Investigation by podcast, one episode at a time

Ever heard a rumour about yourself?” asks journalist Nishita Jha at the start of the new podcast Trial by Error: The Aarushi Files. It’s the perfect question to start longform reportage on a case that has been discussed in every public forum possible: the nightly news, neighbourhood tea stalls, schools, kitty parties, favourite dive bars, the local train, and endless newspaper columns.

For a while, talk about the double murder that took place in Noida on the night of May 15, 2008, and the ensuing investigation was inescapable. Now, eight years and two convictions later, Trial by Error, produced by New Delhi-based film collective Jamun for Saavn and, attempts to look at the conditions and circumstances that led to one of the most sensationalised investigations in recent times.

For those living under a rock for the last decade or so, here’s what happened. On a fated mid-May morning, Nupur Talwar found her not-quite-14-year-old daughter, Aarushi, murdered in her bedroom. The Noida police was called in, and suspicion immediately fell on the Talwars’ live-in help, Hemraj Banjade, who was nowhere to be found.

The next day, investigators found Hemraj’s body on the terrace of the house, decomposing in the heat. The case suddenly became a locked-room mystery, and the police, in an inordinately short time, began suggesting the “characterless” teenager was killed by equally “characterless” parents. In the early days of 24/7 coverage and opinion TV, the idea of a teenager and a house-help killed by her parents for “getting close”, took hold of the nation’s imagination. The idea was promoted by the Noida police and the CBI, despite conflicting evidentiary findings and strong possibilities of other plausible suspects. Opinion pieces, nightly news debates, and personal Twitter and Facebook updates started taking up positions for or against the Talwars. The noise generated was deafening, and people from all walks flocked to pronounce judgment on every move made by the Talwars.

In November 2013, a special CBI court found Rajesh and Nupur Talwar guilty of the two murders.

In a country where mythologising, hyperbole and a touch of salacious govern storytelling — even if the story you’re telling is true, and perhaps not as ‘potboiler’ as you think — it’s hard to imagine a true crime story being told any other way. Every night, thousands of families across India turn on their TV sets to watch Crime Patrol, a show with possibly the hammiest true crime retelling ever.

Crime Patrol isn’t alone in this kind of storytelling. At the Wheeler and Co outlets on train platforms across the country, you’ll find hundreds of locally published “true-crime” potboilers, bordering on lascivious and often violently stereotypical and outdated. So we shouldn’t be surprised how we as a society looked at the double murder to get something sensational that fit into our regressive, repressive, entertainment-seeking outlook.

As the case unfolded, the once popular TV soap Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki included an ‘inspired’ version (which the Talwars unsuccessfully tried stopping). Last year, Bollywood gave us Rahasya and Talvar, both based on the murders. The latter, written by Vishal Bhardwaj and Meghana Gulzar, followed the confused investigation closely, and brought out the incompetent handling of the case by officers.

Around the same time, journalist Avirook Sen released his book Aarushi, detailing an investigation that served more as an indictment of the ham-handed police (in) action after the bodies were found.

Inspired by the book, (which was supported by the Talwars), Trial by Error continues to look into the case, telling us what happened with multiple voices who feel like they’re speaking directly to you. “It’s an almost inside-your-head kind of experience,” producer and co-writer Ayesha Sood says via e-mail. “It allows for a more intimate, honest exchange, as people tend to have some sort of mask on when you have lights and cameras in the room. They’re more comfortable with an unobtrusive microphone.” Perhaps it is that, or the eight years in between, but the comfort is discernible. “So what do you want to know?” asks an interviewee, before Jha begins her questions. Amongst all the people she speaks to — including Aarushi’s classmates, Rajesh Talwar’s driver Umesh, Delhi Police ex-commissioner Neeraj Kumar, and Andrei Semikhodskii, a U.K.-based DNA expert the Talwars reached out to – sound like they’re having a phone conversation with the listener. While it doesn’t have Irrfan Khan thundering at you from a screen or Konkana Sen Sharma’s acting chops to convince you, what it has is the honest conviction of the different voices that you hear.

