Portrait of a murdered young woman

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – this proverb, sometimes used in jest by men referring to an ex, sometimes said in all seriousness by men and women – flies in the face of all recorded evidence about relational violence across the world. If Chennai techie Swathi’s case is anything to go by, there doesn’t even need to be a relationship, but a mere obsession, and a spurned man can decide to kill you.

 

I had been mulling about this piece since Swathi’s family first came out with an appeal to not tarnish her character, but wanted to wait till the culprit was caught. Now that Ramkumar has been arrested, one hopes, the police builds a water tight case against him and secures justice. But Swathi’s death has burst the bubble most of us urban women live in, a world where the woman has agency. It has proved once again that it is the woman’s sexuality (character for the more morally inclined) that trumps everything, even death.

 

One can’t really blame Swathi’s family for spending more time talking about her character than raging about public apathy or the need to catch a killer who has exposed the lack of safety in Chennai’s middle class neighbourhoods. Their fears were proven right each time after all. When a young woman is murdered in India, if she is unmarried, the first things that come to everyone’s mind is a rape attempt gone awry or a stalker (jilted lover is a euphemism just like eve teasing, please don’t use it). The unfortunate part is that whichever be the case, it is considered to be the girl’s fault. If a girl raises an alarm about a stalker, she is first asked if she smiled or spoke to him a lot and encouraged him somehow. Or she is asked if she angered him somehow. The onus is always on the girl. One doesn’t know if Swathi’s family buys this argument, but they surely knew that the society jumps to this conclusion, hence the fervent appeals to not tarnish her.

 

In this twisted world of patriarchal assumptions, a girl’s life is worth less than perceived assault to her character. An FB post was circulated all across Tamilnadu within days, where a deranged boy had posted that all girls who betrayed lovers should be killed like Swathi – the underlying assumption, that every man is entitled to romantic reciprocation. Yet another Whatsapp message circulated, claimed responsibility for her murder, slandering her with exaggerated claims of her love life. Fed up with all this, Swathi’s sister, whose own life had come under scrutiny, wrote a well-meaning, if misguided note on FB, talking of how her sister was a pious girl, always visiting temples, always saying her prayers. Her post underlined the cultural narrative that bad things happen only to bad girls. We only have to look at Suzette Jordan’s case to understand what happens when bad things happen to a girl whom society deems bad. Which is why when bad things happen to normal girls, everyone has to overemphasise her goodness, we have to give her names like Nirbhaya.

 

Then of course, gossip mongers got to know about Swathi’s male friend. That this male friend was Muslim and was close enough to have come to the crime scene when the police reached, seemed to be enough for the rumour mongers to make claims of love jihad. Wild allegations were made about how being upper caste meant she wouldn’t get justice in caste conscious Tamilnadu. One piece even went on to talk of how her body was not touched because she was a Brahmin girl who cannot be sullied by the hands of commoners, even in death. Both sides of the caste divide did their best to exploit this; to what end, only they know best. As for the religion angle, less said the better.

 

The accused Ram Kumar comes across as a loner who perhaps bought into the narrative that every man is entitled to the love of the woman he fancies. Moreover, romantic companionship is perceived to be the only companionship worth having and also the one that solves all the other problems in one’s life.

 

The conversations around Swathi’s murder have proved once again that we delude ourselves when we are surrounded by people like us, that women have progressed in our country. The truth is agency and consent are still mostly only available to men.

 

Too poor to afford the mall culture

In 2013, Honey Singh’s Blue hai paani song played everywhere. I had heard the song several times but not seen it, until one day I ended my TV withdrawal phase and switched on a music channel. There in front of me was the biggest reason I realised I didn’t want to be a teenager or a really young adult in the present. Whatever YRF and Karan Johar I had seen in the 90’s had already messed me up and it wasn’t even this lavish. I remember thinking to myself, Oh my God, if I were 13 now, I would resent my middle class background because it would mean I would never party like those kids in Blue hai paani and I would also at the same time be bombarded with messages of how my life would only be perfect if I could say ‘photo meri kheench’ in the trendiest clothes beside said blue paani on a sunny din. I was reminded of this recently when a Buzzfeed article about the so called Urban Poor went viral. The article had a resonance because everyone starts out with a low pay. But something was missing.

