Is there anything left to be said about the Aarushi-Hemraj double murder case of 2008? It would seem so. For this year alone there have been three mainstream-media efforts to bring back the case into the public consciousness. At the beginning of the year, there was ‘Rahasya’, which took the sensationalistic route – adultery, adopted daughter, and finally, guilty parent. It, perhaps not surprisingly in retrospect, didn’t too well (though it had a fine performance from KK as the investigating officer). Then, on October 2, as if indicative of its moral-worthiness, we had the Vishal Bhardwaj-produced, Meghna Gulzar-helmed ‘Talvar’ releasing. Fictionalised to an extent, and featuring some fine names, the astutely-made Talvar has gone a good extent in reopening discussion on the case. And now we have journalist Avirook Sen’s book.
Avirook closely reported on the trial (which began in May 2012 and concluded in September 2013, with the Talwars’s conviction and sentence of rigorous life imprisonment), but followed it up even after. He’s now crystallized all of that reporting into the book. And put his mind, heart, soul and belief into it. For somewhere, like ‘Talvar’, and like many rational-minded people, he too found the final decision sticking in his throat more than that khukri or scalpel or whatever.
He goes about the onerous mission he’s set himself very soundly. He sets up the book with the acumen of a feted architect. Before the first chapter, he devotes pages to first the cast of characters (the main people involved in the case, right from the deceased to the convicted to the other accused to the witnesses to the lawyers to the experts). Then, he lists the timeline of events. Next, he provides the blueprint of the Talwar flat, the book now beginning to sound like a play (and wasn’t the case?). And finally provides the raison d’etre for the book in the introduction… When Rakesh Sharma went to space in the early 1980s, the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, asked him what India looked like from up there. Sharma’s response was memorable: Saare jahan se achha (better than all the world). This book is about what it looks like from the ground.
Avirook builds on the solid foundation he’s laid at the beginning throughout the three chapters, layering them with significant details, pertinent questions and counter-questions, poignant observations, heart-rending accounts, and even sideline notes of inanimate objects (the accused person’s stand in the Ghaziabad court that seems to be on its last legs), lending some succour to the spirit-leeching narrative. But his masterstroke is the background sketches of the key people involved in the case, allowing peeks into their lives and perhaps their souls. (He seems to borrow on what Rushdie and Marquez have done in their classics – ‘Midnight’s Children’ and ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ respectively – to understand someone or something better, especially their motivations, it’s necessary to understand their background.)
Chapter 1, The Investigation, recounting that by the three teams (the UP police and then the two CBI teams), grips you early on and doesn’t let go till its end. You are taken back to the days of the reporting on the case, feeling the same kind of involvement, though in a telescoped timeline. And thanks to Avirook’s detailing and writing, you now feel one step closer – as if you were a part of the investigating team, a neighbour, or a CCTV camera in the Talwar house. The emotional intensity festers and keeps rising, reaches a crescendo – you feel like you’re pulled in and spinning in the vortex along with the dentist couple – and then crashes with the decision of the magistrate to not accept the closure report but send the case to court.
In between is one of the most heart-wrenching narratives ever accounted, so searing it could only have been fact and not fiction. All undertrials would be taken to court handcuffed in the same vehicle. As if this wasn’t uncomfortable enough for Rajesh Talwar, one day, he found himself handcuffed to/with Krishna, the main accused by the first CBI team. When pleading against this (with the writhing “Don’t do this. This man has killed my daughter.”), the police only replied, “We have just one pair of handcuffs.”
You somehow recover from that and reach the end of the chapter. Where there are two special post-script pages, along with photos, of the case of the “erroneously numbered” pillow and pillow cover. You somehow feel you can’t recover from this one.
The chapter also proffers a telling portrayal of the second CBI team’s investigating officer, A. G. L. Kaul – he had corruption charges against him in the past. Truth is stranger than fiction, you shake your head.
