"Everything is possible in these days of modern era [sic] wherein moral values are fast declining and one can stoop to the lowest extent," writes Special Judge S Lal in his order rejecting Nupur Talway's bail plea.
Offered as a rebuttal of the defense counsel's claim that Aarushi's mother as"the creator cannot be the destructor of her own beloved daughter," his dark observation reflects a broadly held suspicion: that the forces of liberalisation have unleashed our inner demons, giving free reign to acts once regarded as unthinkable.
Twenty years ago, we would have found it near-impossible to believe that respectable, well-educated, professional parents club their only child to death in anger over an alleged liaison with a male servant – and her “lover” too boot. The evidence would have to be overwhelming and incontrovertible. Yet today, we embrace the possibility with nonchalant ease.
So why this new-found belief in the middle class instinct for murder? Our theories of the crime are perhaps more revealing than its details. What we believe about the Talwars speaks volumes about what we believe about ourselves.
Judge Lal, for one, points to a decline of moral values in new India, an argument amplified upon by this Open magazine article titled The New Criminal:
A fast changing society, says sociologist Patricia Uberoi, experiences what she terms “normlessness”, where old ways of life no longer operate. It renders the middle-class particularly vulnerable… It starts with a loss of fear of the law, and draws upon a kind of discontent that is typical of a society in transition, where old social norms are abandoned even though people are not yet ready for the new. Aggravated by work and relationship pressures, all this results in a case of raw nerves and gnawing insecurities. If something snaps, it could suddenly spiral into a fit of murderous rage.
It sounds entirely plausible in a world where the newspapers each day bring news of yet another outrageous crime: bodies chopped into bits, stuffed into suitcases or cooked in a tandoor; the straying housewife who hires a contract killer; the college kids who stab someone for jumping the queue.
On the other hand, there are those who blame not modernity, but the lack thereof. The Talwars may have killed their child precisely because we have not changed at all. Behind the urban facade of glitzy malls, foreign holidays, smart phones and designer jeans, the middle class mindset remains trapped in the nineteenth century.
"For all that's changed on the outside, the inner khap panchayat remains exactly the same," muses a friend, while another chimes in, "You can't discount the importance of honour." This may well be an old-fashioned "honour killing" in modern guise. There have been many such cases in recent years, including that of Delhi-based journalist Nirupama Pathak whose mother was arrested for smothering her to death for wanting to marry outside her caste.
Then again, liaisons between middle class kids and the working class are not rare. Bangalore Mirror noted that in 2011, "2,638 teenaged girls, some as young as 13, eloped with their ‘beaus’," who came "for the most part, from social segments considerably below their own — sales boys, cable TV boys, garage mechanics, even a couple of rowdies." The families did not take violent action against either their daughter or their lovers in these cases.
Despite the high-octane media coverage, middle class 'honour killings' are an exception not a rule.
More importantly, most such cases are premeditated, involve widespread collusion, and offer plenty of evidence of a feudal mindset. The "inner khap panchayat" rarely remains entirely hidden. In the case of the Talwars, even the CBI report is unwilling to argue that these modern doting parents deliberately killed their daughter in a moment of feudal rage:
Dr Rajesh Talwar became very angry and picked up the golf club kept in the room of Hemraj with the intention of killing Hemraj for getting close to his precious daughter...
Dr Rajesh Talwar started hitting with the golf club with the intention to kill Hemraj. The first blow landed on the back side of the head of Hemraj since that side was top most. On getting hit once or twice, Hemraj collapsed and fell down. Shifting of the position of the head of Hemraj resulted in the blows of golf club landing on the forehead of Aarushi. This resulted in frontal injuries to Aarushi.
What's most striking about the CBI's theory of the crime is the level of convolution. First, Rajesh attacked Hemraj in a moment of rage, and in doing so, accidentally hit his own daughter. Then they dragged him up to the roof, and slit his neck with a surgical knife because he was still alive – presumably to cover their tracks. Then they went back to Aarushi, who was either dying or dead, and slit her neck, driven by "the common intention of destroying evidence and dressing up the scene of crime." And finally, Nupur cleaned her daughter's private parts to destroy any evidence of sexual intimacy with Hemraj.
The narrative lays out a bizarre sequence of unbridled, unprecedented rage followed immediately by ruthless, calculated efficiency, as though the CBI felt obliged to account for why two seemingly normal middle class professionals could commit a double murder – including that of their own "precious daughter" – without any evidence of previous pathology or domestic strife. They were not the kind of parents who would plan to kill their own child, but they are the kind of people who would slit her throat to cover up their tracks.
In comparison, the theory of the Talwars' innocence is absurdly simple. Under pressure to solve a high-profile crime and rescue an investigation irretrievably botched up by the UP police, the CBI turned to the scapegoats nearest at hand: the parents. This explanation is not just straight-forward but also highly plausible given the level of incompetence, corruption and bad faith in our justice system. How many of us would trust the police to conduct a fair and scrupulous investigation of a murder in our own home? Not many, and yet we've have been quick to suspect the Talwars.
Are the Talwars innocent? I truly don't know. Given the complexity of the crime scene, the disastrous initial investigation, and bad forensics, it's difficult to determine exactly what happened at this early stage of the court case. What is clear is this: none of the theories of the middle class murderer who kills either due to poor impulse control, lax moral values or retrograde sexism fit the Talwars case. And yet we continue to believe the worst about the Talwars, and in doing so, confirm our darkest fears about ourselves – and those around us. So here's the more important question: why are so many of us – including the media – so invested in affirming their guilt?