Last week Jiah Khan, a Bollywood starlet made headlines and front page news when she was found hanging in her apartment. The story continues to expound and unravel like a meticulously formulaic film, complete with villains and half-baked plot turns. The most current news is that her boyfriend has been arrested and held responsible for her death. This is based on a number of letters and his own admission of having beaten her months ago.
There is a lot of talk right now about why women put up with domestic violence. The whole story is skewing in the direction of a poor, hapless victim, preyed on by an evil force and battered to death. But that is not the truth. The evidence clearly points to suicide, not murder. Can we take a minute and think about this first? I want to think about something I’m not hearing or reading enough about.
A relationship is not a fairytale with a surefire recipe for love, happiness and eternal bliss. It’s a complex, shifting set of personal equations. It also includes secondary associations. In a society like India, other people play a great, sometimes larger role in a relationship than the two people itself. Just look around at the number of marriages that struggle under the weight of disapproving/hostile/uncooperative in-laws. Take a look at the number of engagements and romantic relationships that don’t even make it as far as marriage as a result of parental interference.
Moreover, even if it were possible to isolate the relationship from the impact of everyone other than the two people it is between, it’s impossible to predict a success formula. Between any two people, there’s bound to be friction and discord. All human relationships are rooted in power plays and that these aren’t necessarily good or bad; they just are. Power plays involve using all the tactics at your disposal. These include an ability to convince/coerce, strength (physical and emotional), force of personality, passive-aggression, emotional blackmail and manipulation of other people. We all do it. Every relationship is a combination of chess, war and a dance that uses all of these things, both ways.
I find most dialogue about domestic violence and abuse perfunctory because it paints one party too starkly as a perperator (villain) and the other as a hapless victim. Admittedly there are relationships where one party (usually the woman) is bound, gagged and forced to do & be what the other wants. But I don’t think that constitutes the majority of such cases.
I know of a case where a couple’s fight escalated into a violent scuffle. The woman ended up more bruised because of her relative size. But she started it and kept at it, until the guy retaliated. It’s a murky, grey area about whether the guy’s actions constitute self-defense. But they do, don’t they? Just because you’re being attacked by someone smaller, does not diminish your instinct to protect yourself.
There’s another case, a marriage between two professionals, both equally qualified. The wife’s career trajectory soared faster and higher than the husband’s. Her family, high on the success of their overachiever daughter, often subjugated her husband publicly. His career suffered and so did his mental health. Three years later, they divorced. There are scars on her back that bear testimony to domestic battery. But he hasn’t been able to go back to work or resume a normal life since then, which I think indicate a different kind, perhaps less visible scarring. This had to have been a difficult pairing at best and it was shot to hell by overzealous and insensitive families.
Both cases above came down with a social gavel on the men based on the scars on the women’s bodies. Judgement was served but I don’t think justice was. I’m not saying that a violent crime within a relationship is the victim’s fault. Fault is different from responsibility. I’m saying it’s more complex than that.
A lot of such regrettable episodes stem from power plays gone awry in the heat of the moment. They are indicative of breaches that need to either be healed or made permanent with a breaking of the relationship. And I think any justice being served in a similarly heat-of-moment fashion is slapdash and irresponsible. Human relationships do not have a clear villain and a helpless victim. There really is more to a story than that.
To come back to Jiah Khan’s case, I think it is unfortunate for anybody to feel that they have no recourse but suicide. But the choice to hang oneself or not, is still a choice in one’s own hands. Everyone who takes on a goal and pursues it faces rejection, failure and pain at some point of time. Everyone who falls in love, endures these as well. Some people go through these at the same time. Not everyone decides to commit suicide.
What kind of a world was it for Jiah Khan that she felt that way? One where all the options available to her had been exhausted or shut down. She could have reached out for help, if she found it available. She could have run away from the situation (left town, quit Bollywood, changed her name or identity). She could have fought back (and dirty) if she believed it possible. If an admittedly young but still adult over 20 felt unable to do any of these, was she emotionally stable?
Her boyfriend Sooraj Panscholi admits to have beaten her. Why did she feel like ending her life would be easier than ending the relationship? What can one person possibly tell another that keeps them chained to them in this manner? No, that’s the job for a much larger universe. A possible abortion and perhaps getting dumped after that are definitely nerve-wracking experiences. But still, to feel so lonely and unloved after that to prefer death indicates a much deeper neglect.
Doesn’t her claimed support system bear any responsibility? Doting families that come forward at such a time, should they not be asked, why did your daughter feel unable to seek your help when she was in a difficult place? Maybe she did not listen. People certainly stay in bad situations, deaf to their well-wishers. But in the absolutely finality of death, there is room for every idea, any notion that could serve as a guiding light out. If she did not take it, perhaps she never had one at all?
Separately, I think the issue of domestic violence should be addressed because it is a violation, a crime, a wrongdoing. You can blame a relationship rotting on abuse. And you can pin murder on someone who has actively poisoned, slit a throat or in any other way forcibly ended the life of another human being. But how can you pin the blame of a person’s choice to take their own life on another person?
A suicide is the death of one person and the burdensome responsibility of many, many others. Let’s please stop expecting a Bollywood story out of it. It does a grave disservice to her life and to everyone else getting pulled up for it.