If Chapter 1 is a logical and psychological rollercoaster, Chapter 2, The Trial, takes you in only one direction: down. Page after page, account after account, as the Talwars run from one court to another (for various appeals and petitions, including bail for Nupur) and finally as Rajesh waits during the defence lawyer’s closing arguments with countless duffel bags of documents to provide to the judge if asked, you slowly begin seeing the writing on the wall: Guilty. Rigorous life imprisonment. Your heavy heart looks for a silver lining: at least the court did not pronounce the death sentence (which the second CBI team asked for). Cruel as it may sound in this case, there may be a god after all.
Chapter 2’s sketches, perhaps to counter the impending miserable outcome, are more humanistic. A luminous one is that of the defence criminal lawyer, Tanveer Ahmed Mir, which talks about his robust voice, how an incident from his youth spurred him toward criminal law, how he felt this was a “beautiful case” as it had “acquittal written all over it”, and yet how his “greatest failing” was that he could not get the trial pushed to after the judge’s retirement.
And then you have the mother of all background stories, of Bharti Mandal, the Talwars’s house-help during the time of the murders. Avirook visits the basti where she lives; it’s a maze where he loses his way until her husband comes to his help. He looks at the squalor amidst which they stay, but which they feel is better than the distant West Bengal village from which they hail. You learn how Bharti was only a stand-by: she had been working with the Talwars as a sub for only seven days during their regular maid’s leave. And this was the woman on whom a key part of the testimony, and eventual conviction, rested. Bharti said in court right at the beginning of her deposition, “I’m just saying what I’ve been coached to say (by the CBI team).” Later, when inquired by Avirook, she admits not realizing that the testimony she gave went toward incriminating the Talwars. You don’t know which of her two statements sounds more crushing.
But Avirook leaves the most chilling portrayal for the last. Chapter 3, Dasna Diaries, recounts two years of the Talwars in Dasna Jail, by which time they’ve become “veterans” (Nupur’s words) and seen a complete switch of personalities – Rajesh, the softie of earlier who beseeched with “I couldn’t even put a needle in her (Aarushi’s) mouth during dental work”, seems to have become the strong one and Nupur (whose biggest crime it would seem was not crying “like a mother who’s lost her only daughter under gruesome circumstances” on national TV) the crushed one. The diary is one that Rajesh penned during the initial days of imprisonment “to make sense of everything”, which he eventually gives to Avirook. Sen publishes excerpts of it in the book. But goes beyond. He now includes follow-up-portrayals, what happened to the various cast of characters, thus lending symmetry to the book. You feel some justice delivered finally when you learn Kaul died of a heart attack. And then Avirook visits the judge’s house.
Judge Shyam Lal, known as Saza Lal (Punishment Lal, as he was known to convict in most of his judgments), had aimed the case to finish before his retirement day: he pronounced the verdict four days before his last day. During his visit, Avirook comes to learn about the judge’s life-long fascination, or aspiration, for English. A fascination that found its way into the stuffy-sounding 201-page verdict that the judge delivered: ‘who have been arraigned for committing and secreting as also deracinating the evidence of commission of the murder of their own adolescent daughter—a beaut damsel and sole heiress…’ He wrote it along with his son. When Avirook comes to know this, he asks the son some details, and then making calculations, slowly makes this realization, deadpan: Lal and his son had started writing the verdict before the defence team had started making its closing argument. The handcuffs’ incident pales in comparison.
But Avirook is not done yet. At the very end, he proceeds, or attempts, to answer the question a nation, and a couple, wrung all its neurons over: who did it? He features excerpts of the transcripts of the various scientific tests of the domestic helps. You are left wondering: how can anyone make any other conclusion from this? And left asking for one more follow-up portrayal: that of the domestic helps. But who knows which part of the world they’d be in by now after being allowed to go scot-free?
With the quality and depth, sincerity and sensibility Avirook puts in, the book is a supreme effort. So much so that, especially knowing the reportage given to this case, you just might forget that Avirook is a very good writer. Though for once, the writer may not mind the attention going to the subject(s). Or the injustice they were caused.
Hope you’re in a better place, Aarushi. For your parents though, it’s been quite the opposite.