Then my friend Alison shared it on FB saying that Buzzfeed was being a tad insensitive to the ones who are actually dirt poor. Then I realised what was nagging at me. The author did not really condone the culture that was forcing youngsters to keep up appearances. She was saying that it is the way things are and so she feels sorry for these kids who have to go without just so that they can afford to have a car and go to a fancy restaurant. She goes on to talk about how she notices what her juniors want and finances some of those wants but does not seem to be sitting down and talking to them about financial jurisprudence and being an example as a senior who would rather have that meeting at a chai ki tapri or Udipi than at a Starbucks. I do realise that the author’s intention was good when she wrote that piece, that is to underline the kind of mad rush to keep up appearances in our society today, but there is a fine difference between the privileged young people she talks of and ones like this youngster who had to face poverty because of sudden changes in her financial situation. You must empathise with ones stuck in situational poverty but it is a bit hard to feel sorry for ones who are only going broke to keep up with the Joneses.

But why keep up with the Joneses you may ask? And this is another aspect I wished the Buzzfeed piece had addressed more specifically. Sure there are references made to how the corporate culture demands certain things as a rite of passage but shouldn’t those be the things to be emphasised and ridiculed more? On FB and elsewhere I termed this as the desire to have an Instagramable life. There is immense pressure on the youngster today to be this ‘cool’ (whatever that is) person. In the current capitalistic and mall culture economy, ‘cool’ always means spending more and more money. ‘Cool’ is when you only have vacations abroad, when you watch movies only at multiplexes, your coffee is Starbucks and you can only party at Social. While earlier these things were done once in a while for special occasions, now the Instagram culture is all about doing it weekend after weekend, just so you appear ‘cool’.

More than a decade ago, I moved from my small town to study in a prestigious college that was a bit above our social strata. That was the first time I realised that my comfortable existence back home would have been termed a lower middle class existence in a cosmopolitan city. I was never openly discriminated against. But I genuinely couldn’t even go to Café Coffee Day those days as I couldn’t afford it. I remember having a daily budget, I think it was 75 rupees for all 3 meals of the day.I did miss out on bonding sessions/project meetings that were held at places I couldn’t afford. None of my classmates were obnoxious enough to say I was a loser because I couldn’t splurge but sometimes there would be remarks like oh you are so studious and boring, loosen up a little won’t you. Again, while at that time it seemed to feel bad, now I look at it and realise these were pretty vanilla statements by people who just defined fun as how they saw it. It was not necessarily a mean indictment.

But things were much worse when I started working. There is a silent judgement and bullying in the capitalistic corporate culture that requires you to be a brand slave. You are supposed to have business lunches at places you wouldn’t normally go to, wear labels. You are supposed to fit in with the crowd that had  a foreign education and that still ends up borrowing money from their parents despite a 6 figure monthly salary. You are supposed to have the same kind of depth of understanding of wine and cheese that someone who dined at 5 stars from a young age has.

When you start working in an industry that is considered elite, like media or banking for example, you enter with the misconception that these people who have had more opportunities and exposure than you, will actually be liberal and empathetic. But you are shocked to realise that in the boardroom it is a class war all over again and the school bullies have actually got worse with age and affluence. Hence I spent most of my 20’s not feeling enough. It was hard to convince myself that compared to where I started in life, whatever I was doing was an improvement, perhaps even an achievement. It didn’t feel that way and I had enough interactions with fellow humans who didn’t let me forget I was monetarily worth less than them. Imagine being told by someone that they wished they had invested the money they spent on buying a birthday gift for you? Imagine what that does to you when said person knows your financial status intimately?  Yes, that happened to me.

Irrespective of all this, I wouldn’t call myself Urban Poor neither then nor now. I also don’t think I was particularly brave to have come slowly to the next level of financial security. I just did what I had to, to survive. Perhaps my parents were even worse off at my age. There were many things I couldn’t afford those days, some of those I can afford now. But there are several others things I can’t afford even today. I still feel insecure about being able to tackle financial emergencies. But so do several others, some even poorer than me.

