How Poonawala gave love a bad name


Different societies have different and unique pathologies of crime. When one thinks of America, one thinks of the lone gunman in a supermarket, nightclub or school. Or one thinks of the serial killer, as American as Coca-Cola and McDonalds. American serial killers become immortalised in cult comics and have fan clubs, as the recent Netflix series Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story shows us.

Both these types are not as popular in India. Perhaps it has to do with familial surveillance. India is not an atomised society – although it is gradually becoming so – like America. There is a lack of physical space where one can plan such killings. Suppose one buys an assault rifle and rounds of ammunition. Where will one store this in a joint family set-up? There is also something like ‘crime culture’: some crimes simply don’t catch a society’s fancy. The lone gunman is an all-American type, in a way, he is not in India or the UK. We have no lack of country pistols and unguarded schools, but the desi criminal isn’t interested.

Also Read | Delhi-NCR bachelors face difficulty in getting house after Shraddha Walkar murder case

Our criminal tendencies manifest themselves in other ways. Do an internet search for ‘toddler rape’. This horrific news item appears with depressing, almost daily regularity, in the form of a small box in the newspaper. Occasionally, the box makes it to the front page of a regional edition; usually, it’s tucked away inside, a five-sentence report buried in a page of
tender notices (pun unintended).

If one googles it, one gets a consecutive long list: Ghaziabad, Jhansi, Indore, Thiruvananthapuram, Morang, Nirmal district of North Telangana, it goes on. In most of these cases, the toddler is also murdered. Brutal as they are, none of these murders capture our fancy or lead to outrage. They are too remote from the news cycle of cities. What grabs our morbid attention is the urban middle-class murder: Arushi, Jessica Lal, Sheena Bora, Nirbhaya, the tandoor cook-up.

The Aaftab-Shraddha case belongs to the latter category. It’s about people-like-us doing it to people-like-us—Aaftab sported a fashionable mini-Amish beard; Shraddha had lip piercings; both were English-speaking. More than that, it’s a very American-style murder, a generational first. This is a generation that has had to grapple with a rapidly changing environment, whether it comes to money; lifestyles and taboos; television, media and the internet. It’s different from the old tussle between tradition and modernity, the subject of a million saggy academic seminars. Indian society is in a deep irreversible churn, our youth are at the vanguard of it, and this murder comes out of that churn.

Also Read | Hang Aftab, probe his family’s role in Shraddha’s murder: Father
On December 9, Vikas Walkar, Shraddha Walkar’s father, delivered his first public comments on his daughter’s murder. Two comments stand out, both to do with a changing social fabric. First, Mr Walkar questioned the ‘freedom’ that kids get on turning 18: ‘There should be counselling and control over children who turn 18. My daughter told me while leaving home that she was an adult, that’s why I’m saying this.’ Second, he also demanded that action be taken against phone apps that are ‘creating trouble.’

Meanwhile, over in Kerala, the issue of freedom for young women is being debated differently. The girl students of Government Medical College, Kozhikode, have been fighting against restrictions that prevent them from moving out of the hostel after 9.30 pm. The Kerala High Court has asked some pertinent questions of the authorities. Justice Devan Ramachandran observed, ‘In these modern times, any form of patriarchy, even in the guise of offering protection based on gender, cannot be accepted. Girls, as much as boys, are fully capable of taking care of themselves, and if not, it must be the endeavour of the state and the public authorities to make them so competent, rather than being locked in.” He went on to add, ‘Lock up the men. I am saying (this) because they create trouble. Put the curfew for men after 8:00 pm. Let ladies walk out.’
I quote the judge’s remarks alongside the father’s, only to illustrate how hard-fought these small freedoms are. In many ways, Aaftab has turned the clock back a hundred years.

While he sits in jail reading Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar and pondering chess moves, he’s made it that much harder for this generation’s tortoise march to autonomy and the freedom to choose its own destiny. The clamour now is for ‘more control’. Oh, look what have you done, you fool! Like in the Bon Jovi song, you gave love a bad name. And a fillip to old prejudices, which have returned with a sly smirking ‘told you so’.

Like live-in relationships are intrinsically bad. Indian landlords are controlling enough as it is; this will only encourage them to not rent out flats to unmarried couples. This, at a time when live-in relationships were getting more acceptable in our big cities, with even the courts coming to the defence of couples in such arrangements.

Like dating apps are evil. In a society that loves to clamp down on pleasure, dating apps have liberated a generation from conservative mores and allowed them a semblance of choice. But at the moment, as Mr Walkar has demanded, there is pressure to clamp down. I know several marriages where the couple met on a dating app or on social media like the now-defunct Orkut or Facebook, and lived happily ever after.

If anything, what has happened should teach us to be smarter. We often mistake social media presence for real-life presence. When I do not update my social media feeds for a couple of weeks, I start getting messages from people asking, ‘Are you okay?’ Aaftab cleverly manipulated this expectation of friends and family, by taking over Shraddha’s Instagram account and continuing to post on it, months after she was dead. Banning dating sites is like banning arranged marriages because of dowry deaths.

Aftab’s actions have reinforced the arranged marriage brigade, which for long has insisted that love marriages are for the morally bankrupt. This then spills over into the communal divide where men from one community are seen as inherently barbaric and bloodthirsty, by men from another community. It’s a blow to interfaith relationships.

Aaftab has also given the TV series Dexter a bad name. While it does feature a serial killer, Dexter is one of the tamest shows on offer. If one follows algorithm logic, those who like Friends are told they might also like Dexter.

There have been reports that Aaftab confessed to smoking pot on the night of the murder. This adds to the cliché that cannabis is a drug that turns one into a psychopath. It should be pointed out that as more and more American states have decriminalised or legalised the use of the plant, no link has been reported between an increase in violent crime and the use of pot.

Aftab’s deft use of knives in posthumous chopping has pushed a legit degree down the ladder. Some reports say he worked in the kitchen of a Mumbai five-star, others say he had a degree in Hotel Management. Hotel management has always been a step-cousin to an MBA. Once, when I told a family friend that I was attending college at St Stephen’s, she said, ‘Good boys go to Stephen’s, bad boys do hotel management.’ There was a time when those who wanted to do hotel management were told by their families, ‘Why do you want to become a waiter or a bawarchi?’ Now, they will say, ‘You want to become a murderer or what?!’

In this kerfuffle, caught between the devil and the deep sea, is the Indian woman, the one who suffers the most. On the one hand is the fear of an honour killing, or, at the very least, the fear of being cut off by one’s own family, leaving one with no safety net. On the other, lurks the danger of being trapped in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend with murderous

Let’s not blame dating sites. Let’s not blame kitchen knives. Let’s not blame big refrigerators. Let’s not blame crime shows. Let’s not blame small forests that provide green cover to a polluted city. Let’s take a long hard look at ourselves who live in a society that leaves no space for love across community, caste and class lines. It’s an unforgiving society
that doesn’t allow for mistakes.

(The writer is the author of The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions & Follies of India’s Technicolor Youth, and the editor of the anthology, House Spirit: Drinking in India)

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