Thursday, August 06, 2015

Thoughts on Avirook Sen's Aarushi: In Kindle Magazine

Avirook Sen's Aarushi is a deeply disturbing book. But a must read nevertheless. It's not a book one can review, instead, here are my thoughts. In Kindle magazine here. Or see below.


Avirook Sen’s gripping account of the Noida double murders is an indictment of our justice system and our ability to think for ourselves, says Deepa Bhasthi.

Avirook Sen
Penguin Books India
Rs 199 | 312 pp

How do you begin to write about a book that crushes your soul and all its feeble hopes? How do you begin to write when anger and despair overrides any attempt you try to make to view a book with a reviewer’s clinical eye? How do you review a book that you don’t want to stop reading, but makes you dread what the next page might bring?

The answer is you can’t. You can’t write a review of a book that meticulously lists all that went wrong, fact by cold fact, not granting you reprieve in a flimsy turn of phrase, an imagination, leaving you nowhere to hide. Aarushi by Avirook Sen is explosive, devastating, crucial. I want to use exclamation marks and superlatives and all the adjectives there are. It does something to you, this book.

Everyone knows the basic facts of the case. A little girl called Aarushi Talwar, on the cusp of angst-filled identity-crisis teenage, as all teen years are meant to be, was murdered one summer night in 2008. The next day, the putrid body of the Talwars’ manservant Hemraj was found on the roof of the middle-class building they lived in. Both the murder victims had similar injuries. After a long, winding, openly flawed trial, Aarushi’s parents Drs Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were convicted of the double murders.

It was a case that divided the nation. Unlike the 2012 Delhi rape case that was (nearly) unanimously condemned across the country, every household came to its own verdict with the Talwar case. It was boom time for 24/7 news channels and Aarushi became a landmark case not just for the twists and turns it began to take during trial, but also because it was TV that pronounced the Talwars’ guilt, wholly, fantastically, completely independent of the courts. Or perhaps, to put it more fairly, the media became the medium for the message that the CBI wished to most widely disseminate. Anyone that even casually followed the case back then will remember the scintillating spectacle it became.

I didn’t follow the case much. 2008 had been a strange year for me. It was the year I got into something new, a half-hearted attempt at the conventional. Needless to say, it was a spectacular failure (this time, though, almost wholly for no fault of mine). I was swirling steadfastly in an exhausting torture chamber of my own as the case broke. What was gripping the nation, and all that it said about us as a people, had passed me by. Even in the later years, until the Talwars were convicted in 2013, the case made the papers, the only mainstream media I can bear to consume, intermittently. Gone was the vultures’ taste for old meat. My interest remained restricted to a cursory glance under the headlines, having missed the initial frenzy that might have fed an inclination to follow it more thoroughly.

Frankly, the only reason I began to read Aarushi was because of the word-of-mouth praise it was getting online. In 2015, it is harder to let a collective tizzy pass by you than it was in 2008. And so I read the book. Sen reported on the case right from the beginning and brings with him the vast insight, knowledge and expertise the complicated case requires. His investigation is thorough. What would have easily turned into a dense book choked to the brim with legalese is laid down easily for the lay reader, never once though compromising on the complicated explanations that are required of a book that examines the case so minutely.

Aarushi does not seek to solve the case or even hint at who the murderer could have been. Instead, it elucidates the blunders the investigation teams made, right from the first day. It presents a damning image of the CBI, long seen by people as a body devoid of the prejudices of the police constabulary, by detailing just how evidence was tampered with, how witnesses suddenly did a volte face and how the court chose to ignore some of the most obvious facts that would have shown the innocence of the Talwars. Along the way, the book attempts to understand why the investigating officers might have been biased against the parents, how deep-rooted belief systems and a lack of understanding, or familiarity, with urban middle-class lifestyles worked against not just the parents, but also served to present a young girl as promiscuous and “loose”.

It is with sheer horror that I read the book. At one point, I kept it aside for a day or two, unable to continue. Cecil the Lion was dead, a victim of someone’s idea of fun. Yakub Memon had hanged, under circumstances that are only another large can of worms. The world seemed bleak, even on a bright day. The book wasn’t making it any better. But I pick up the book again soon after. Aarushi is a book that you cannot put down. Yet it is the sorts that you don’t want to turn the next page of, dreading how bad it will get, page after page after page.

What does the book say about us as a people, I have wondered. The possible answers are not pleasant to admit. It talks of a nation that is largely comfortable in being told what and how to think. It is in cases such as this that you begin to fully acknowledge the reach of the idea of manufacturing consent, and the unrelenting power it holds over its consumers. Logic, rational thought, even as far as the truth is mercilessly butchered at the altar of what is convenient to the decision-making few. If this is the collective conscience, then I opt out, take my name away, I want no part in it.

Logic, rational thought, even as far as the truth is mercilessly butchered at the altar of what is convenient to the decision-making few. If this is the collective conscience, then I opt out, take my name away, I want no part in it.

The American journalist Sarah Koenig hosted a podcast called Serial in 2014 where, over 12 episodes, she probed into the murder of a high-school student, whose ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed stood convicted of killing her. She spoke to friends, teachers, family and evolved a gripping narrative into the details of the murder and Syed’s personality, and picked holes in the investigation. Millions turned investigators themselves, forums erupting everywhere to discuss the episodes and draw their own conclusions. It was the radio equivalent of the Aarushi case, albeit backed by fantastic, if rather voyeuristic, storytelling. But the podcast generated so much publicity that Syed was allowed to appeal his conviction, previously denied.

Whether Syed is guilty or not is not the point. Whether the Talwars are guilty or not, that is again not the point. Perhaps Aarushi the book will do what Serial did to Syed. Give them a fair chance.

Avirook Sen’s Aarushi is one book that is not just a must read, but also one that is essential to be read.


Vidhya K said...

Hi Deepa,
I read your review, and have to agree this book IS shocking. I’ve followed the case since the beginning; in 2008 I was half-heartedly doing a Masters in Mass Communication overseas, looking for a distraction, and missing home, and this case drew me in from day 1.
I have followed Avirook’s trial updates in the Mumbai Mirror and watched as his measured tone gave way to disgust he couldn’t hide at what he was seeing. The case presented by the UP Police/Second CBI team has never added up, and the late AGL Kaul seems to have had a Teflon-like ability to escape being held accountable for the shenanigans he worked on multiple cases.
The Talwars are headed towards an appeal where I pray they will receive a fair hearing, and are actually allowed to mount a full defense.
BTW, you write “long seen by people as a body devoid of the prejudices of the police constabulary” and I know a lot of people do feel that way, but I recommend you read “Who Owns CBI: The Naked Truth” by B.R. Lall. It is truly a political institution.

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thanks for your comment, Vidhya. And for the book recommendation, will certainly look it up. I haven't watched the news channel in a decade, so missed the madness, with the Aarushi case and the many after that. But nevertheless, the book was enough. What a horrible, horrible situation the Talwars are in. I so hope they get a fair chance.

Do come back and read more on the blog!