The problem is that the current culture of social media one upmanship has blurred the differences between wants and needs. Every desire therefore is now a need without which you are not ‘living your full potential’ or ‘not chasing after your happiness enough’. Your life is not good enough unless you are able to curate it and present it like this brilliant exhibition of good times. This also explains the rise of the get rich quick schemes and how even well educated people fall for it. Of course, every problem need not be treated with the argument that there are children dying in Somalia so you cannot complain. But you also can’t feel sorry when Mukesh Ambani complains about high tax rates.

The problem with the Buzzfeed piece is it wants me to believe that one cannot resist peer pressure. One can and it will suck when you resist it, but you will be better off mentally and financially for it. The society too needs to stop judging, after all you wouldn’t feel compelled to keep up with the Joneses unless the Smiths were constantly judging you on it. Also, it takes just a few seniors and bosses to make the change and become the kinds who shun the established corporate culture under their watch, why not be one of those, rather than feeling sorry for that junior? I am sure as a boss or senior you can afford that?

 

The girl who wouldn’t die

For almost 3 months now the life of an average Mumbai reporter has been taken over by the Sheena Bora murder case. It has been excruciating to deal with the various macabre details coming out of what was clearly a ruthless murder where the murderers had unshakeable faith that the girl had to go.

I have always been fascinated by how those who commit crimes rationalise it in their heads. What happens inside the head and heart of a person who decides that they have to kill and that the killing is justified. This was no accidental self defense killing, this was planned, this was considered the best way to deal with things by certain individuals.

Just a day after it was filed, some of us got a summary of the chargesheet filed by the CBI and a few days after that my bureau chief Megha Prasad accessed more details including some witness statements from the chargesheet. What emerged was the story of a girl, whom Indrani and her cohorts tried to eliminate, but she just wouldn’t go away.

According to the chargesheet, Indrani had had Mikhail and Sheena very early in life and she had given them in the care of her own parents. Years later when she married Peter and her pictures appeared regularly in Page 3 sections, her parents called her and said they were getting old and financially weak and to please take care of the children. The chargesheet mentions atleast two instances even this early when Sheena was administered sedatives. Despite all this, Sheena eventually came to Mumbai and started staying with the Mukherjeas. Indrani’s other daughter Vidhie recalls this was around the time when she was in std 3 and that both Sheena and Mikhail were introduced as Indrani’s sister and brother respectively to everyone.

Sometime later Rahul and Sheena entered into a relationship and they intended to get married. This was the beginning of a lot of friction. Both Rahul and Vidhie note several heated exchanges between Indrani and Sheena over the relationship. Both acknowledge that Peter knew about the mother daughter relationship since 2009. Sheena tries to reason out and even writes an emotional email asking Indrani shouldnt her happiness be what is important. Indrani the CBI claims then changes tack, tries to be accepting of the relationship and makes a show of rebuilding the relationship to build up to the dinner meeting with Sheena the night she was murdered.

After they disposed off the body the murderers must have thought Sheena is gone, their problems solved. But most exchanges amongst the family state that the convenient explanation of Sheena having gone to the US is not bought by most.

So far we do not know exactly what Peter thought. He only once said that Sheena was a taboo topic in his marriage to Indrani so he never raised it much. Rahul of course was the first to question and he kept on questioning for a long time. He went to 4 different police stations with no results. Police told him that since Sheena was an adult and had gone with her mother they couldnt do anything else. Why he didn’t file a habeas corpus is something we wonder though.

Vidhie also it seems was fond of Sheena somewhat. She was too young to understand most of what was going on. The first time she got to know Sheena was perhaps her sister and asked Indrani about it, Indrani shouted at her and said Rahul is telling lies to separate Indrani and Peter. After Sheena’s alleged murder, Vidhie gets an email from a fake account set up by Indrani posing as Sheena wishing her on her birthday. Around new year Vidhie tries to contact Sheena and wish her and with no reply forthcoming she mentions this to Indrani. What happens next is really twisted. Indrani posing as Sheena writes to Vidhie sometime late January accusing the young girl of lying. She berates Vidhie saying even she didnt respond to the birthday wishes and that her lies have caused enough confusion and so she should stop.

