Gentlemen, beware the femme fatale: The silly lesson India's learning from the Indrani Mukerjea case
This story has stopped being about the murder of Sheena Bora long back
Oh, India has found its 'Gone Girl'. Apparently Indrani Mukerjea, who now stands accused of murdering her own daughter, is our desi Amy Dunne. Thanks to wall-to-wall newspaper spreads, hashtags and ominous background scores accompanying her story on news television, you'll have no problem imagining Indrani stumbling out of a car, dripping blood, her dress crumpled and soiled but Vogue-worthy nevertheless. For example, if you have read this Times of India article - the same one which calls her 'Gone Girl' - the picture in your head will be quite defined. It quotes Indrani's acquaintance describing her as a woman with 'diabolical eyes'. To make sure that the readers have no doubt about her Satanical qualities, the same article turns her husband Peter Mukerjea into a foil, a man with an "innocent demeanor".
This story has stopped being about the murder of Sheena Bora long back. It is now about Indrani Mukerjea - attractive, expensively-dressed, sipping cocktails in exotic locations in most photos accessed by the media. Perhaps a murderer. Were you also thinking gold-digger, social climber, Machiavellian? Bingo.
In a Business Standard column imaginatively titled 'Of ruthless social climbers and Indrani Mukerjea', Shyamal Majumdar attempts to demystify people 'who don't mind leaving more than claw marks on people around them in their march to the top'. He begins by stating that Indrani, named Pori by her parents, had no wealth, or lineage to ever make it to the 'upper crust' which in his mind can only be accessed with what we call 'old money'. He then tells us what helped Indrani gatecrash the sanctum sanctorum of this 'swish set' was 'naked ambition'.
In short, beware the ambitious woman. Majumdar has strong advice for the whisky-sipping top executive who might fall headlong into her deadly cleavage. Men, after all, have no capacity for restraint.
"Next time you are in one of those countless cocktail parties, look out for those who come in designer labels from head to toe and start scanning the room for bigger fish even while chatting with you. They will do anything to make sure you know the cool, exclusive, elitist things they are doing," he warns.
While Majumdar has been blunt in his warning, most other newspapers have taken the roundabout way to help you feast on the 'sordid' past of Indrani Mukerjea and seemingly warn you against the deadly attraction of the femme fatale. Almost everyone has carried a 'family tree', with three arrows emanating from Indrani's face and leading to the names and thumbnails of three men.
They in turn, lead to the children they have.
The point of the infographic is very simple - to elicit a 'OMG, how many men has she had' gasp. In India, a woman who admittedly has been in relationships with more than one man in her life, has always been subject of much shock, awe and suspicion. In the Indrani Mukherjea case, her love life, her multiple husbands, her Page 3 status are all becoming arrows pointing to the crime she stands accused of.
In India, the femme fatale is supposed to revile, as much she is supposed to fascinate. We raise our eyebrows at the men on her arm and wonder about her antecedents. Remember the time news broke that Shashi Tharoor was set to marry Sunanda Pushkar?
After the country was done asking, "Sunanda, who?", there were elaborate reports on her earlier marriages. Sunanda was married twice before she married Tharoor. A recurrent theme on almost every report on Sunanda was her previous husbands, especially her first husband who had allegedly committed suicide.
The Indian Express' profile of Sunanda Tharoor reads uncannily like the 'profiles' of Indrani Mukerjea, tracing her life as Pori Bora in Guwahati.
"The city that judges you by the size of your house as well as the size of your diamond never quite noticed her. But now,the most fashionable boutiques want her as a client She had the socialite uniform: blonde streaks,manicured nails and diamonds that glittered in the sun. Yet Dubai's high society is only now discovering Sunanda Pushkar," goes the 2010 article on Sunanda Pushkar.
Pushkar might have had her blonde streaks but what we want to know are whether her roots are showing. The rest of the article has quotes from gossip columnists and socialites, who take turns to establish that Sunanda Pushkar was as nobody that a nobody can get before she got engaged to Tharoor. So that you can wonder why she 'landed' Tharoor.
Interestingly, Tharoor too was married twice before he married Sunanda. There was not much snooping about his former wives or the conditions under which those relationships ended. In a country filled with stories of businessmen making it from rags to riches and male politicians who rose to great heights from ordinary backgrounds, that narrative is all about the drive of alpha achievers - successful, charismatic, intelligent. However, women, who have negotiated power relations successfully to climb to the top have to have something 'diabolical' about them, or "Machiavellian", who hypnotized powerful men by batting their false eyelashes.
So a Smriti Irani will always have to keep defending her position as the HRD minister unlike many of her male colleagues, equally unqualified on paper for their ministries. While Lalit Modi's murky deals were, and rightly so, never traced back to his gender, a great part of the interest in Niira Radia stemmed from the shock at the idea of a woman playing broker between powerful men, and a hot woman at that. In fact, Vinod Mehta, in an article on Niira Radia, started with a quote from Freud on women.
"Freud impatiently asked, what do women want? And was unable to provide an answer. I often wonder what Niira Radia wanted. I speak of her in the past tense although that may be premature..."
The article quickly goes on to the men who wanted to woo Radia. "She lived in a luxurious farmhouse in Delhi. She had men of a certain age queuing up to woo her. (Niira’s mean-spirited critics accuse her of being our very own Mata Hari.) She bought her wardrobe from Italy. She began with almost nothing and in a few years became rich and famous and awesomely well-connected."
Now read that last sentence again: 'She began with almost nothing...'. The entire paragraph was building up for the innate shock value of that last sentence - the woman who now buys clothes from Italy, actually began with nothing. That sentence could fit right into an article on Sunanda Pushkar, or Indrani Mukerjea.
In Indrani's story, a recurring note has been how Indrani headed a sinking media venture INX. "Her soaring popularity, however, didn’t help her channels’ fortunes. Despite high profile launches and exciting media campaigns, her network couldn’t make a dent in the hugely competitive broadcast market," an article in The Indian Express states. Later in the article, while it is stated that the Mukerjeas were accused of bungling INX's finances, the rest of the article seems to place the venture's failure on Indrani's shoulders. The fact that Peter Mukerjea, himself a mega-successful TV business personality in the past, failed at it too and might have been equally culpable in squandering the money is almost never mentioned in any of these articles. That's perhaps because it doesn't fall into the scheme of the stories, with their titles like this: 'From Pori Bora to Mrs Indrani Mukerjea: The rise of the femme fatale'. In that story Peter is just a puppet, dumbly following Indrani's siren call.
Indrani Mukerjea might have murdered Sheena Bora or she might not have. But what is on trial here is not just her but women like her - too ambitious to be of any good. Indrani Mukerjea is being tried in the media not just for her alleged crime but for her lifestyle.
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