In a courtroom in the town of Ghaziabad, near Delhi, a fascinating murder case has entered its final stages. A successful dentist couple, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, stands trial for the murder of their daughter Aarushi and their Nepalese manservant, Hemraj.
The Talwars have pleaded not guilty and the case against them is largely circumstantial. And even that, admits the Central Bureau of Investigation, has serious gaps. However, what has propelled the case forward is the belief among the investigators and lower court judges that this is a straightforward case of “honour killing”. It just happens to be hidden under a heavy cloak of urban denial: such things are supposed to happen in the badlands of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, not in the middle and upper class neighbourhoods connected to the capital by toll-charging expressways.
The facts are as follows: 13-year-old Aarushi Talwar was murdered in her room in the Talwars’ flat in the Delhi suburb of Noida one night in May 2008. She had been clubbed and cut to death while her parents, according to their testimony, slept in an adjoining bedroom. Whirring air-conditioners prevented them from hearing anything and they only discovered the body early the following morning.
Hemraj, who lived in the same flat, was missing and became the prime suspect on the first day. On the second day, however, his battered, rotting body was found on the terrace of the Talwars’ flat. The wounds on his body indicated the use of the same weapons that killed Aarushi.
There were no signs of forced entry into the flat and nothing was missing. To the policemen, it looked like this: four people were in a flat, two had been murdered, so the other two must be responsible. A curiously worded motive was soon proposed: Dr Rajesh Talwar had walked in on his daughter and his servant, finding them in an “objectionable” though “not compromising” position. Enraged, he killed both of them with a golf club and a knife.
Hemraj was a 45-year-old from Nepal. Aarushi would have turned 14 in less than two weeks. Her post-mortem did not find any evidence of rape or the presence of semen.
But to the successive batches of investigators — most of them drawn from a milieu where it often takes less than rape or sexual relations for an honour killing to take place — there just could not be any other explanation. The Talwars must have done it. Under the circumstances, any father would have done the same: in a court of village elders, the killing might even have been justifiable.
‘Honour’ is a strange thing. The rural poor and rich often see the protection of family honour as a solemn duty even if it costs the lives of a few loved ones. Their allegiance is to the larger clan.
The middle classes of the city are driven by an urban pursuit: the pursuit of ‘respectability’. Its markers are decent earnings, children in good schools, clean homes and servants. Their allegiance is to the small family unit.
Here, the preferred way of dealing with a scandal is not a killing, but a cover-up with the general lack of connect in a large cosmopolitan colony working in its favour. In the village, everyone would know and the marriage of distant cousins would be compromised.
But the memory of ‘honour’ is hard to erase: mere relocation from farm to township doesn’t do it. It is a meme that refuses to die out from the cities of our subcontinent and that’s why honour killings still occur. The city-dweller’s default position on these murders is that of denial — a sense of ‘it cannot happen here’.
In her circle, Aarushi’s mother said in court last month, sex was not a big deal. You do not commit murder over it; you “sort it out”. Sack the servant, ground the daughter and keep it quiet. No, says the prosecution. You may be middle class but beneath that coat of respectability are the stains of memes you cannot run away from. You may live in the city but the village is in you.
Like the Talwars, the urban middle class now waits to hear from the court.
Published In The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2012.