Even Sheena’s friends dont stop asking around. There are enough murmurs and a recent story by Midday states that despite telling everyone that Sheena was in the US, Indrani and Peter did contact a senior official informally as late as 2013 saying Sheena was missing but they later told the police she had been traced. This obviously was an attempt by Indrani to show she was concerned too.

In 2015 when Vidhie was deciding whether to study in the US or UK, Indrani even told her that Sheena being in the US could help her settle. This despite her having told the girl not to contact Sheena anymore.

On several occasions during the 3 years before the case was cracked, Indrani faced uncomfortable questions from near and dear ones and from those who knew Sheena. It is perhaps a mix of a sense of denial or the modern ‘busy’ness in our lives that a few emails here and there and a couple of fake FB posts could lull people into not digging deeper. The murderers thought Sheena died, but she lived on in the infrequent but continuing questions of those who knew her. She lived on in the emails, smses and various other digital evidence drummed up to stop those questions. They killed her, but she refused to die.

P.S. we are yet to read the entire chargesheet, this is based on what we have read so far

 

 

 

The Stockholm syndrome of a stake out coverage

My earliest memory of a stake out for a story gone wrong is of back when Lalit Modi (I hope he won’t tweet about this now) was still IPL commissioner. Modi would keep flitting in and out of Mumbai and on this particularly unfortunate day, when he was expected to react to something the BCCI had done, he was lodged at the Four Seasons in Mumbai. By a quirk of fate, yours truly, had the job of standing outside Four Seasons on a hot and humid May day waiting to see if Lalit Modi might drive by the gates, hopefully lower the car glasses, and give a reaction when one put the mic in front of him. That was not to be. And I spent an entire day along with another channel reporter, staking out at the Four Seasons gate. Any area near a 5-star hotel is supposed to be kept pristine, which means there were no food outlets, nothing except a chai tapri nearby, which is of no use as such on a hot and humid day. We spent the entire day hungry, somewhat thirsty, scoping out each Mercedes that drove out of Four Seasons. At around 8 in the night, our bosses felt it was enough and we left the place. To our utter chagrin, sometime in the night, Lalit Modi, broke his silence on Twitter, declaring that he had had a relaxing day at the Four Seasons spa!!

A stakeout or chowkidaari, as it is referred to in journalistic slang, is a phenomenon of the 24/7 news business and is quintessentially TV. A reporter and cameraman are expected to stand at a place where dramatis personae of the story are expected to be or expected to arrive and watch every movement around the area. It is as taxing physically as covering an election/protest rally, but somewhat less rewarding emotionally because an outcome is not guaranteed. At the end of a stake out you may or may not get a visually exciting story or sound bite, but you have to wait nevertheless. Veterans in Mumbai are likely to tell you stories of the great stake out outside the hospital when Pramod Mahajan was battling for life for 12 days after being shot, or of the time the 93 trial was on and Sanjay Dutt was in and out of jail. Stake outs are not as hazardous as papparazzi style chases, which has caused bodily harm to many a photographer and video journalist. But the odd tearing of clothes and pulling of a muscle is common, so is the possibility of dehydration and starvation.

The recent Indrani case was an example of a prolonged stake out. The story played out from 3 main locations, the Khar police station, the Worli residence of the Mukherjeas and the Bandra court. Reporters were deputed almost 20 hours a day on these locations. When I had just started journalism, channels had enough reporters to afford stake outs in 2 shifts. But today every channel in Mumbai has less than half a dozen reporters, which means any given reporter spends 12-16 hours at a stakeout, talking on national TV non stop, with very little time for breaks. While you are talking, you also have to keep an eye out for who is coming and going, you are not to miss shots or bites, you are also supposed to speak to your sources to get newsbreaks and generally be alert and coherent enough to make sense on national TV. The viewer who shall question you on social media is not bothered that you have been out in the sun for 10 hours already when he spots that grammatical error in the sentence you just spoke, or that this is the 10th day in a row that you have been pulling 16 hour shifts. It is simply not his concern and perhaps you cant blame him for wanting consistent quality for the cable money that he has paid.

