I have been thinking about the Aarushi-Hemraj case as a parent of two teenaged daughters. Like Aarushi, they are avid users of the Internet, have friends of both genders and seek to push the boundaries of parental control as much as possible.
The model of parenting behaviour they will tolerate is not one I experienced. There is a great deal of evidence that we are living through a period of terrible cultural and social anxiety that centres on ideas of control and letting go.
As old certainties about childhood and parenting are confronted by new practices of living, there is a backlash against a perceived decline in social mores.
The Aarushi-Hemraj case is important not only because of the slew of unanswered questions about the investigative methods, but also because it has become a modern morality tale. The case has taken on an independent life as a fable on the nature of contemporary change.
One of the most un-examined but significant relationships in Indian society is that between parents and children. It is taken for granted that children will provide unquestioned respect to their parents and, in return, parental responsibility entails sacrifices of different kind.
This is part of a broader set of ideas about the sanctity of Indian family life itself. So, it is commonly said that as opposed to family life in the West, ours offers stability and calm because each family member plays his or her pre-assigned role: wives respect husbands, parents love their children, and children respect parents.
The ‘Happy Indian Family’ is one of our most cherished fictions. It is imagined to be happy because of the chain of sacrifice, respect and responsibilities that bind it in a bond of contentment. The Talwars are seen to have undermined this bond by becoming too ‘un-Indian’ in their approach to traditions and customs.
In the public mind, the Talwars’ most significant shortcoming is that they were bad parents: they failed to devote enough time to their daughter and lavished far too much attention on themselves. Good parents keep a close watch on their daughters and ensure that their activities and life choices are dictated by parental authority.
The autonomy allowed to sons must remain out of bounds for daughters. However, this line of thinking goes, the Talwars appeared to have given their daughter freedoms that surely signposted their own moral decadence.
For, what kind of parenting is it that allows teenaged daughters to hold parties without strict adult supervision?
And, is it not a sign of the parents’ debauchery that they knew that their daughter had a ‘boyfriend’? If fathers loosen control over daughters (and men over women), both stand condemned for undermining ‘Indian values’.
The Talwar family has received such condemnation in full measure. The sentencing judge pronounced his own judgement on the Talwars’ parenting capacities by characterising them as ‘freaks in the history of mankind’. He captured a prominent strand of public sentiment regarding good and bad parents.
In addition to anxieties about bad parenting, it is Aarushi’s mother, Nupur, who is in the dock for being a bad mother. The good mother is the woman who may not pursue her own professional ambitions and, if the child comes to harm, must display feminine characteristics of grief and suffering.
A woman’s sorrow must not be silent and internal but can only be proved if it is on public display.
A mother must not display strength to face the calamity of a child’s death.
That, according to our way of thinking, makes her less of a woman and a contemptible mother. Nupur’s lack of public display of grief puts her in the company of evil step-mothers and self-obsessed career women, both of whom are stock figures of fear and derision.
The ‘bad parent’, young girls seeking a degree of autonomy and the professionally ambitious woman are three figures that both capture and express contemporary anxieties about changing ideas about families, children and gender.
However, rather than accepting them at face value, we need to urgently examine what lies behind such anxieties. For these are not the lives of others, ‘freakish’ people occupying far off worlds. These are the world that we also occupy and must reflect upon. To think otherwise is to make freaks of our own selves.
(Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University)
The views expressed by the author are personal