The media and the public are obsessed with death. The media and the public are obsessed with women.
What happens when the subjects of these two apparently independent statements come together?
The Pratyusha Banerjee case that has dominated the headlines in most newspapers, websites and conversations in the last few days has been a prime example of the way the Indian media creates, controls and abuses the narratives of unnatural deaths, especially those involving women.
Readers presumably know the outline of the affair by now: the 24 year old actress, a familiar face on Indian television, was found dead in her apartment- the result of an alleged suicide. Her boyfriend was arrested based on complaints by her parents, and soon, a veritable flood of accusations and sentimental confessions emerged from people who were apparently close to her, in the industry and elsewhere. The focus, inevitably, moved from her tragic death to how she lived, and the implications of such a life.
In a perfect, gender-sensitized world, this would not have been a problem.
The root cause of Pratyusha’s death undoubtedly lay in her life, and to find it, investigators would indeed have to rifle through its not-too-many chapters. But we live in a world where women, in life, are judged not on their talents and abilities but on how well they conformed to society’s mores, how often they failed to do so and, most importantly, how frequently they defied them. Pratyusha’s death would not have the dignity accorded to most deaths: that the cause is allowed to be found out in a private investigation, devoid of moral judgment.
Pratyusha’s life has been subjected to the kind of public post mortem that must be only too familiar to anyone who followed the Indrani Mukerjea/ Sheena Bora, Aarushi Talwar and Nirbhaya cases, to name three of the most prominent cases in India in the last decade involving the death of women. Each of these media darlings brought out the moral police of the nation, in their own way.
The focus in the first was more on Indrani’s Mukerjea’s life and her motives for her marriages rather than the murders involved .
She was not only on trial for possibly arranging Sheena Bora’s death; she was on trial for being ambitious, for having married more than once, for being cold, calculating and selfish, for being ‘unnatural’, for being a woman. Hardly was she viewed as an independent, clever woman who possibly committed a murder: instead, she was viewed as everything the Indian woman isn’t or shouldn’t be, and put on trial in the media for that.
The complications surrounding Aarushi Talwar, the 15 year old who was found dead in her room, are fresh in my memory, even though it happened seven years ago.
I clearly remember reading articles that alleged she had physical relations with the manservant in her house, as if that somehow justified her death and the media’s subsequent slaughter of her and her parents’ lives. Avirook Sen, the journalist who wrote the book Aarushi based on this case, told a hall packed with listeners at the Kolkata Literary Meet 2016, “This case was an ideal example of trial by media.” He spoke of the rumours surrounding the girl he had had to face and counter on a daily basis.
Incredibly, Aarushi was not the only woman in the trial who was reduced to mere aspersions: as Mr Sen put it, Mrs Talwar, her mother, went to jail because she did not fit in with the nation’s idea of motherhood. The arrests of the Talwars followed a highly publicized interview on a major news channel in India, during which the primary observation made by both the media and the public at large was that “She did not cry.” An inconsolably sobbing mother was the only picture the nation could conjure, and Nupur Talwar was put on trial in the media because she did not conform to it.
The Nirbhaya case perhaps requires less explanation.
The public expression of outrage and grief largely drowned out the alternative voices: the ones that asked, “What was she doing there so late at night? Why was she out with a male friend that late? How did she allow herself to get on that bus?” As Leslee Udwin’s documentary, India’s Daughter, showed only too clearly, the accused, their families and their apparently educated lawyers clearly had no consciousness of their guilt: in fact, they were defensive of it.
The repellent scenes could only have taken place in a country that is utterly depraved and deprived of the idea of a woman’s bodily autonomy, her control of her sexuality and her right to give or withhold consent that is unaffected by who she is with, how she is dressed or at what time she chooses to go out. The support for Nirbhaya was most prominent in urban areas. No doubt there are large swathes of the country, both urban and non-urban, that felt differently.
If the media chose to support Nirbhaya, India’s Daughter– now banned in India- exposed the truth behind the candlelit marches. India is no closer now to treating its daughters as individuals and human beings than it was when Aarushi died. Incredibly, the government’s opportune banning of the film was explained by claiming Udwin entered Tihar jail without permission. People supported the ban, stating it showed India in a ‘bad light’. But if the Indrani Mukerjea and Talwar cases are anything to go by, it only showed India’s truth to itself.
The Pratyusha Banerjee affair is simply another footnote in India’s history of sexism and media manipulation.
Additionally, a dimension peculiar to our times has emerged from the media maelstrom surrounding the event.
Social media is perhaps one of the most obvious Frankenstein’s Monsters of our times. While great movements have emerged from it and gained support in it, it has also allowed the opposing movement to gain a platform. If the comments on articles related to Pratyusha’s case are anything to go by, India can give up its hope of ever housing an egalitarian society for women. While some less ignorant voices were certainly present, the majority are intent on proving that somehow, in some way, by not being married, by having had multiple romantic partners, by simply being in her profession, Pratyusha, in some way, deserved the way she died.
Apart from a deep sense of superiority based on patriarchal morals and a general sense of schadenfreude, perhaps this fear stems from an obsessive need to make these women the Other.
A crime in which the victim is not to be blamed for provoking it is a crime that can happen to anyone. Most of society needs to protect its illusion that it is safe from such crimes; the ones who are affected are the ones who brought it on themselves through their behavior. And since we don’t behave in such ways, we are safe, right?
A factor in Pratyusha’s case that complicates matters and exposes yet another layer of complications in Indian society is that it involves a suicide.
Suicide has always been a contested act. In various cultures at various points in history, it has been considered both an honourable act and an abhorrent act. In India, suicide has difficult cultural implications, especially when it concerns the death of a woman. While certain forms of suicide have been accepted and even perpetuated as honourable- I refer to the practice of Sati– actress Hema Malini’s comments encapsulate most of the attitudes about suicide I have grown up hearing: it is an act of weakness, a loser’s last resort, a crime against God.
The roots of such ideas can only grow in a society that stigmatizes mental health issues as ‘weakness’, replacing psychological distress with religious and spiritual implications.
Repeated comments about her having been ‘foolish’ and ‘stupid’ to not have walked out of the apparently abusive relationships are pervasive even amongst those representing the more tempered voices. Such comments reveal a deep-seated ignorance about how abuse, if present, and depression actually work. Seeking help is one of the most difficult steps for those experiencing either.
The two-fold impact of Pratyusha Banerjee’s death has exposed two fundamental truths about Indian society.
Firstly, we still cannot refrain from passing judgment on a woman’s character, in life and in death, based on patriarchal norms, and secondly, we have not yet reached the point, as a collective, to openly discuss mental health issues without stigmatizing them.
If we, as a nation, are to move past the dead weight of gender bias and bias against those experiencing mental health issues, the time to speak out and act is now.
Written by Rushati Mukherjee