When Nihita Biswas Sobhraj made entertainment history on Monday night by becoming the first contestant from Nepal to take part in Indian TV channel Color's reality show Bigg Boss 5, back home in Kathmandu her family's moment of pride turned into shock and consternation at the first barrage of questions raining down on the 23-year-old.
"I was shocked," said Nihita's mother Shakuntala Thapa, a senior lawyer practising at Nepal's Supreme Court, reacting to the question posed by one of the participants, news anchor Mandeep Belvi.
"Did you have sex with Sobhraj?" Belvi had asked Nihita after learning the young Nepali woman was the wife of Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj, branded the "Bikini Killer" by the tabloids in the 1970s when he was accused of a series of tourist killings in several Asian countries -- a charge that he has denied all through his career in crime.
When a blushing Nihita sought to parry the question, the next query was why did she marry him then.
"We have a conservative society in Nepal," Thapa told IANS.
"People don't ask such questions, especially to people they have known only for 15 minutes. Nihita is young and led a sheltered life. We encouraged her to join the show thinking she would make friends with people from different cultures and broaden her horizon."
"We didn't expect such sensationalism or ignorance."
Thapa wondered how a news anchor could be ignorant about prison norms.
"Sobhraj is in prison whereas Nihita is not," Thapa said. "How could the question of having sex with a prisoner arise?"
Though Nepal's apex court recently ruled prisoners should be allowed their conjugal rights, it has not been implemented by the prison authorities and is likely to remain an impossibility given how the prisons are crowded and lacking funds and other resources.
Nihita says she fell in love with Sobhraj, who is 44 years older, at first sight when she visited him in Kathmandu's Central Prison after she heard he was looking for a Nepali interpreter for his visiting French lawyer.
The romance blossomed into a "marriage" inside the prison three years ago during the festival time when prisoners were allowed to mingle with visitors. However, beyond a ritualistic exchange of garlands and rings, there has been no actual consummation of the marriage that made Nihita the butt of ridicule and scathing public criticism.
Thapa, who is close to Nepal's ruling Maoist party, is a feminist and a Communist who regards beauty pageants as derogatory to women. When Nihita was a baby, Thapa dissociated herself from her husband, an Indian from West Bengal who, according to reports, was a wastrel and maltreated his children.
Since then, she has brought up her two children single-handedly, no mean task in a traditional society like Nepal where the husband's approval was once mandatory for many things -- from getting a passport to opening a bank account.
Thapa, who watched the fourth edition of Bigg Boss last year, had liked the mix of participants, who she thought were intellectuals as well.
However, she is dismayed at the present lot, feeling that since most of them share the same showbiz background, Nihita, away from home for the first time, would feel isolated in their midst.
Thapa, however, admires three of the contestant.
Folk dancer Gulabi Sapera, who narrated how her tribe killed girl children by burying them alive, is the one she admires most. She also admires third gender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and singer Raageshwari, who overcame facial paralysis.
She identifies with them because she and her children have faced severe struggle, with the Supreme Court even sentencing her to prison along with Nihita for questioning its impartiality in finding Sobhraj guilty of murder without real evidence.
While some of the contestants, like actor Pooja Bedi, are reported to be carrying a designer wardrobe with them to "Bigg Boss", the climactic item in Nihita's simple wardrobe is a sari from West Bengal. The only bit of help she sought from her mother before leaving for Mumbai was for a quick lesson in how to wear a cotton sari.
(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )