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Love, sex and dhoka of IMs: The tragedy of Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi

The most startling thing Dharun Ravi says about his roommate Tyler Clementi (even before he meets him) has nothing to do with his being gay.

“He’s poor,” Ravi writes while chatting to a friend on his computer. Then he adds a frowning emoticon.

In his riveting piece about Tyler Clementi’s suicide and Dharun Ravi’s trial in the New Yorker, Ian Parker tells the story of two young men who lived worlds apart in the same room.

For those who haven’t followed the story, here is the basic recap.

Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi were freshmen roommates at Rutgers University. Ravi is Indian, Tyler is gay – identity markers that have come to dominate their storylines. Ravi was accused of spying on Clementi using his webcam and broadcasting his sexual encounter with another man on the internet as a sort of peep show with the infamous tweet “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12:00. Yes, it’s happening again.” The “it” was an encounter between Clementi and a man. Clementi eventually jumped off the George Washington Bride after leaving a final status message on Facebook: Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.

Parker does not get into the pressures of a strait-laced model minority community but his reporting does muddy the picture. AFP

The tragedy prompted a huge outcry about bullying, homophobia, and outing “fusing parental anxieties about the hidden worlds of teen-age computing, teen-age sex, and teen-age unkindness” writes Parker. Now Ravi faces a slew of charges – invasion of privacy (sex crimes), bias intimidation (hate crimes), witness tampering and evidence tampering.

It also set up a narrative with clear cut characters – sensitive closeted shy white gay teenaged violinist and bullying arrogant tech-savvy Indian American jock probably from social conservative but successful immigrant community. Ravi says at one point to a friend he doesn’t care if his roommate is gay but he’s not sure what his parents are going to say. “My dad is going to throw him out the window.” It’s a strange thing to say. But add to that the “you are a wonderful son” ad his parents take out in his high school year book when he graduates and you start cringing.

Parker does not get into the pressures of  a strait-laced model minority community but his reporting does muddy the picture. Clementi is not closeted though he seems to have few real close friends, certainly not gay ones. Ravi is not homophobic in as much as he is casually cruel like a schoolyard bully. Idc (I don’t care) he writes about his would-be roommate’s sexual orientation to another friend. But he cares that this guy is the “opposite” of him – as Parker puts it “gay, profoundly uncool, and not well-off.” He even has a Yahoo email account. “I was fucking hoping for someone with a gmail but no,” Ravi writes to his friend. “Dude, I hate poor people” he tells that same friend at one point.

Clementi is by no means poor. But he didn’t drive a car to High School. Ravi drove a BMW. He played the violin, he was shy, had few close friends. His gay life seemed to happen online, an identity that had been forged in forums and chatrooms and perhaps one-on-one liasions but with little social contact with other gay people. He talks about Ravi to his friends but finds it hard to talk to him in person, even to ask him to open his window shades.

When he first meets Ravi his reaction is equally interesting as Ravi’s to him and rife with stereotypes. As Ravi unpacks, Clementi is IMing with an Asian friend. He says Ravi’s parents seem “sooo Indian first gen americanish” and jokes that they “defs owna dunkin” – a Dunkin’ Donuts.

The real astonishing tragedy here is all of this is happening with the two young men in the same room at the same time, IMing their friends but never turning around to talk to each other. Parker’s story, wonderfully pieced together through a collage of IMs and online chats, is both about over communication and missed communication.

These  chat records and emails will be held up in a court as evidence of intent, as glimpses into what each person was really thinking. One side will use it to prove that Ravi was not really homophobic, that this was a juvenile prank that went horribly wrong. The other side will try to show how he tampered with his tweets once he understood the gravity of what he had done.

The IM exchange, the iChats between Ravi and his friends now hold the weight of real opinion. When he said “Dude, I hate poor people” did he really mean that? Or was that just the kind of casual, attention-seeking, provocative thing you might say to a friend? Ravi, his friends said didn’t understand the value of self-censorship. He’s the guy who would just say what came to his mind. Except now you are iChatting it rather than telephone chatting and somehow by being written down it acquires more solidity, more gravitas, more weight. Now that so much of our communication happens via texting and chatting as opposed to talking and conversing, the lines between speech and the written word are getting increasingly blurry.

One can construct portraits of Ravi and Clementi out of their IMs and online chatter. We think it actually gives us a deeper insight into their private lives and who they really are. But does it? Are you your IM? Or your Facebook status? The “friend” Ravi chats with all the time gives a different read of him when asked in person about him, an assessment that cannot be gleaned from their online banter. “He’s a dick.”

Through his online chats Ravi comes across as a bit of a braggart and bully, anxious to appear cool, obsessed with being seen as wealthy. He treats his “show” of his roommate’s sexual exploit as a way to impress his buddies – both as a sort of impresario and a technical whiz. He chats with his friend wondering how “awk” it would be if Clementi came on to him.

But Clementi never does. In fact, the shy, socially inept freshman is the one who seems to be getting some action when it comes to the bedroom. He is the one asking his roommate if it’s OK to borrow the room. There is no record that Ravi ever asked Clementi for a similar favour. He does not seem to have a girlfriend. Young Indian men are already low on the sexual desirability pecking order in America. One wonders what really went through his mind as he watched his roommate making out with his date. What were Dharun Ravi's insecurities?

One of the friends he chats with tells the New Yorker, ““He’s so much of a jerk that it may seem like he’s a homophobe but he’s not.”

That strangely might be his best defence.

Read Ian Parker's full story for the New Yorker here.