Somewhere in this whole Mukerjea scandal we are in danger of forgetting that the real story is about the death of a young woman. A murder it is alleged.
Whether that young woman is actually Indrani Mukerjea’s sister or daughter is secondary.
As are the twists and turns in Indrani Mukerjea’s lifestory, variously described as sordid, shocking and unsavoury.
This is the Aarushi story on steroids. While that involved a middle class dentist couple whom nobody knew until the sensational scandal erupted in our living rooms via television, this already comes with a Page 3 cast of characters, both in terms of principals and the Greek chorus of celebrities.
Lawyer Karuna Nundy tweeted “Well I can see why it’s a big story, but restraint, probity and fairness essential.” But hardly likely. All the pious lessons about the pitfalls of sensational media coverage we supposedly learned during the Aarushi case will be thrown out of the window in the rush for TRP gold.
Avirook Sen, author of the bestselling book Aarushi, says that Aarushi should have taught us that "publishing what anonymous sources tell you often has terrible consequences for those being talked about, and none at all for the source, who has built deniability into it by saying things 'off the record'." We should also know, he says, "that the police version of events--even the official one--can change dramatically when matters go to court, so caution is necessary."
With 20/20 hindsight Aarushi should have been a cautionary tale. But it is not. It's more like a prototype.
The Kolkata Robinson Street tragedy not long ago showed what scant regard we have for restraint. Curiosity, even voyeuristic curiosity, about a sensational case is natural, but it does not mean it must be catered to by trampling over all norms. In the Robinson Street case in Kolkata, after the apparent suicide of the father and the discovery of the skeletal remains of the daughter and the family’s dogs, it was clear that Partho De had psychiatric problems. He was removed to a mental hospital but the press was conducting two-minute interviews with him through a crack in the fence. Somehow his personal diaries made their way to the media fueling rumours about sexual intrigue. Psychiatrists and psychologists who had not met him at all were asked to draw up profiles about De based on lurid media reports. His mental disarray meant Partho De actually became an easier target for the media camped around the hospital and the house.
Investigation is one thing. Digging up dirt is another. The breathless media frenzy heating up around the Indrani Mukerjea case gives all indication that in the name of unraveling a mystery what we will see is a gold rush to dig up every salacious detail of the family story – a new shocker every few hours.
While the Talwars were not celebrities, Sen says "somehow they were perceived as entitled, influential and rich: this was the work of anonymous sources and a media that was willing to believe whatever they heard." This case, he says, "does not need that much feeding."
Given their media profile there are plenty of people who can add their two bits to the feeding frenzy about the Peter and Indrani they knew, adding colourful details about party lives that the rest of us can vicariously gobble up. One lets us know that Indrani was called Lady Macbeth. Another lets us know how a smitten Peter dumped his girlfriend for her. And sometime actor Rahul Roy gets a moment in the studio as a "celebrity of 25 years" which makes him some kind of expert. Other socialites will be shocked and shake their heads about how mothers could do this to their daughters and get on a moral high horse, irrespective of how they treat their own mothers and daughters. The world of television studios has no shortage of people who know Indrani and Peter.
The irony is this is really a story about the Indrani and Peter Mukerjea they did not know at all despite all the socializing they did together.
There are many unanswered questions to this tragic story as there are about all these cases. It is indeed the media’s job to raise those questions, point out the pieces that don’t fit in this story. But will the media need to chase down every romantic liaison and every ex-colleague Indrani once had to ferret out the most lurid personal details? Will the ambition of Indrani Mukherjea or the number of her husbands be furnished as damning proof of her guilt? Even worse, in the rush to leave no piece of dirt unturned the media will be done with its trial of Indrani Mukerjea with only lip service to presumption of innocence even before she has been able to present her side of the story, something she is entitled to whether she is guilty or not.
And that’s where it is terribly and tragically easy to lose focus. This is not a story about the sordid dark lives behind the Page 3 make-up even though it’s tempting to turn it into that as Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi did when he tweeted “#Indrani Nasty, brutish, short, dirty, deceitful underbelly of delhi/mumbai high life;dysfunctional; disgusting & disgraceful.”
As more details emerge about Indrani Mukerjea’s checkered past it will quickly become a story about her and Sheena Bora could be reduced to Exhibit A of that juicy story - the media trial of Indrani Mukerjea’s life. The driver whose testimony apparently led to the whole case unraveling is already a half-forgotten footnote. "What concerns me most is a fundamental similarity in the coverage: the emphasis on 'character' and 'conduct', rather than on 'evidence' in the first frenzied coverage of the event," says Sen and adds that is his opinion that "does not help anyone in the long run, the media included".
There is a mystery that the police are investigating in this case. It is who killed Sheena Bora and why. Anything that contributes to solving that mystery is pertinent to the case. Everything else is just masala.