'I'm sorry we've come to this': Perfumer's murder reiterates the dangers faced by women living alone

The killing of Monika Ghurde in Goa last week has also sparked a discussion on other crimes against women that the state has failed to prosecute effectively.

The funeral of 39-year-old perfumer and photographer Monika Ghurde at the Santa Inez cremation ground in the Goan capital of Panjim on Sunday was a somber affair. Attended by her mother, brother, and former husband along with about 40 of her closest friends, Ghurde’s last rites were carried out according to the Hindu tradition. Each mourner took their time to say their goodbyes, shaking with silent grief as her body was placed on the pyre.

On the same day, the police apprehended a suspect for Ghurde’s murder, a former watchman at the victim's building whom they traced to Bengaluru, through her stolen cellphone and ATM card. The man, Raj Kumar Singh, had reportedly used Ghurde’s ATM card at several locations in the week following the discovery of her body in her home in the village of Sangolda on October 7.

According to the police, the former security guard had long held a grudge against Ghurde, because she once reported a petty theft he was responsible for, leading to him losing his job.

The manner in which Ghurde was killed has sent many in Goa spiraling into shock. Ghurde, who was born in Kanpur, paused her career as a graphic designer and photographer to research perfumes and create scents full time. Ghurde lived alone in Sangolda, and was well-known and liked both by locals as well as Goa’s semi-permanent tribe of visiting writers, photographers, artists and designers, who move to the state for a few months a year to seek respite from Delhi and Mumbai.

Fears about safety

The initial disbelief and outrage at Ghurde's murder has steadily turned into a seething reflection on the safety of Indian women. Though many Goans believe that their home state is one of the safest places to live in India, the state’s administrative measures to ensure the safety of women, such as flooding beaches and markets with surveillance cameras, are token gestures at best. “India has finally caught up with Goa," one Facebook user lamented, implying that the violence against women prevalent in many other parts of the country had finally crept into the state.

Other social media users discussed instances where the assault and murders of women have been grossly mismanaged by law enforcement authorities, comparing Ghurde’s death to the rape and murder of British teenager Scarlett Keeling, whose body was discovered on Anjuna Beach in 2008. Her alleged assailants were acquitted in September this year, after a lax investigation, and long-drawn trial. Others drew attention to the death in 2010 of Denise Sweeney, another young British woman who died under mysterious circumstances, with Goan authorities extending little help to her family and the coroner investigating the incident.

“The failure of the criminal justice system to punish countless perpetrators of crimes against children and women in the last decade has opened Goa up to the entry of violent perverts who know there is a slim chance of them ever facing punishment for their actions,” one Facebook user wrote.

Apart from the fact that Keeling, Sweeney and Ghurde all died in Goa, though, the circumstances of their deaths have little in common. If Ghurde was in fact killed by her ex-watchman, as the police have reportedly revealed, the crime bears similarities to another murder in Mumbai – that in 2012 of a lawyer name Pallavi Purkayastha.

Purkayastha was alone in her Mumbai flat when her security guard Sajjad Mughal tripped the power supply to her home, stole the keys to her home as he accompanied an electrician to seemingly repair the problem, and returned later that night to sexually assault her. When she fought him off, he killed Purkayastha with a knife.

Despite the fact that the man had allegedly told friends he was planning to rape Purkayastha, no one reported him to the police, or even the society’s security management team. After the crime, investigators discovered that the security firm that had first sent Mughal to Purkayastha’s housing society, had not conducted any background checks on him, and did not even have his complete address. At the trial, the judge said, “Sixteen times stabbing is cruelty but not extreme cruelty.” Recently, the former watchman escaped prison while on parole.

Lurid details

This lax attitude towards women’s safety, seen in the context of other stalking-related deaths in India’s capital and elsewhere, makes it quite apparent apparent that “violent perverts” are no more drawn to Goa, than to any other city or village.

Among the many status updates expressing distress at the death of Ghurde, a sentiment of bitterness towards the callousness of the media coverage and its graphic description of the victim’s physical condition was recurring. Many strongly expressed their horror at the details being fed to the press by anonymous sources and neighbours, from the brutal signs of assault on the victim to the state her apartment was found in, to her relationship with her former partner.

In Ghurde’s case, it is possible that the investigation will be carried out with minimal bungles, given the growing media attention surrounding her death. However, placing the Goa Police under national scrutiny, could also mean that investigators are under pressure to dispense with her case as soon as possible, to preserve Goa’s reputation as a tourist haven, while peak travel season approaches.

But rather than being an attack on Goa, Ghurde’s death delivers a blow to the hard-won freedom that Indian women rarely get to enjoy, simply being able to be safe in one’s own home. Conversations following Ghurde’s death have brought to light once again just how difficult it is to be a single woman in India.

As a friend of Ghurde’s posted on social media, “I appeal to all my women friends, especially those living alone, to be extra vigilant and alert. Follow your gut about shady situations or people lurking around. Live with a dog (or two). Be extra careful when out or alone at home and make sure you have friends to back you up and check up on you regularly. I’m sorry we’ve come to this.”

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