CHENNAI: Suchana Seth, a successful CEO in the field of ethical artificial intelligence, is presently being investigated for the alleged murder of her four-year old child. It is a highly publicised case, with disturbing details being shared with or leaked to the press. At present, with a caveat for sensationalism, these include: that Seth and her spouse were engaged in divorce proceedings and amid a custody battle when she took their child to Goa from Bengaluru; that she killed the child in a hotel room and attempted to slit her own wrists, and on failing, stuffed the child’s body into a suitcase and checked out; that hotel staff suspected foul play and alerted the police, who apprehended Seth on her way back to Bengaluru in a taxi (after she had repeated refused a flight). Seth has maintained her innocence so far.
“How could she do this?” is the shocked statement that ripples through society in response to news like this. But what is meant by this sentiment? Is the shock because anyone at all may have done something so horrific, or is it more specifically because someone of the level of accomplishment or position in certain socioeconomic strata (which in India includes caste and religious affiliations, not just class and education) did this?
Disturbing cases like these, whether they are given extensive media coverage or soon forgotten, shock us every time, and each time we have discussions, opinions and theories. Not all of these have an impact on collective perspectives. My mind goes back to a horrible case from just over two years ago, in which a mother and brother murdered a pregnant woman and paraded her head around their neighbourhood.
This is an almost forgotten case, one no one references, unlike those of Hindu women having their dismembered corpses stuffed into refrigerators by their Muslim live-in partners, which have become a political talking point; or the 2012 Nirbhaya incident — which has since been overshadowed by many high-profile cases of equal or worse horror, but we have again become inured to all this violence. Except when it serves an agenda, or when it occurs to, to use a contentious phrase, “people like us”.
Seth appeals to the imaginary of the urban, upwardly mobile Indian, and so the fact that she did this disturbs many. This is a bias, and one hopes it does not correlate with a belief that certain other people (certain “kinds” of people) might. In this case, as a possible, acceptable explanation, Seth’s possible mental state is being brought up often. Mental illness does not excuse mistreating others — or murdering them. But it can help make some sense of senseless violence, which has no systemic motivation (i.e. it is not directed at a category of people).
Mental health then becomes the topic of many discussions, and the moral of this wicked story is understood as being about how not looking after it can bring tragedy. This is a silver lining, and at least there is one. Still, this doesn’t matter enough until it becomes about the mental health of all people, not only those whose privileges shield them from some of life’s difficulties.