Letter from India: Murder and the Wealth Gap

In his latest "Letter from India," NPR's Philip Reeves explains how the wealth gap plays into India's obsession with murder — both fictional and real.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We get letters periodically from our correspondent in New Delhi. Here's the latest, sent from Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES: Indians love a juicy murder mystery. The novels of Agatha Christie sell surprisingly well here. You can hear Sherlock Holmes stories on state-run radio translated into Hindi. Few Bollywood movies are complete without a corpse or two, their lives cut short by breathtaking acts of skullduggery.

Real life murders sell even better. Rarely a week passes without India's TV news channels and newspapers pouncing eagerly on an unusual homicide.

A couple of these are burned into my memory. There's the general and his wife who a few years back were bludgeoned to death. The murder weapon turned out to be the general's ornamental elephant tusks.

There's the rich and elderly aunt found stuffed in a box and covered with salt. The body of her nephew was in a suitcase under the bed.

Indians follow such sagas closely, horrified but transfixed. Many other people in many other places would do the same. Yet there is a difference here. The motives that really appeal to the media in India are not just exotic and gruesome, they also play on a fear. A fear that exists among the haves about the perceived threat posed by the have-nots.

The wider the gap between the rich and poor yawns in this booming nation, the stronger that fear is becoming. Those two killings I've just mentioned were both blamed on the servants of the victims. Anyone with money in India, including the middle class, usually employs servants. Some of these servants work shockingly long hours for appalling low wages.

When a murder is committed in the home, they're often blamed, whether guilty or not. Sometimes, of course, they're not the culprits. In fact it's rare for servants to kill their employers.

The big murder story obsessing Delhi at the moment is about the 14-year-old daughter of two well-known dentists. When her body was found in a prosperous New Town outside Delhi, the cops immediately blamed the Nepali servant. They even circulated his photo. That version stuck for a full news cycle. It turned out investigators didn't bother to look on the terrace a few yards from the dead girl, where the servant also lay dead.

This was a huge embarrassment for the authorities. But perhaps some good will come of it. Perhaps now India's police won't be so quick automatically to lay the blame on the easiest target, the poor and powerless.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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