Twitter’s virtual angst after wife of Indian official is found dead
The unraveling of the lives of India’s celebrity couple and social-media stars Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar began last week, when the wife, Pushkar, said she had seen a series of tweets that she said proved her husband was having an affair with a Pakistani journalist.
The New York Times
NEW DELHI — He was a smooth-talking politician from South India with an international reputation from his time at the United Nations. She was a beautiful Kashmiri from the north when they met in 2009 in middle age and began a relationship partly played out in the media, and social media, glare.
Now after public allegations that he was having an affair, the woman is dead, in what a doctor called an “unnatural, sudden death.” Her husband, Shashi Tharoor, briefly checked himself into a hospital with chest pains. And Twitter is alive with virtual hand-wringing over whether the medium allowed a dangerous level of overexposure.
The unraveling of the couple’s personal lives began last week, when the wife, Sunanda Pushkar, was quoted as saying she had seen a series of tweets that she said proved Tharoor was romantically involved with a Pakistani journalist.
She posted those Twitter messages publicly in an attempt to show the Lahore-based journalist was “stalking” him. Days later, on Friday, he reported finding her dead in a hotel bed.
On Saturday, Sudhir Gupta, one of the doctors who performed an autopsy, said: “There were certain injury marks on the body, but we can’t divulge details at this point.” He ruled out poisoning and said it would take several days to determine the cause of death.
The death of Pushkar, 52, stunned many in Delhi’s journalistic and political circles, many of whom had followed the twists in her life since she met Tharoor, a high-profile member of the governing Indian National Congress Party.
Married twice before herself, she became his third wife in 2010 after a scandal that led to his resigning a top post in India’s Foreign Ministry. The scandal centered on accusations that he had used his official influence to help her get an ownership stake in a franchise in India’s cricket league. He denied any financial wrongdoing, and the two of them — both prolific users of social media — later turned to Twitter and the media to discuss their relationship.
He called her “priceless,” leading to some ridicule for his public display of affection. She then told a TV interviewer: “Shashi and I show our love with PDA.”
On Wednesday, Pushkar, who seemed to have gained access to her husband’s Twitter account, began posting messages that she said he had received from the Pakistani journalist. One said the sender was “in love with you, irrevocably, irreversibly.”
Tharoor, who serves as India’s human-resources minister, is one of the best-known members of the ruling party. His high profile also has made him fodder for tabloids, which have labeled him “Minister Twitter” due to his fondness for social media. He has more than 2 million followers.
The drama between Pushkar and Tharoor, 57, was covered heavily on India’s 24-hour news channels. In interviews, Pushkar sounded despondent and sometimes dazed.
She told The Indian Express, a popular newspaper, that her husband had been engaged in a “rip-roaring affair” since April, and that she planned to look into a divorce.
“That woman pursued and pursued him,” she was quoted as saying. “Men are stupid anyways.” She then added: “For all you know she is a Pakistani agent. Where’s love, where’s loyalty in this world?”
The journalist, Mehr Tarar, denied having an intimate relationship with Tharoor, and responded on her own Twitter account: “I am not an ISI agent,” referring to Pakistan’s main spy agency. “Or CIA. Or Mossad. Or even the dead KGB. May I go now?”
The next day, Pushkar and Tharoor issued a joint statement playing down the episode.
“We are happily married and intend to remain that way. Sunanda has been ill and hospitalized this week and is seeking to rest,” they said. The statement also vaguely suggested that the messages in question from their accounts had been “unauthorized.”
He returned from a major gathering of the Congress Party Friday to a suite at the five-star Leela Hotel in Delhi, where he found his wife dead, fully clothed and lying on the bed, said Abinav Kumar, his personal secretary. He said there were no signs of foul play.
Tharoor, formerly a top U.N. official, was one of the first politicians in India to use Twitter. He infuriated many Hindus in 2009, when he sent a message describing traveling in coach on an airplane as “cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows.” Hindus revere the cow, and the tweet almost cost him his political career.
A prolific author, the London-born Tharoor served for nearly three decades at the United Nations, eventually becoming undersecretary-general for communications and public information.
In 2007, he lost to South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon for the U.N.’s top post. He was later reported to be on the short list of candidates for dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, but withdrew at the last minute. He returned to India and in 2009 was elected to Parliament from the southern city of Thiruvananthapuram.
On Friday night, the name Sunanda Pushkar was being discussed in the media and trending on Twitter as people posted messages conveying shock and sadness over her death, with many commenting on the role the social media had played in her last days.
Suhel Seth, a public-relations specialist and a friend of the couple, said on TV that Twitter had caused the “decline of many” and that now it had led to the “demise of a very, very fine human being.”
Tarar, whom Pushkar had accused of pursuing her husband, wrote about the announcement of her death on Twitter: “I just woke up and read this. I’m absolutely shocked. This is too awful for words. So tragic I don’t know what to say. Rest in peace, Sunanda.”