Breaking barriers: How DJ Varnika Kundu stood up to VIP stalkers in Chandigarh
Music lovers in the City Beautiful know her as Miracle Drugg, the disc jockey whose beats transport them to another world. To the rest of the country, Varnika Kundu is that feisty young woman from Chandigarh who dared to take on her VIP stalkers. And who continues to hold her own in the face of relentless media attention and some very ill-advised attempts at character assassination.
Those who know Varnika are not surprised.
“She has always been a very strong individual with an opinion; she hasn’t become this person overnight,” says Manan Kapoor, a writer friend. A former classmate from Carmel Convent, one of the city’s posh all-girl schools, remembers her as “this bright girl who cared two hoots when she suddenly sprouted grey hair in Class 12”. “She made it her style statement,” she adds.
Taking a break from back-to-back interviews in a house still surrounded by OB vans from TV channels, Varnika says she is just trying to be herself.
“That’s my motto,” she says, smiling that calm smile. “I feel intensely about any form of injustice.”
In an ideal world, she adds, in a steady but soft voice, I would have been a politician. “I have considered it… sat and thought about it. If it didn’t involve all the diplomacy and dealing with people, I might have done it.”
Friends in the city admire her for being the first woman disc jockey in a region that prides itself on a testosterone-driven culture of machismo.
Ranbir Sidhu, a music producer and owner of a recording studio who’s known Varnika as the lone woman member of the Chandigarh rock community for seven-odd years, says the group admires her for her independent spirit. “She’s a bro, she’s got her own way of doing things.”
HER OWN BEAT
Varnika didn’t really have any templates to follow. “It takes courage to be a woman DJ here, where drunken brats wave their pistols and bark, ‘don’t you know my father?’,” says Sunishchit R Sandhu, who runs a sound equipment company with her husband.
Varnika, says Sandhu, has managed to carve a place for herself. “She plays electronic dance music with no Hindi or Punjabi, and has a set of loyal followers. She wowed everyone when she played the opening set for leading Indian DJ Nucleya last November,” Sandhu says.
For Varnika, born in Rohtak and raised in Chandigarh, making music is all about being true to herself. “Music is my being. I feel intensely about it. I put on my headphones, shut my eyes, and I am not here anymore,” she says.
Her mother, Sucheta Kundu, a former sociology lecturer, remembers how Varnika announced that she was going to be a DJ when she was in Class 4.
“I’d got my first mobile. She took it from me and fed her name in as DJ Baby,” says Sucheta, laughing.
It came as no surprise to the family when Varnika completed a Bachelors degree in Psychology and declared she wanted to do a course in audio engineering. She studied at a music academy in Gurgaon. Virender Singh Kundu, her father and a senior bureaucrat, says her choice of profession was a matter of discussion, not imposition.
“We wanted her to choose wisely.”
Varnika’s musical moniker was inspired by the U2 song Miracle Drug. “Music cures all my ills, I want my music to do the same for people,” says the music producer, adding that her favourite band is Radiohead.
The Kundus, who are from Haryana, say they made sure their two daughters were exposed to a wide gamut of experiences. Self-defence was one. “All of us have black belts in Choi Kwang Do,” says Sucheta. From trekking and tennis to golf, painting and theatre, the girls did it all.
“We brought them up as persons, not girls,” says Sucheta. “The girls had no curfews or any curbs on making male friends.”
Varnika’s sister Satvika, a writer, says their parents have always been very clear that they must build a career first. “I’ve told them I don’t care if they don’t get married until 40,” laughs Sucheta.
The Kundus also treated their daughters to a house filled with music. “We were taken to concerts, and as a family we enjoyed listening to a wide selection of music,” she says.
An amateur filmmaker, Kundu encouraged the family to watch films in their well-equipped home theatre. Varnika says she’s a huge romantic and a huge fan of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, and his Hong Kong counterpart Wong Kar Wai. “Their films are very subtle, with striking visuals,” she says.
Varnika says she was shocked when she began to discover, as a young woman, that so many women were still treated as second-class citizens.
“The more I went out, interacted with others, the more I discovered that many women did not have the same rights as I do. I’ve been ranting about women’s issues on FB for years now,” she says.
Has the stalking incident made her think differently about her safety? Yes, she says, but not in the ways you would think.
“For years I wanted to travel solo, see the North Pole, the Northern Lights, but I felt it wouldn’t be safe. I had started thinking that maybe it wasn’t true what my parents had told me since my childhood – that I am brave, that I am different. This incident has reassured me that I am still brave. I feel stronger.”
Varnika doesn’t want to talk about the incident, she says, partly because she has said all she has to say about it, and also because it is sub judice. But in her FB post, she narrated how she kept her wits about her when she realised she was being tailed by an SUV, how she had to reverse, swerve and dash about on Chandigarh’s streets as one of the two men got out at a traffic light and hammered on her window with his fists. How she called the police and they arrived and detained the two men in the SUV — one of them the son of the Haryana BJP chief.
“I was in a full-blown panic attack…” she said in her account. “My hands shaking, my back spasming with fear, half in tears, half bewildered, because I didn’t know if I’d make it home tonight.”
Her post went viral, and she found herself in intense media glare. But Varnika calls it a blessing in disguise even though she hasn’t been able to get a good night’s sleep ever since.
“It has given me a platform, a chance to bring about a change. I am saying things that nobody else is saying,” she says.
She is particularly delighted with the Twitter hashtag #AintNoCinderella in which women across India are posting pictures of themselves out past midnight, in response to Chandigarh vice-president Ramveer Bhatti’s comment asking why Varnika was out so late, and what she had been doing.
“It’s so good to see that women are finally speaking for themselves,” she says, grinning.
The case, she admits wistfully, has changed a lot of things. “I don’t know what direction my life will take now. I will continue to make music. As a matter of principle. But the goalposts have shifted.”
Her parents, fiercely proud of their daughter’s poise and bravery and grateful for the outpouring of public support, acknowledge that this is only the beginning of the battle.
As Virender puts it: “Varnika’s trauma is yet to catch up with her.”
As she herself puts it, “I have no idea when I can go back to leading a normal life.”
A normal life of music, reruns of Casablanca, rajma-chawal, and dreams of a romantic trip to Paris. Right now, all that seems very far away.
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