In this particular case, the only place with food outlets close by was the Bandra court. The Khar police station had nothing in the vicinity except a college stall that sold wada pav and samosa pav and cold drinks, the staple Mumbai diet of any stake out. Outside the Mukherjeas Worli residence, the only recourse was the Traffic police headquarters canteen, which served lunch.

Stake outs are sometimes inconvenient for female journalists because most of the times there is no ladies wash room around. There are times when female journalists don’t pee the entire day during a stake out because there is no proper place. One day I had to request the Khar police to allow me to use the lady officers’ rest room at 10 pm, but with the suspects in the same police station, the police didnt want to allow any journalists anywhere in the station complex. It took a bit of convincing by a male colleague before they let me use the loo, but a female constable was standing right beside the door and told me not to latch it. Desperate times. At the Worli residence, the Traffic headquarters was more co-operative.

But its not all gloomy on a stake out. Mostly it is the rare occasion when we meet our cohorts from other channels and some newspapers in months. In the brief breaks when the channel is on a commercial or some other breaking political news has taken over, everyone tries to catch up. You exchange stories related to the coverage at hand and also about personal victories and losses. After mobile cameras became a reality, it is also the time when you get FB pictures for an entire week clicked. All this in the hope that it will make the endless wait more bearable. Many enduring friendships have started on such stakeouts, a few successful and a few not so successful romances too. Industry gossip is exchanged, some bitching about work is done. There is a sense of bonhomie, an empathy of shared suffering.

In a stake out, the reporters are hostage to the news requirements of the situation. As you share half a sandwich and the last few drops from a water bottle with each other, you develop a sort of traumatic bonding with your cohorts. You want to leave the place, you dislike the disruption to your normal life a lot and yet you don’t want to miss out on that one visual or sound bite when it happens. It is some form of Stockholm syndrome. In fact, Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps defines the love hate relationship every TV journalist has to his/her job. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Days later when the story somewhat cools down and you pass the same locations again while on a different shoot, you reminisce, you open your Facebook and check photos from the time, you perhaps contact one of those friends you haven’t met post that stake out. Whether a stake out made you a better TV journalist is debatable, but mostly you have material for a few blogs and many more stories to tell people over drinks. So, see you at the next stake out.

P.S. Apologies to residents in Khar and Worli for any inconvenience, we were just doing our jobs.

The unsung heroes of the Salman trial

A lot has been written and said about the Salman trial and the various dramatis personae in it other than the actor. But this conviction could not have been possible without two unassuming and totally undramatic people – public prosecutor Pradeep Gharat and Judge D W Deshpande.

In the initial days court reporters were not entirely impressed with Judge Deshpande. He seemed mild mannered in front of actor Salman Khan and did not object to court staff bringing their kith and kin to catch a glimpse of Salman Khan. But over time it was evident that Judge Deshpande may be mild mannered, but he was firm on lefal points. In general judges are imposing characters, trying to show the lawyers their superior knowledge of law or just trying to be superior. Not Judge Deshpande. He would mildly intervene only if the arguments were veering off the issue of law. He would reprimand in his soft voice and he would side with whoever was right, be it the prosecution or the defence. Which is why it was no surprise when he came on verdict day and told Salman in a mild and factual voice – The court has concluded you were driving the car, all charges against you have been proven. There was no drama, no observations or rhetoric, no spouting of metaphors on law, just a plain sentencing. That this was a high profile case was almost muted the way he pronounced the judgement.

Almost matching Judge Deshpande in humility and sincerity was public prosecutor Pradeep Gharat. Gharat was brought in by the Mumbai police after some unsatisfactory turns in the case with the previous public prosecutor. He came into the case after the victims had already been examined which means he only had the other material and ancilliary witnesses to examine. Gharat says the police came to him during a lunch break and he filed his vakalatnama the same afternoon. From the very first day Gharat kept a friendly but low key profile. At no point was he overly dramatic. He never let on that this was a highly watched case, that it could raise his profile significantly. To every question he always had a smile. Gharat was also not deterred by the battery of lawyers from a big shot firm that Salman had hired. One of junior lawyers among this crowd would always laugh at Gharat’s pronounciation of English words. This lady lawyer would forever be giggling at him, enough to provoke even the most saintly amongst us, but through the year long trial there was only once that he reprimanded her. This lawyer with her fancy degree and fancy firm job still was no match for the vernacular bred but arguing in perfect legal language Gharat, but she perhaps couldnt really imagine that. In media interactions too Gharat would smilingly give an account of the day even when things would not have gone his way.

