“I’m no sociologist”

Avirook Sen on his new book on the Aarushi-Hemraaj murder case, the Indian legal system and the urban middle-class.

July 25, 2015 04:30 pm | Updated 04:30 pm IST

Avirook Sen opens up about his book on the Aarushi murder.

Avirook Sen opens up about his book on the Aarushi murder.

Avirook Sen’s new book breaks down the Aarushi-Hemraaj murder in a way that nothing else has before. It is painstakingly detailed, informative and compact. Sen does not try to play detective; neither does he depend on guesswork and conjecture. Instead, he offers facts from important documents, recorded interviews and named sources, so that what emerges is a grim picture of both the Indian legal system and urban middle-class India. In this interview, Sen talks about what went into the writing of this book.

You were out of the country when the murders took place, and were asked to cover the trial. Why did you say yes?

The editor of Mumbai Mirror , Meenal Baghel — whom I’ve known for a long time called me — and asked me to report on the trial. She said that this would makes for a fascinating narrative. She spotted the story before I did. I wasn’t in the country initially; I was working on my first book. I thought about it and instinctively said yes. I’ve never really done a full trial before; I am not a crime reporter. But I liked the challenge and I also wanted to see how that world functioned, never having covered a full trial. The kind of thing she had in mind was not really court reporting.

What kind of narrative were you looking for?

I’ll give you an example. On the first day, the trial is supposed to begin. I landed up there expecting that things will happen. It’s a serious case, after all. And nothing happens. A group of lawyers come up and say “condolence ho gaya ”. After that, as the trial progressed and as soon as the witnesses started coming in, I saw that each of them was fascinating.

While Nupur and Rajesh Talwar have been convicted, the story isn’t over. Why a book at this point? Also, why a book at all?

Two reasons. To why now, I would have preferred a book earlier. It took me this long to put it together. And to actually get all the stuff that’s in there took time and a lot of luck. Is there a specific time for a miscarriage of justice book? Isn’t a book on that valid every day, every minute and every second?

Why a book? Because this particular case, through my eyes, tells me more about India than anything I have ever come across. It tells me about who we are; the divisions among us, our institutions and how they function in reality. It tells me about media and those who consume media. While covering the trial, every day I would learn more and more about these.

Why do you think does this case reveal so much about us?

I’m not a sociologist, but I have a theory. To the kind of people we are, including myself, the whiff of sex is a very attractive proposition, and it is fed into by the press. The whiff of illicit sex, which cuts across supposed social strata, is even more attractive. The sweet way to look at it would be the old Bollywood way — the Raja Hindustani way — where the driver runs off with the daughter and it is a romantic story. But this India is different. Why is it that we don't have that kind of a film anymore? We have turned more conservative, in that sense. That is a big change. I don’t make it explicit but that’s a feeling I got.

As middle-class Indians, we also truly dislike any interaction with the state. If something like this happens, we don’t want to get involved. You can extend this argument to how people leave a body on the ground after the accident. Your heart may be in the right place but, as middle-class Indians, we can’t handle the idea of taking this wounded or dead person to the police station and the consequences of that and how it would involve us. That’s true in this case, where some of Nupur and Rajesh Talwar’s best friends distanced themselves.

You’ve interviewed the key players in this case, including the Talwars. How difficult was it to get those interviews?

I think lot of this has to do with familiarity. If you have done a beat, for instance, you find people begging to recognise you. The writing was consistent to the process, and everyday people were reading what I wrote. By the end of it, I knew most of the players quite well. With the Talwars, I was ruthless in fact. I asked them together whether they had committed the crime. I asked whether it was possible that one of them had done it and the other didn’t know. I was very direct. I think there is some value to that.

And the process that you used to get the other information, and sift through the barrage of unverified reports?

I didn’t do anything different from what I usually do. I hang back, I don’t rush in. I keep my eyes and ears open, and I ask questions. It may be an unpopular way, and people try to get me thrown out, but I ask questions shamelessly. I also ask to get people on record. That's about it. It’s quite simple, it's what we are supposed to be doing anyway.

There is a strain running through the book that makes it seem like there was almost a vendetta against the Talwars, one that insisted on making them look guilty...

This is a question I’ve been trying to deal with, so I’ve been trying to work out of a succinct answer. It was a perfect storm, and here is what created it. An investigator who is given a brief — because of a change in guard in the CBI — to close the case. He has a track record of unscrupulous behaviour. That’s A.G.L. Kaul. You have a forensic scientist, in Dr. M.S. Dahiya, who has a track record of imagining things. Dahiya is the kind of man who will unblinkingly tell you that he can work out from photographs that there are two blood types present on the walls. To me that is anti-science. I’m not a scientist, but this much sense I have. And then you have a judge who has a track record of never acquitting. It seems like there is a conspiracy but this is how simple it is. It is a lot of bad luck

And if you leave this aside, the polarisation that this case causes is immense. Because of that, what happens is that people take default positions. At the time of the murder, the Mayawati government was under a lot of pressure because of law and order problems in that area. So she was getting flak from the centre. Now she had to defend her police force. That’s a default position. It’s not an informed position. It had nothing to do with the case.

Similarly you can explain the first team’s predilection by the same token. Using this logic, when the case goes to the department of personnel, it is part of the UPA Government. By default, it will take the position of opposing the UP police. It may well be that one of these positions is correct but they are taken by default.

How detrimental do you think the media’s coverage and public opinion was to the case?

Here’s what I think. It depends on, one, the decision by the people involved in the case — the direct players —to leak information. The other is the media’s decision to publish this information or not. The Deep Throat days are over. I think if a story is so important and so true, then the source should stand by it. For instance, there was a story about how these people had hired some rooms in a hotel. It was a big story. Then the CBI put out a denial. So if they are taking out a denial, I think it’s also the CBI's job to find the person within the organisation who said this or catch the guy who wrote this and ask him for his source. But there were so many such stories, all were forgotten.

You followed the trial right from the beginning. Considering that this was not just a mystery but also an immense tragedy, wasn’t it difficult to not get personally involved?

What I get personally involved in a lot is evidence. I love the idea of looking at it and trying to verify it; that is a pure pleasure for me. I don’t have that ambition of playing the conventional detective. But, on the other hand, while I was looking at the evidence, my eyes opened to many possibilities. I felt that I needed to communicate that through the book. I believe that there has been a miscarriage of justice based on the evidence I saw in the trial.

There have been reports that Nupur Talwar couldn’t read the book...

I met them yesterday. I don’t think that’s the case. But, look, they are in jail. Anything that reminds them of the case must be very moving and emotionally taxing. They have read the book as far as I know.

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