For years my mother has been addicted to a Bengali soap opera called Ichhe Nodi. She has periodically stopped watching it in protest against its absurd plot twists, despaired that when everything seemed resolved it has sprouted a brand new love triangle, but like a true addict she has always eventually returned to it. These days though the news holds more interest for her than the soap. Biponno Bikram (Endangered Bikram) at 8, the newscaster promises breathlessly, as if it was another must-watch plot turn in the long-running serial.
This time though it's real. In reel life, Vikram Chatterjee, the hero of Ichhe Nodi, has already been through an accident. He has shown up with a bandage around his head. In true soap tradition he has lost his memory. And in even truer soap fashion he has in his amnesiac state almost married a new woman setting in a motion the usual soap battle of two women over one man. But through everything Chatterjee portrays a man of unimpeachable integrity, a character trait that he conveys with a perpetual frown. His character Anurag would rather go to jail (and he does) than cut a deal with a lying woman.
In real life, Vikram is coming across as less noble-minded. My mother purses her lips when she reads about him in the morning newspaper. There's a hashtag going around on social media these days - #JusticeForSonika. Sonika Singh Chauhan was the model who was killed in a fatal car crash on April 29 in Kolkata. Vikram was the man driving the car. He walked away from the crash with a few stitches and a lot of unanswered questions.
Chatterjee has confessed he had drinks but says he was not intoxicated that night. He has claimed the car was not going at 120 kmph as some had claimed but 60-70 kmph. He has refused to comment on what happened to cause it to lose control and ram into a jewellery shop. And he wishes he had died, not Sonika Singh Chauhan. But not surprisingly whether or not Chatterjee was actually intoxicated, this has quickly become another story of Driving While Drunk (and Rich/Famous/Privileged).
Some wonder why #JusticeForSonika is needed. She was not some hapless person sleeping on the pavement in the way of an out-of-control car.
Some wonder why #JusticeForSonika is needed. She was not some hapless person sleeping on the pavement in the way of an out-of-control car. She was someone who willingly got into the car with Chatterjee. It was her choice after all. But that misses the point. The responsibility ultimately lies with the person accused of drunk driving. The buck stops there. Even Chatterjee admits that. "I was in the driver's seat," he says unlike a certain Bollywood superstar.
But there's another reason #JusticeForSonika is trending. This kind of story happens all too often. What's also distressingly familiar is what happens after it breaks. We have all read about what happened with Salman Khan, lawyer Janhavi Gadkar and Sanjeev Nanda, the industrialist scion whose BMW crashed through a police checkpoint, killing six. These are not just stories of driving under influence. These inevitably become stories of how the rich and the powerful, the VIP and the minor celebrity all rely on immunity that comes with their status.
Phone calls are made. Police move slowly. Bail comes quickly. Witnesses disappear. Cases move glacially with adjournment after adjournment. That fear is the real impetus for #JusticeForSonika.
For sure Vikram is innocent until proven guilty. Some of the channels triumphantly claim that their relentless journalism has forced him to admit he has drunk that night though he has only admitted to having drinks which is not the same as being intoxicated. But watching that drama just reminds us again and again of Salman Khan calmly claiming he only drank water at the bar.
Salman Khan said he was neither drunk nor driving. Vikram says he was neither drunk nor speeding recklessly. It all starts sounding eerily familiar.
That, despite alcohol beyond the permissible limit showing up in his blood, even 12 hours after the accident, when the blood test was eventually done. Khan said he was neither drunk nor driving. Vikram says he was neither drunk nor speeding recklessly. It all starts sounding eerily familiar.
But what is more aggravating each and every time is how the system aids and abets the powerful or even the semi-powerful. The courts stayed open late to allow Salman Khan to get bail after the initial conviction. In this case, Vikram got bail for Rs 1000. The police finally sent his blood for testing some six days after the tragedy. As a forensics expert said on 24 Hours television, now thanks to the delay, questions can be raised about the reliability of the results, of the way the blood was stored. Salman Khan too blamed the procedure for examination of his blood as faulty after it showed alcohol content.
Instead of establishing or disproving a simple case of drunk driving, we get a political battle. The BJP has jumped into the action wondering if higher-ups in Trinamool are shielding Vikram. "Why are the police going so slow with the probe?" asks actor and BJP leader Rupa Ganguly.
"Why did so many important people close to the state government help Vikram get bail?". A rally for Sonika Singh Chauhan becomes a demand for West Bengal to become an alcohol-free state according to my Whatsapp forward. The problem of drunk driving cannot be underestimated. Johnson J Edayaranmula, then executive director of the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, claimed that in a country where 1.2 lakh people are killed in road accidents, a sizeable proportion is due to drunk driving.
A study in Kerala, he says, found that 57% of those who came into prison did so because of a crime committed under the influence of alcohol.
But the problem is not alcohol as much as a law apparatus that's willing to bend the law for the high and mighty, the powerful and connected.
But the problem is not alcohol as much as a law apparatus that's willing to bend the law for the high and mighty, the powerful and connected. The problem is the confidence that you can drink, drive and if anything happens, you can still get away with it.
Too often they do. Khan was eventually acquitted of all charges after being sentenced to five years in prison. Nanda was acquitted and then re-tried but had his prison sentence reduced and was sentenced to community work. Jahnavi Gadkar got her car and license back in December 2015 before it was revoked in January 2016. Vikram Chatterjee is back to shooting for Ichhe Nodi.
The soap has already changed its storyline to reflect the new reality. "In the script, someone would break the news that Anurag had had an accident. While the car was found, he was untraceable," said scriptwriter Leena Gangopadhyay. Soon Anurag will return with a bandage around his head, reality colliding with fiction. But one thing is for sure, there will be no mention of a Sonika Singh Chauhan found dead in that car. Nor will there be a whiff of alcohol anywhere. In Ichhe Nodi, the hero, as always, will be above reproach.
But the anger over the death of Sonika Singh Chauhan is less about the gap between reel and reality. It's about the growing fear that yet again, the system could fail the breathalyzer test for one law for everybody.