For Gharat and Deshpande there will be many more cases that will come and go. But for everyone who witnessed the trial from close quarters they will now be forever etched in memory as silent but effective officers of the court.

Court – a misleading title

Note : some spoilers ahead

It was sometime in 2011-12 that I was assigned the court beat by my office. I had been to lower courts before but never covered them regularly. One of the first things any person who goes to an Indian court would notice is that they look and feel nothing like the courts Bollywood has told us exist. High court has some of the flowery language and the imposing structures, but most other courts are rooms with chairs lined up and a slightly raised platform for the judge; sometimes there isn’t even a proper witness stand, the accused just stand somewhere near the judge’s platform. High court was always a stimulating experience, intellectual Parsi (noted ones mostly Parsi in Bombay HC) lawyers all in flowing robes talking on points of law, making commentary on oddities of our lives and the judges leaning forward and listening to them as the AC hummed on. Sessions court on the other hand was a tough nut, trials didn’t start on time, they didn’t always follow the order mentioned on the notice board, there was no AC and there were too many criminals roaming the lobby accompanied by cops. Lawyers here were mostly vernacular.

As I spent time covering courts, any time I saw a movie scene showing courts, I would wonder if anyone would show courts as they are – the court staff shooing you away a mile ahead in the corridor if a judge was passing by, how each court room had stacks and stacks of papers that seemed to have hardly ever been taken out from that position, how journalists would sometimes use these stacks of papers to sit on when the court was full, how tareekh pe tareekh is not just a dialogue but something every journalist and lawyer buys a special diary to note in.

Jolly LLB tried to capture some bits about lower courts humourously, but Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court does more seriously. Your first introduction to the lower court is of a wide shot with a police van coming in and just in front of the van is a lawyer literally selling his services to a lady walking in – affidavit, notary I do everything ma’am. This is exactly what happens when you enter a lower court compound, the many salesmen lawyers, men and women who are just starting out follow you like tourist guides in Agra. That Tamhane shows this as his first shot of a court in the movie, shows how real he wants to keep this movie.

But I felt the title Court is a tad misleading. The movie doesn’t just talk of the trial, a better title would have been Humans of Mumbai. On one hand you have the folk singer, a dying breed and hence aptly an ageing man, on the other the suave pub going, supermarket shopping Gujarati lawyer. You have the middle class Maharashtrian prosecutor whose family cheers while watching a play on Marathi manoos and then you have the upper middle class judge who does his job as per law but believes in gem stones and goes on a summer vacation of the kind where families play antakshari on the bus and men discuss MBA salaries over drinks. And last but not the least you have the sewer worker’s wife, living in her squalid quarters, no charity for her, all she wants is a job now that the husband is dead.

While the starting point of the movie is the trial, the movie is more about a lived in reality. This reality is so relatable to anyone who has even fleetingly lived in Mumbai. While that is one of the biggest strengths of the movie, it can also be a drawback. Foreign audiences may relate to the complicated nature of governments and their attitudes to dissent but may not get the subtleties about life in a BDD like chawl or the references to mill workers and several cultural references. These are specific to Mumbai, a part of folklore in this city of Bollywood, but not elsewhere. I felt this about Maharashtra’s earlier Oscar nomination Harishchandrachi Factory also, some of the references were too local for an international audience. And yet, as some reviewers have already pointed out, it would be nice if the government selects Court for the Oscars next year.

As I walked out from the hall, that only had 20 people in attendance, on to the street, I noticed the pace of my walking, it felt as if I was a character in the movie. After all, I was living the same reality, walking the same streets, seeing the same conflicting narratives. After all, I am as of now, a human of Mumbai.

