"She's a very pretty child. You must be careful," says my daughter's headmistress with a sigh. It's hardly the first time I've received such counsel, and my daughter is only four years old. A little preschooler with a cherubic face who shows all signs of growing up into a raging beauty.
Conventional wisdom holds that a woman's face is her fortune. Beauty is for a woman, as wealth to a man. The rich old guy with the hot babe on his arm represents a fair trade, each leveraging their most valuable asset. A beautiful daughter then ought to be cause for celebration, an assurance that your child will thrive in the game of life, endowed with nature's bounty. Yet the prospect of raising a beautiful girl fills most hearts with terror. It promises a lifetime of fear, of countless days spent worrying that your baby's lovely face will somehow, somewhere catch the eye of the wrong man. At school or college, in the office or on the street. And she will be punished for her "good fortune," in a way no man will ever pay for his wealth, power or status.
The list of possible retributions is long: Stalking, acid attacks, rape, murder, and in Geetika Sharma's case, suicide. Gopal Goyal Kanda's confession confirms every parent's nightmare:
Kanda recalls spotting Geetika during the MDLR Airlines cabin crew interviews. "On seeing Geetika Sharma, I told my board members that this girl is smart and beautiful, so give her the job. Geetika was not yet 18. I said train her for six months and by then she will be 18. She was later handed a trainee cabin crew appointment letter... I liked Geetika a lot, so I quickly appointed her a senior cabin crew member in August 2008."
In 2009, when MDLR Airlines stopped operations, Kanda made her group coordinator, MDLR group of companies, with its office in Gurgaon. Her appointment, the statement quotes him as saying, required her to report to him every evening. "Geetika would give me a daily report every evening. Our daily meetings brought us together and I got attracted to Geetika."
Whatever errors of judgment Geetika may have committed later, the seventeen-year old was already in deep trouble the moment she caught Kanda's eye in that first job interview. We don't know whether she freely traded her beauty for the disproportionate perks of the job. What we do know is that when she tried to extricate herself from this lopsided "barter" — forced or otherwise — Kanda refused to let her go, unleashing instead a campaign of terror that finally led to her suicide.
When Geetika tried to quit, Kanda "directed my company not to return her papers and not to give her an NOC (no-objection certificate) because I did not want her to go away. I wanted her to return to me for a job." When she managed to get another job with Emirates, he had an associate file false charges that she had forged her employment papers. Having forced her out of Emirates, he bullied her into joining MDLR again:
As evidence of the intimidation and forgery, the police have also included in the charge sheet a crude, badly phrased email allegedly sent at the behest of Mr. Kanda to Geetika, threatening her with extradition to Dubai, after she returned from Dubai in October 2010, but refused to rejoin MDLR. The e-mail warned her that an “order for extradition” had been issued against her by a Dubai court and that if she did not reply in a week “the consequence would not be good for her” and that she would be extradited to Dubai with the help of Indian authorities. The email also warned her against fleeing to other countries saying: “We will make sure you will not leave your country…”
And when she simply stopped showing up at office, he and his Human Resources head Aruna Chaddha confronted her mother with ugly aspersions regarding her sexual behaviour — hoping the fear of public exposure and her parents' shame would force her back into his arms.
All this because Kanda was determined to possess a beautiful young woman against her will:
[Kanda] used his "position, wealth, force and other resources" to "tempt and intimidate" Geetika because he did not want to let her out of his sight. He has described his feelings for her as one of '"obsession and possessiveness."
"I wanted her to live with me, only me, as my own,” Kanda is quoted as having told police.
Such are the perils of female beauty.
This is not to say rape or sexual assault is the sole burden of attractive women. Or to deny that women are also punished for not meeting an unrealistic standard of beauty. But there is an irony inherent in our worship of female beauty, which has grown ever more fervent in a culture of materialism. Movies, magazines, advertisements, princess parties teach our daughters that beauty is a girl's greatest asset; worse, an asset they can trade like a commodity for material success. But the bargain between beauty and power is always unequal, and very often tragic. In man's world, a woman's face can just easily be her misfortune.
"Why do men always look at you everywhere we go?" a friend's mother would complain when we were growing up together in Delhi. Powerless to do very much about the men, she preferred to vent her anxiety on her pretty daughter. Since I don't want to be that kind of mother, I have taken a slightly different tack.
When she pirouettes in her new frock — "I am so pretty, mama!" — I immediately prompt, "But what's more important than pretty?"
"I am good?"
Yeah, well, that, but also…? "Clever!" she yells in glee at getting it right.
Bright enough to succeed on her own merit, smart enough to value her body, clever enough to run, run, run at the first sight of a Kanda.