For the second time in a span of weeks, a gruesome murder involving a fridge and close relationships has come to light in Delhi. The details – the very gory details, as well as extrapolations and rumours – of both crimes have been splashed across headlines. I don’t need to repeat them, except to say: in the first case, a man killed his live-in girlfriend, and in the second, a mother and son killed their husband/stepfather together.
These are horrific incidents, no doubt. But among the extrapolations is a particularly dangerous one: in the first case, the woman having been murdered by her live-in partner of a different religious background has led to a vociferous increase in anti-love and anti-freedom sentiments (in addition to the pre-existing vociferousness of anti-Muslim speech and action in India). The second case is newer in public knowledge and its sensationalism so far appears to help extend the storyline of the first, which has been positioned to feed directly into a darkly prejudiced worldview.
Essentially, the woman’s murder is being used as a cautionary tale against cohabitation, inter-religious relationships and disobeying the wishes of one’s family of origin. The deceased had been estranged from her family of origin, who had disapproved of the relationship. She did not choose abuse, and she did not choose death, when she decided to enter the live-in arrangement.
Without needing any details of the inner workings of that relationship, we can surmise that she chose it for the same reasons people choose to live with or to marry their partners: companionship, shared expenses, shared experiences and proximity. The reasons behind why she did not marry are subjective, but her decision to cohabit is not. Her staying in the relationship even after it turned abusive, as many reports say, is also not subjective at all. Many, many people remain in abusive relationships for longer they would like to.
Some reports say her family of origin had also been abusive; which means that she left one bad situation for one that she thought was better, but was not. This often happens to survivors, for reasons that have do to with what literally feels familiar to the nervous system, as many contemporary psychologists discuss.
Speaking from personal experience as well as witnessing and learning from many: it is extraordinarily difficult, particularly for women and queer people, to leave abusive families or partnerships in India. There is no sturdy infrastructure of practical resources and interpersonal understanding. To leave, one must navigate so much. It takes time, persistence, money and resilience. Not leaving is no reflection on one’s desire or effort to.
Most people don’t leave. We know this because the continuous violence within marriages and families in India is an entrenched part of culture and lived reality. That is why cases that show a willingness to choose lives that are out of this norm are held up for public scrutiny, as if to say – it’s safer inside, see? It isn’t.
Perhaps one day society will truly accepts individuality and diversity. Until then, the cost of an authentic life is high — and the choice to pursue it, whatever the outcome, is brave.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in December 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.