Friday, April 01, 2016

Aarushi - Avirook Sen: Book Review

I picked up this book only after I got to know it was non-fiction: a journalistic account of the Aarushi case. Even so, I began reading with some trepidation; after all there were many a$$holes (pardon my samskruta) who had pulled out opinions from their backsides and presented it all as “facts”.  Thankfully, Avirook Sen, the author, categorically states that he presents no answers; he’s not written this book with the intent of solving the crime, or in order to dish out theories. He simply presents the case facts to which he’s had first-hand access: notes from the trial, post-mortem reports, forensic lab reports,  legal evidence presented both by the prosecution and defence, and interviews he’s conducted with various stakeholders of the case.

Having said that, the book is not some kind of a case diary, coldly and chronologically listing dates and events. Sen balances reportage and emotional content, without overdoing either. Not all readers agree though. Some have harshly criticised Sen for losing his neutral perspective and coming across as pro-Talwars. I don’t blame him – as the book progresses, the harsher details of the “investigation” conducted (for want of a better verb) both by the CBI and the police beggars belief.  If you are looking for examples of epic clusterfucks, this is it. I wouldn’t term it as being pro-Talwars, in so much as being gobsmacked at the sheer vindictiveness and collapse of the system.

A quick recap – Fourteen year old Aarushi Talwar was found dead in her room on the morning of May 16th, 2008. She had two savage wounds – a blow to her skull and a slit across her throat. The first post-mortem report ruled out sexual violence, and the injury to her head was pinned as the cause of her death. The injury to the throat was inflicted after her death. The initial suspect was Hemraj, the Talwars’ domestic help. However, his body was discovered on May 17th, on the terrace of Talwars’ home. His wounds were identical to that of Aarushi’s.

Sen has cleverly blended standard-issue fiction narrative style into a non-fiction account, elevating the pitch of the book from a mere repository of facts to something with emotional resonance. He carefully narrates details of the places he visits and gives engaging character sketches of the person he’s speaking with – mannerisms, location, language. He has been criticised for this “flaw” too, and some reviews have chastised his obsession with accents. For example, describing his meeting with Dr Mohapatra, a CFSL scientist and a prosecution witness for the CBI, Sen goes on to recount –
“At lunchtime one day I found Mohapatra sitting unaccompanied in the courtroom, minding two large folders on a table in front. He was a short, spectacled man, with a thick Odiya accent that sometimes confused people from the north (‘blood’, for instance, would become ‘blawed’).”

The point is, there are so many people involved in this case, and each one of them, be it a witness, an investigator or a lawyer, have contributed in their own way to this train-wreck. Sure, Sen could have simply listed out the names, but that will not engage the reader. These brief character sketches help us connect better with the flow of events and the people involved.

The book is unpalatable in that it exposes the ground reality of our judicial and investigative systems. Sen, like a blood hound, ferrets out nuggets of information that have never been revealed before. For example, the first investigating officer in this case, Sub Inspector Dattaram Nanoria was himself a convict in a custodial death case. He had served time in prison and was out on bail. Similarly, Sub Inspector Bachu Singh, who wrote the panchnamas for both the murders, was himself a murderer by then, having killed a woman in Mathura, his hometown.

Why are these details important? Because these highlight the cracks...craters our system. What sort of integrity can one expect when the investigating officer himself is a convict? What sort of sensitivity can one expect from a murderer? No wonder, this callousness is reflected all through the case. For someone who has already murdered a woman, what difference does it make to see another dead girl?

It also brings out the despicable working conditions of the police, especially in homicide cases. They have no sanitised protection from the scene itself.  When Hemraj’s body was finally discovered 36 hours after his death, it had swollen beyond recognition, the 47 degree summer heat accelerating the putrefaction. Bodybags are for movies. Four cops took a bedsheet from the Talwars, heaved the oozing, rotting corpse into it, and had to carry it to downstairs. How does one find motivation when working conditions are so...pardon this poor pun...rotten?