The disbelief in the voices of Aarushi’s friends who, now as adults, are shocked that the Noida police held the idea of schoolgirl sleepovers and budding teenage romance in a sexual light. The conviction in Neeraj Kumar as he insists the investigative teams could have done no wrong given they’re training. And the exasperated tone of a Rameshpal Sirohi, who speaks of the difference between cops in Delhi and Noida when he suggests the narrow outlook of his Noida-based colleagues.

“The way the police investigated this case was shocking only because it was in Noida, and it was a case that affected people like us,” adds Jha. She references stories she has covered to illustrate how spinning stories is an unofficial part of the U.P. police’s investigative process. “I recently wrote about a case of rape and suicide in Muzaffarnagar, where the police had simply hung out with a few men in the village and decided that the woman must have had a consensual affair. This despite a long history of the woman telling her co-workers that a young man was stalking her, him harassing her in front of witnesses, and people spotting her distraught with her clothes torn and so on.”

If you regularly read the news, this really doesn’t seem hard to believe. What does, though, is the strange sort of negligence, the seemingly lackadaisical attitude the police adopted. The story that was spun, one that, almost like a conspiracy, was repeated, repeated and repeated some more till its shock quotient drowned out every other voice. It’s almost evil. Almost. It’s a conflict you have to deal with as a viewer, to look for reasons, and explanations into the whys of this system. Systems often seem daunting as they continue to work around us unseen, and place us where they need us to be. When the system in question is the police, whose job is to “catch bad guys”, we want to believe it’s that kind uncle who will keep bullies away while smiling down at us benignly.

The reality is often entirely different as so many cases and reportage tells us. The system scolds rape victims and sends battered wives back to husbands. It adheres to our worldview as it makes bad guys out of those from lower classes or castes. It acts as a blockade, between people like us, and the rest of the big bad world that is non-urban India. And then something like this happens. The strange thing the podcast does is while it shows you the system is warped, just like Sen’s book or the movie Talvar did, it also tells you why it might be so warped. It looks at the police as people, just as it looks at the domestic worker as someone with agency worth talking about. According to Jha, “the most important thing is always to break systems [like patriarchy, for instance] down to granular, individual aspects, to humanise them until they becomes more banal and less evil.”

So we hear the police. We hear from Rameshpal Sirohi as we hear from Neeraj Kumar. We hear a differing point of view, but we also hear about the different places the two come from. Kumar, a retired Police Commissioner, believes the system is working fine. Sirohi, a working officer, rues a lack of what we know as sensitivity training, for officers who enlist from villages, suggesting the system cannot be fine if the police and the people they serve aren’t on the same page.

The podcast also forces you to consider who your friendly neighbourhood policeman is. Is he from the city? Does he believe in god and does he think women who smoke are bad women? Does he know what a sleepover is? Should we even call the police if something goes wrong? And what about that forensic guy who can’t name the chemical he’s apparently been using for 20 years to collect fingerprints?

Trial by Error really is in some ways an indictment of all of us who added to the noise. Who took sides, who exchanged notes on the rumours they’d heard: swingers, you say? We heard he was just having an affair! It’s an indictment of those of us who sexualised a 13-year-old in her death, even though we knew what teenage sleepovers were about. Who thought there was no way a servant would dare drink, never mind have friends over for a party, while his employer was around, and those who thought who else could have done it but the servant, without having bothered to check the terrace.

Those who believed that of course in Uttar Pradesh it’s not so unconceivable that the father honour-killed his daughter for pursuing a relationship with their Nepali servant.

If this story exists to be retold today, it’s because our prejudices made it a constantly evolving one that looked at everything but the truth. A few months ago, NDTV Hindi anchor Ravish Kumar presented his show with a black screen, without visuals, without the frothing faces of opinion makers, only to make the nightly news cycle audience realise how they’ve been had from the start. Trial by Error intends to do this over eight episodes, each looking at the various aspects of the case, feeding in to our need to be detectives but somewhat responsibly.

Trial by Error: The Aarushi Files’s fourth episode – CBI Team 1 – will be available today at 9 pm at and the Saavn app.

The author is a freelance writer and editor

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 2:43:21 PM |

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