Exactly fifty years ago, Truman Capote published his classic non-fiction work In Cold Blood as a four-part article in the New Yorker, starting September 1965. It described the real-life murder, planned and remorselessly executed by two parolees from the Kansas State Penitentiary, of a wealthy farmer, his wife and their two teenage children. The subsequent book, based on extended interviews with the murderers, as well as thousands of pages of research notes by Capote (helped by his friend Harper Lee, herself the famed author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, also on the theme of crime and punishment), was an immediate runaway best-seller. Today, Capote's book, like Lee's, remains firmly on the shelves. Yet the motive for that long-ago murder was extremely simple - the lure of money, lots and lots of it.
The point is that it was not so much motive as the psychological investigation of a 'cold blooded' killing for monetary gain that made Capote's book so gripping. The question then becomes: what is so perennially fascinating to us about 'the criminal mind'? What makes us dissect every gory detail about the desires of those involved in singular acts of greed and cruelty while we remain indifferent to the plight of so many who suffer much more grievously from everyday acts of injustice?
The current, spectacularly riveting, Sheena Bora case, once again highlights these issues. We have already had the media self-flagellating on whether they should conduct a de facto trial in print and online before a de jure case is established - yet going ahead all the same and reporting on the case minute to minute. Their collusive audiences, in turn, lap it all up while loudly lamenting a fall in moral standards. What accounts for these contradictory states of mind? Can we simply attribute the matter to raging TRP fever and leave it there?
I want to suggest here that the roots of our common 'gossipy' interest in this sort of drama could lie much deeper in our evolutionary instincts. We appear, for good reasons, to have an innate tendency to trust our fellow human beings, especially our immediate families. Family and kin-groups are, so to speak, a first line of genetic defence in humans, as in many other species, and our everyday lives are still largely based on these primal principles of trust. Emotional turmoil thus results when we fear we find them betrayed. We begin then to uncontrollably chatter and gossip, like it or not. It's very likely quite instinctive. It is for this reason that the Oxford socio-biologist Robin Dunbar (Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, 1996) has argued that gossip in fact had great value in early human communities because it articulated the basic moral judgments necessary for safe community living.
The elaborate superstructures of law, of criminal justice systems, that we have today are founded on this ancient need to discuss and revise ethical norms when there appears to be a gross violation of 'natural justice', as in the Sheena Bora mystery where kin has been turning on kin, family on family. No matter whodunit, these episodes force on societies the need to reset their moral compasses.
Gossip, in short, is a widespread language activity across cultures that enables a vital assessment of the darker, 'hidden' aspects of human behaviour - all the way from suspicions of petty theft and lying words to far more horrific instances of rape, incest and murder. Common to this group of acts are the twin elements of secrecy and guilt. Agents of major crimes like murder typically try to 'cover their tracks' every which way because they know that their actions are 'wrong' if not in their own minds then in the eyes of the community and that they'd be severely castigated if found out. It is this selfish recourse to planned subterfuge so as to escape being 'caught' that kick-starts the ethical mills of speculative gossip. Systematic deceit is what distinguishes the murder 'in cold blood' from the 'crime of passion'. The second is often forgiven on the gossip circuits; the first hardly ever.
Why? Well, because the lexicon of gossip deals in a confusion of opposites. One the one hand stand ordinary goodness, generosity, warm-heartedness; on the other, extraordinary ambition, selfishness and calculating coldness. Human societies, as a rule, valorise the former. The truth, however, is more complex. It is that those closest to us (trusted parents, children, friends) can always hurt us the most and cases like the Mukerjea-Bora one show up this awful possibility. That is why they grip us.
Dunbar interestingly argues that women rather than men are typically associated with the speech act of gossiping because in the early pre-history of humankind, women stayed put and talked while the males were out hunting. Like braiding each others' hair, women's gossip was a form of 'social grooming', of building community codes of conduct. It represented the early, analytic impulse towards trying to explain shocking misconduct and then going on to draw crucial moral boundaries between the good, the bad and the ugly, between 'insiders' and 'freeloaders'. In this respect, gossip is a 'spectator sport' with an ancient pedigree that we cannot easily afford to ignore.
For the most part, these duties of 'spectatorship' are, thankfully, imposed upon us not by real-life but by literature and art. Stories of murder abound in the earliest myths, accompanied by the stern command "Thou shalt not kill" as a warning to generations of audiences. Of the two sons of the Biblical progenitors Adam and Eve, for example, Cain murders his younger brother Abel for reasons of resentment and jealousy and is told off by God himself. In the Mahabharata, Drona causes the death of Arjuna's brave son, Abhimanyu, by proxy and this slyness on his part has never been exactly appreciated. So on and so on. And once again, these are mostly 'family murders'.
Likewise, an obdurate figure such as Indrani Mukerjea today is anticipated by towering literary characters such as, for instance, Aeschylus' Clytemnestra and Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, the first of whom had multiple partners and children brutally slain while the second had a life so shrouded in mystery that she provoked the famous question "How many children had Lady Macbeth?" Grand stereotypes of such high-placed and manipulative yet desirable and desiring women smack of misogyny. At the same time, they have also served down the ages to stretch our imaginations so that we have complex portraits to fall back on when confronted with a possible prototype in real-life.
Some might say that it is really quite irresponsible and childish to invoke literature when real-life issues, real people in the real world with real feelings, are involved. However, it seems to me equally impossible to grasp why people invest in dangerous and immature fantasies to the extent that they are prepared to brutally kill for them unless we concede that such 'unreal' dreams and desires are in effect key determinants of real actions. The fact is, high literature and low gossip are cousins. Both hold up the mirror to the 'intimate enemies' within us. Both celebrate the triumph of 'mutualism' over 'me-ism'. Both train us in empathy. That is why we need them both.
The bottom line? The instinct for gossip and myth-making is not likely to be wished away anytime soon. It is also apparent that in our predominantly young and 'aspirational' country, the quickie seductions of "the end justifies the means" doctrine are huge. Cautionary tales like the Bora-Mukerjea plot demonstrate this. That is exactly why the media's role is so crucial. Gossip cannot be eschewed in a 24X7 global village where everyone is potentially under scrutiny. Instead the media, with its enormous influence, must hold gossip to its original evolutionary purpose - namely, nuanced, empathetic and preferably gendered debates about moral actions and reactions. If it lives up to this responsibility, there's no cause for despair; if not, the dangers ahead are somewhat darker.
(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books.)
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