The kitchen is not such an innocent place: A reality Keralites have opened their eyes to this week in their living rooms beaming with leering headlines and high-voltage reportage from local cable news channels chasing almost one single story round-the-clock.
On Saturday, police investigators in Kerala said they believe that they can attribute six murders in a family during the past 17 years to one woman— a 47-year-old housewife, Jolly Joseph. She was married to a family in Koodathai, a suburb outside small Kerala’s beach town Calicut. Until the police exhumed the dead bodies on Friday and reopened the cases, Jolly was leading a rather respectable life pretending to be a college professor at the town’s National Institute of Technology. But over the years, she has apparently poisoned her close relatives with cyanide in their kitchens, in order to pocket their property and a lover.
To the residents of the state who are alien to the presence of a serial killer among them, Jolly has shocked as well as opened a window on reality— one that breaks many cultural myths. Jolly maybe an extreme representation, but experts say her behaviour grounds some realities about women and crime in the broader society and culture, for which all are responsible in the country's most literate state.
“Here is a middle class, religious, housewife. It is how almost all women in Kerala represent themselves to the world. There cannot be a more picture-perfect example of a typical ‘Kulasthree’ (local usage for a good girl). And she has turned out to be a serial killer," said J. Devika, a writer and associate professor of gender studies at a Kerala-based research institute Centre for Development Studies. "The men are effectively shocked, as they usually see feminists as problem-creators in Kerala, like seen during the Sabarimala protest. You might recall that recently there was even a ‘Pishachini Mukthi Pooja" to ward off the evil of feminism."
It is also interesting to note that the primary motives behind the murders were financial power, lust, selfishness, envy, anger or rage— in other words, easily what many women are deprived of, Devika added.
“Communities, where women receive any serious inheritance, are so rare here. It happened to be the Christian community here, where despite a landmark Supreme Court judgment like the Mary Roy case allowing women to claim the inheritance, the reality is starkly opposite. Same with the case of sexual freedom. If they claim those things, they will lose social membership," said Devika.
The case also holds a mirror to the state’s popular cultural discourse on crime. In Malayalam movies, such serial killers are typically seen as men, a perversity born from a society obsessed with men as protagonists, according to film critic Neelima Menon. The chances of women being a hardened criminal rather than a victim in the movies are distant, she added, and when they do, they are shown to have been motivated by the vulnerability, or under the bad influence of mobile phones or social media, rather than the primitive instincts as it happens to men.
The case also rattles the cultural myth that older people are well protected within the care and love of closely-bonded families. The truth is that there is an increasing number of older Keralites who live alone, some despite having relatively wealthier family members overseas, and are heavily vulnerable to crime, said a former chief secretary of Kerala, Jiji Thompson, in an earlier interview. The proportion of those who are aged 60 and above increased from 6% in 1961 to 13% in 2011, as per the census. He said that he was so pained by seeing the sheer number of elderly people leading a lonely life in Kerala, that he is working to open a free-of-cost elder care home in every district.
“Her victims are also instructive. She is said to have killed her husband, her lover’s former wife and children to get to a relationship with the lover. In a sense, she was clearing the way for a respectable way of life. She may be a monster but we cannot overlook the context where many many jollies can be produced," said Devika.