Earlier this week in Maharashtra, a 19-year old woman and her spouse visited her mother and her brother. They had been estranged ever since the woman had married of her own choosing in June. She was also pregnant. While she was in their kitchen, her 17-year old brother beheaded her with a sickle, with their mother urging him on. The deceased’s husband was able to flee. The murderers proceeded to take selfies with her severed head and paraded it for their neighbours, before being forced to surrender to police.

Occasionally, an event like this one erupts through the veneer of public gentility and appals everyone who hears of it. The tendency is to understand the event as anomalous, to express horror and disbelief that a brother would murder his sister, that a mother would encourage her son to kill her daughter, that family members would be so intoxicated by bloodlust that they would commemorate a murder by displaying the evidence.

But this perception of unusualness only feeds the factors that allow crimes like this to happen at all. By pretending that violence doesn’t happen on a continuum, and must be addressed much earlier on that continuum in order to prevent its more gruesome manifestations, society condones all of it on some level. The act itself may be extreme, and its ghastliness is shocking. But the impetus for it is so commonplace that it can quite accurately be just called “culture”. In this case and any like it, it is cultural norms that gave the criminals the belief that their actions were righteous.

Cultural norms that treat parental authority as being inalienable, women as being property, love as taboo, marriage as needing to happen only within certain clear parameters, and so on, create the belief within individuals that they are doing the right thing, even when they are actually acting in accordance with a sanctioned reality in which individuals behave as systemic agents and perpetuate grievous injustices – and justify them.

On the subject of reality, there is also this: one’s consciousness within an abusive household, family or relationship is often vastly distorted from what it would be within healthy circumstances. The deceased in the terrible case described above managed to physically flee her family, but the smallest avenue of access that they had to her was used against her, in the most vicious way imaginable. 

After she left, her mother and brother had remained firmly ensconced, if not also entrapped, within the poisonous reality of the beliefs that had made her elope in the first place. These beliefs are not only about grander ideas, such as a belief in the importance of caste perhaps, but play out in the very intimate – the belief that their victim was worthless. The woman and boy who killed their family member and felt triumphant about it acted out of a hatred that societal analysis alone cannot account for. That hatred belongs to a more arcane realm, the exploration of which begins with accepting these fact: the institution of family is not sacred, and the idea that home is a safe place is more of a privilege than we readily admit.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 9th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.