in Durgapur, West Bengal.

The industrial township lies just over two hours’ drive northeast of the state capital Kolkata. Biswas, shaken, said he was also a private tutor to Mainak and remembered him well.

“How could he do this? That was the question that raked my mind for long hours,” Biswas said.

“In school days, Mainak was a very level-headed, intelligent student and never did give any indication of abnormal behavior.”

FRIENDLY, NICE

The woman shot dead in her Minnesota home by Sarkar was identified by her sister on social media on Friday as Ashley Hasti. The sister, Alex Hasti, said Ashley Hasti’s “life was cut short much too soon by her estranged husband.”

Sarkar shot her dead before driving to Los Angeles to kill Professor William Klug, 39, police said on Thursday. Police found a “kill list” at his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, that included the name of another professor, who was unharmed.

Sarkar graduated in aerospace engineering in 2000 from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur - also in West Bengal.

Like Sarkar, many of his IIT “batchmates” went on to study and work in the United States.

“When I knew him in IIT he was a very friendly, nice, smart and ambitious guy with dreams to go for higher studies to the USA,” said Manish Kumar, who studied with Mainak in Kharagpur and now works in the United States.

“Nothing in his behavior indicated that he would ever contemplate or carry out anything like this. Something has to have drastically impacted his mental balance in later years during his PhD for him to become so unhinged.”

Intense competition among students to succeed in India has drawn social criticism and even featured in Bollywood movies like “3 Idiots”, starring Aamir Khan, in which a sadistic professor drives an engineering student to attempt suicide.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said that UCLA faculty members were aware that Sarkar, who graduated in 2013, harbored a grudge against them.

“There was some harsh language - but certainly nothing that would be considered homicidal,” Beck told reporters on Thursday.

Local police said they have not been able to trace Sarkar’s immediate family in Durgapur.

Slideshow (2 Images)

At St Michael’s School in Durgapur the double murder-suicide cast a shadow over plans to celebrate its forthcoming 50th anniversary with an alumni reunion.

“It’s difficult to believe actually because he was a very good student and was working abroad,” said Sumita Mukherjee, a former teacher at the school. “He should have been a pride for Durgapur and the students of this school.”

(Removes extraneous word ‘a’ in first paragraph.)

Additional reporting by Promit Mukherjee, Tommy Wilkes and Reuters Television; Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Frances Kerry

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