Deaths in quiet desperation

Suzette Jordan, also known as the Park Street rape survivor, died today. Medically it is a form of encephalitis that killed her. But people who have known her for some time now, talk of the toll the incident had taken on her. Publicly Jordan was a picture of a fighter, choosing to disclose her name, her face, in a country where the raped are shamed more than the rapist. Hopefully that is changing somewhat now, though it hadnt changed enough for Jordan. Her friend Harish Iyer wrote in The Newsminute about how the fatal disease was because her immunity was compromised by the depression the incident and its aftermath had caused.

Suzette is not the only one, there are many who are shaken by one seemingly random, violent crime that may not kill them immediately, but slowly sucks the life out of them. In 2012 lawyer Pallavi Purkayastha was brutally murdered by her building watchman. Her partner Avik Sengupta discovered her bloodied body when he reached home a few hours later. Its a sight very few of us can erase from our memories in a lifetime. While the watchman was convicted later, Sengupta was not alive to see it. He died of a brain disease a year after Pallavi’s death. No one who reported then can forget how lost 26 year old Sengupta had looked the day after the murder as he came to register the FIR. He spent the next year trying to forget, making music, appreciating art, trying to work, but the trauma won.

I once had a friend, A, I have written about him before. About a year after a devastating breakup, he rammed his bike on to a truck on a highway, an accident they say. The year he was alive was spent alternating between trying to get the girl back and trying to pretend he was moving on. He was not even 25.

There is a case, still under trial, where grief, or more appropriately depression has manifested much later. For the sake of the trial and those left behind its not appropriate to name this case or the sibling of the victim who is now undergoing treatment. Almost 3 years on, this sibling feels the system has been unfair and his depression manifests itself as online rants to all and sundry. Luckily he has got help now.

Actress Deepika Padukone spoke earlier this year about how waking up everyday was a strain when she was in the throes of depression. She was lucky to have her family support her and got help on time too.

A violent incident, whether physical or mental, can turn many lives into ones of quiet desperation. It could be a single trauma or a death by thousand cuts scenario. Depression really does kill. Sometimes it forces people to take their own lives. At other times, every day seems like just one more form of death, even though most survivors fight hard. Sometimes all the support, all the accolades for having survived dont help. Mostly everyone fights back, mostly the will to live is bigger than the depression. But sometimes there are deaths in quiet desperation.

Past perfect?

In the 2002 film adaptation of H G Wells’ Time Machine, the opening sequence shows why the protagonist builds it. The scientist protagonist loses his girlfriend to some muggers. In grief he decides to build a time machine to bring her back. After 4 years when he makes one, he goes to the day of her death and saves her from the muggers only to see that she is killed by a vehicle in the next few minutes. Symbolically, it is a sci fi movie making a spiritual point that life and death and a lot of what happens between them are not in man’s control, no matter how he tries to control them. But the larger point really is that you can’t change your past. No matter what you try to do to it in the present, no matter how you try to manipulate the situation, the past remains the past. A point that should be considered by those, who in recent days, have been trying very hard to rewrite the past or atleast try and give it a bit of a shine here and there.

The entire national focus has been on the past these days; that is if you believe all the statements made by several leaders. Attempts are being made on all sides to appropriate the past for themselves. The internet is a great tool to take credit for a lot of things. By its very nature of being a mass communication medium that is also real time, it lends itself to propaganda. So it shouldn’t be surprising this is happening in India but the reason why it is perhaps alarming is that it exposes how little of what we studied while young do we remember, how little do we actually apply our mind and reason to our heritage and how little do we actually know about it or have cared to know about it.

The right wingers may be right about one point, that we don’t know or don’t care about our own history, yes, that’s true. But the interesting part is if we according to them chose to believe the left liberals unquestioningly at one point, we are now choosing to believe the right wing unquestioningly. What does that say about our cultural disdain for factual history and its preservation? This question was put to a few delegates at the Goa conference of right wing scholars. Their response was that as a society we were so repressed, our self esteem so crushed and our past so belittled that we did not think of upholding our identity and our history. While on the face of it, this argument seems valid, but it doesn’t explain the facts in this article – Gandhi return landmarks in Mumbai becoming history. This article clearly shows how we have failed to preserve the legacy of one of the greatest icons of our history. If we couldn’t preserve the legacy of Gandhi, who lived during the recorded history phase of our country, who died just 60 odd years ago when we were free of all colonial pressure to disown our culture, then what hope is there for the distant past?

