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.

 

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Cool girl, That girl, Barney Stinson and other tropes

I didn’t see the movie, but I finally read Gone Girl and understood what the brouhaha was all about. It is a dark story of two extremely flawed, unstable people in perhaps the most dysfunctional marriage you will ever read or see. And it turns all our understanding of gender roles on its head while flirting with misogyny and misandry. I have the spoiler right here, the wife is the villain, the psychopath who systematically ruins her husband for his infidelity. But much before this twist is revealed all you see is a woman writing in her diary about how abused and disrespected she feels in her marriage, how she puts up with a lot in a bid to be the wife her husband wants. Right at the time when the twist is revealed, Amy Dunne, the wife and protagonist goes on a rant about a recent cultural phenomenon called the “cool girl”. This is that oft quoted paragraph :

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”

Somehow this paragraph resonated with me and a lot of people I know. It really is a malaise this ‘cool girl’ thing and it is just the old please your man repackaged for the 21st century. When we fall into these roles in relationships, sometimes we are not even conscious we are doing it. Sure there are women who love beer and sports, but that is not the point that the author is trying to make. What she is trying to say is about some unrealistic social acceptance norm wherein you are a ‘cool girl’ only if you never show any negative emotion. Anger is a valid emotion, so is disappointment. Elsewhere in the book Amy talks about this outing she has with her friends where the husbands were to join the wives later. Her husband Nick neither calls nor texts and when they meet later in the night at the apartment, she just hugs him and doesn’t make a fuss because well she doesn’t want him to feel forced and because she is the ‘cool girl’, the anti-thesis of another cultural trope – That Girl.

You see the way relationships are sold in the pop culture market, which is where unfortunately everyone learns their first lessons of love, girls are either cool girls or they are that girl. The cool girl waits endlessly for her man to accommodate her in his life; all the while having her own awesome life (hey her life is not on hold really you know, its an open relationship, or she has her career/projects, what have you). She never questions him on his flakiness, she never asks him to sit down and have the talk with her. She is supposed to lovingly let him go after cheating or a breakup. If she doesn’t do that, if she shows her negative emotions, she is That girl. That girl is basically someone who has emotions and expresses them to the inconvenience of the person she is with. Inconvenience could be anything really. Thankfully, Jezebel says both Cool girl and That girl dont exist. (the links – http://jezebel.com/what-does-it-even-mean-to-be-a-needy-girl-1475068866  and http://jezebel.com/the-cool-girl-is-not-fiction-but-a-phase-1642985632). Just girls exist. Period.

Lest this be misconstrued as a misandry rant, it is not as if pop culture is kind to men either. If women are under pressure to be the Cool girl, men are equally under pressure to be like Barney Stinson – rich, suited, always with a trick to get laid and full of awesome stories about how goofily clever they are. The standard trope of any rom com is a commitment phobic womaniser. Recently we had a movie called Happy Ending which was marketed as an attempt to laugh at the cliches of rom coms. We have Saif playing bloke Yudi who cant say I love you, who has a Ferrari, who gets women pretty easy despite a non existent writing career and who is pretty much just Garfield with sex appeal (his alter ego in the movie is somewhat Garfield). Thats one cliche but then the other is Yudi’s best friend. Why oh why do rom coms have that best friend who is married to the woman he loves but finds her over bearing. Its a rom com cliche to have a best friend who is somewhat unhappily married or forever freaking out about how his college days of roaming like a khulla sandh are over. This is to juxtapose and somewhat justify our hero’s commitment phobia, villifying not marriage, but the wife in the process. Is it too much to ask for a portrayal where the people around are just regular couples or singles who havent been reduced to cliches?

Men are also somewhat pressured to have this wild lifestyle. They are supposed to be cool studs too according to pop culture and a lot of guys do buy into it. Its like they want to be Hank from Californication. Its like they are encouraged to be Peter Pan like only the pop culture Peter Pan is always rich and always surrounded by women and booze. If a man seems to be more invested in the relationship than the girl, he is advised it can only end badly. According to pop culture he’d fall somewhere in the wide range of Devdas to those dudes of Pyar ka punchnama with some Honey Singh lyrics thrown in. Ironically, girls are also told not to care more. But relationships are about caring aren’t they?

What I find interesting about all these tropes is that they want us to be in some ways a better, airbrushed version of ourselves. Not robotic, but just devoid of any negatives, devoid of any expectations. That unqualified, unconditional love which if you ask me should only be reserved for children who can’t think for themselves and honestly need our care. Its about never asking, its about seamlessly floating from people to people, things to things, a nonchalant detachment even if you are burning up inside. Self love, self flagellation, self improvement all one large cool quotient industry.

This essay is becoming more stream of consciousness than I thought it would be. But the point I am trying to make is that it is not enough to be human, to have emotions on display these days. Its an era where you seem to have to constantly photoshop your profiles, prune them so that others see you are a breezy person, man or woman. Everything should look as if it was effortless. How did you succeed? You know it just happened. How did you end up having a fabulous relationship. You know it just happened, double gush. There is this constant messaging that what you are is not what you should be. There is also this constant need to be an exhibitionist, to show your best version, over and over again. And each time it should be a more shiny version.

In these times of who has the better profile picture and the first rebound after the breakup, it is tough to ascertain what is about gender politics and what is about a merely flawed understanding of being human seeping into the society.