If the crime itself was chilling, the progress of the case is far more frightening.  Sen’s immaculate documentation demonstrates how the whole case was constructed based on misogynistic  and class biases, and the entire system bought this charade. If Aarushi had been a boy, the sex angle would not have figured this prominently; the investigation would have taken a different turn.  The sexualisation of this case would not have reached depraved depths had Nupur Talwar fitted into the mould of a weeping Nirupa Roy, the yesteryear actress who played the quintessential Indian Ma roles. Yes, if Nupur had beaten her chest and wailed and fainted, then everyone would be convinced that she was a pavitra Ma. But she did not. Perhaps her so-called lack of emotion was simply tightly bottled up, boiling rage. Her only child had been brutally done to death. But the police and media made the child out to be a Lolita of sorts, without a shred of evidence.  Not just that, the Talwars were painted as debauched orgy participants, again without a shred of evidence. Indeed, the CBI prosecution decided, hey, if there is no hard evidence, then character assassination should do the trick. Sen reports that the CBI prosecutor, Saini, in his closing arguments in the court, narrated that after committing the murders, Rajesh Talwar consumed alcohol even as he cleaned up the crime scene (“DNA dhulta raha”). Once the cleaning was done, Rajesh and Nupur apparently watched porn for the rest of the night. Yes, you guessed it...all this narration without a shred of evidence. But here’s the other scary part - hard forensic evidence pointing to the actual perpetrators was completely ignored by the CBI. Oh. And there is this little detail of the judge writing out the judgement a month before the closing arguments – his retirement date was coming up and he had no time for deliberations. He wanted to retire with a big-bang case, and this was the ticket.

The theory of honour killing as a motive was pressed into service almost immediately after the case broke out.  There was not a single aspect of the Talwars family life that supported this notion. Parents with this mindset will not put their daughters in co-ed schools. They will not give her mobile phones. They will not allow her to meet boys. Most definitely, they will not tolerate boys calling up the home phone asking for the daughter. Or worse, they will not tolerate boys sauntering in for a chat.  They will not allow her to wear certain type of clothes. They will not allow her to use social media. The list is endless – none of this holds water in the Talwars’ case. They come across as liberal, yet grounded parents, giving importance to the child’s education.  Even otherwise, going by “reports” that the Talwars were swingers...they’d be the last people to bother about honour, is it not?!

Sen’s book offers insights into the quagmire of judicial procedures in the context of the case, without getting too preachy or academic. It shatters idealistic notions of Satyameva Jayate. Sen puts it as, “The whole truth is a luxury. In case you are looking for it, a courtroom isn’t the place either to start or end the search.” As he reports the trial, I’ve laughed out loud several times, and immediately sobered up. I had to keep reminding myself, “This is not fiction. This is not fiction.” The ridiculous answers given by so-called expert witnesses, the silence of the court in accepting these answers – it is simply mind-boggling.

At least in my case, the book left me listless. For one, there is a sick feeling in the stomach that this has gone beyond perversion of justice. Secondly, with whatever little academic exposure I’ve had to forensic psychology, I can opine that these were execution type killings, and not a crime of passion. In the latter case, there’d be multiple stab wounds, or more blunt force trauma. There’d be defence wounds on the victim. Clean cutthroat wounds are more often than not inflicted from behind, that is, the perpetrator is positioned behind the victim; there is physical contact in order to hold the victim in position to expose the throat. A good forensic pathologist, by examining the wound, can determine the point of origin, and therefore, draw an inference on the handedness of the perpetrator (right-handed or left-handed); the probable weapon used; the position of the perpetrator with respect to the victim and so on. Also, since two different weapons were used, and there was more than one victim, one wonders if the crime was premeditated. I believe there was more to the mid-night meeting between Hemraj and the killers. If this had been probed following the incriminating forensic evidence, I believe the real motive for the murders would have surfaced.

One thing is certain – this is not the first crime, nor will it be the last perpetrated by the killer. The system handed him freedom on a platter.

 © Sumana Khan - 2016

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