So yes, the right wing is correct to say that we don’t preserve or respect our history but perhaps what right wing and left wings scholars will never acknowledge is our apathy towards such preservation. Another reason that no one really touches upon is how even traditionally, Indian culture believed in either passing on history and knowledge orally, that too only within the family or particular caste or simply taking it to the death bed. One has heard several legends of enlightened men who died with the secrets of their knowledge in their hearts. Most knowledge was concentrated with upper class men and once caste systems became more rigid, there was no way anyone from any other caste got access to it. Indian traditions at one point even banned crossing oceans or going anywhere beyond the borders of the country. Someone as distinguished as Swami Vivekananda was denied entry to a temple after his famous Chicago address because he had crossed seas and was now impure. Whatever we learnt we didnt propagate or share with others and because we didn’t go beyond our shores, we never learnt what they were upto. And now we feel shortchanged because people came here and learnt things and then applied and built upon it in their home countries.

To blame all of our failings in preserving history and knowledge on invaders and colonialists is forsaking our own responsibility in the whole thing. And it is a noble intention to try and preserve or enhance what we can right now, but do we know whether what we are fighting for is really the factual history? Or are we fighting to redo the past like the scientist in Time machine? What if we looked at the past and resolved we will preserve our today and our tomorrow better rather than what we no longer have any control over?

Must we move on?

I have been late in discovering a wonderful writer like Cheryl Strayed. I haven’t yet read any of her books, but her Dear Sugar columns for Rumpus have been great. She is considered a pioneer in the Internet Existential Advice column genre. Then I started reading about her book Wild, which is now a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. It talks of a time in Strayed’s life when she was still mourning her mother’s death almost 3 years after the fact; a period when she repeatedly cheated on her husband like she was addicted. Finally she goes for a long hike and this book and the movie are about that hike. I was curious to know more, even though I didn’t understand her reaction to the death by cheating. I then stumbled upon this piece she had written for the Sun magazine – The Love of My Life its called.

That article is like a precursor to Wild. She talks about her husband, her incessant cheating (which led her to change her last name to Strayed btw), but most of all she talks about grief, of sadness that cannot be wished away. I still don’t understand her reasons for processing her grief by cheating, but there was something that I caught – is it really necessary or even realistic to expect to move on from certain things? Strayed talks about waking up feeling she couldn’t continue to live and then being afraid that she will have to continue to live, with the loss –

“If, as a culture, we don’t bear witness to grief, the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t — if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking, I cannot continue to live — well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease. We do not help them: we tell them that they need to get help.”

Grief can be about any loss, it could be that dream job that you didn’t get or one that turned into a nightmare, it could be that relationship that was never meant to be, or it could be death. But rarely do we come across people being ok with us holding on to our grief or pain for more than an acceptable period of time. One might say acceptable is subjective, but there are apparently rules. A relationship – half the time of its actual duration at the max, a job – the moment you get a new one; death, perhaps a little more complex, but not more than a year they stipulate. And after this time, you are magically supposed to be sparkly new, as if the trauma never happened, the grief never observed.

“WHAT DOES IT mean to heal? To move on? To let go? Whatever it means, it is usually said and not done, and the people who talk about it the most have almost never had to do it.”

Let it go has become such a mantra, one is supposed to let go of everything, to the point of showing some ADD symptoms. But what if some things can’t be brushed off? What if some people, some things, some experiences will always be there, no matter how much you try to move on? What if they are like the wound which left a scar, which you then did plastic surgery for, but you will always know where the scar existed? Does it remind people who see us that they could also feel such hopeless, seemingly ceaseless pain? Do we move on to not look like a freak and then go back home and toss and turn in our beds while replaying tapes of that thing you didn’t really move on from in your head? Do we move on because we are tired of being there, trapped, while everything and everyone has changed?

Strayed concludes – “Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do.”

And I wish to ask, is it imperative to move on? I’d like to believe the world has space for the maudlin, the weary, the ones who find other things to do even as they live with grief. Holding on to grief and being open about it may not equal being less than. But then perhaps I don’t really know everything about grief or healing.