Any tittering in elite circles of India about the scandalous affair between the handsome human resources minister, Shashi Tharoor, and a beautiful young Pakistani journalist called Mehr Tarar must be silenced now. For the wronged wife, 52-year-old businesswoman Sunanda Pushkar, retreated to a luxury hotel and was found dead the following evening. This followed an extraordinary cat fight between the women on Twitter and denials by the now widowed husband.
Only last Thursday, the day before his wife’s death, Dr Tharoor issued a statement claiming the marriage was happy but that Ms Pushkar was ill and had been “hospitalised this week and seeking to rest”. He promised to “atone” – but now she is dead.
More than 4,000 air miles away, France’s de facto First Lady, Valérie Trierweiler, is still in hospital having taken “one pill too many” on having discovered what French A-list circles already knew – that President Hollande has been having a long affair with a beautiful younger actress called Julie Gayet. Newspaper columns have buzzed with Valerie’s unpopularity, her love of the trappings of office, the hubris of the maitresse who broke up his common-law marriage to Ségolène Royal (hurting his four children) and then pays the price …. And so on. At times, the schadenfreude has seemed repellent. It may be human nature to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, but that does not make it any more pleasant than knitting and cackling at the foot of the guillotine.
Apparently François Hollande sent Trierweiler “flowers and chocolates” but was prevented by the doctors from visiting because of her acute “psychological distress”. But one day soon the couple will have to talk and make decisions, and the torment will be doubled because this everyday drama of illicit sex, jealousy, rage, sorrow and (we hope) guilt will necessarily continue to be played out in public. There is no escape for politicians, actors, well-known television personalities or other powerful people caught in flagrante, and therefore no merciful privacy for their families.
Infidelity is ancient and universal, and so is the ordinary agony of humiliation and loss that usually follows. The revelation of an affair causes huge distress to a spouse and any children, and the ripples spread out to the extended family and friends. But usually no further. So spare a thought for those caught in the pitiless spotlight of fame.
One or two female columnists have showed the usual sisterly solidarity in mocking Trierweiler for scuttling off to hospital, as if this showed culpable weakness. It did not; it revealed how mental pain can have devastating physical effects, with or without medication added to the psychological stew. Would they accuse Sunandra Pushkar of being a coward, too? If you prick these women, do they not bleed? Does being beautiful, successful and rich protect you from pain? Of course not. You could say that to take your own life in order to avoid public humiliation is the ultimate act of revenge against the man who wronged you.
Now Sunandra Pushkar will not have to face what awaits Valérie Trierweiler: holding it together in public while falling apart in private. Contemplating the wreck of the life you have known (whatever the outcome) while not giving the paparazzi any glimpse of your tears. The term “putting on a brave face” is telling. A mask of Nigella Lawson-like icy composure is brutally necessary for those who have no choice but to face inevitable, perhaps prurient interest in their affairs – and affaires.
We have seen the same masks each day as the Coronation Street star William Roache arrives at court to defend charges of rape and indecent assault of underage girls. I am not thinking so much of the accused (who looks nervous, as anyone would under similar circumstances) as of his three adult children, Linus, Verity and James. They flank him like security guards, faces impassive as they run the press gauntlet before hearing the seedy, disturbing evidence.
What are they thinking? This is, of course, very different from the situation of the deceived partner, and in some ways worse. The wronged wife’s whole marriage is called into question, but for the children of a famous man on trial their very being must feel on trial, too. After all, the man in the dock is their father. The children of a famous man on trial – especially if his alleged crimes are sexual – might say they are standing by him, but that asks the question of what exactly they are supporting. My father – right or wrong? Or the ideal of the family, which has been shattered, no matter what verdict is eventually reached?
The public humiliation is theirs, as well as his. For the families of famous people exposed – whether in sexual misdemeanours or crimes – humiliation strikes at the core of who you are. You do not believe it, and then perhaps you have to believe it – and the pack of cards comes tumbling down. Meanwhile, the rest of us can afford a little pity – as well as relief that our own sins and pains can be played out in private.