Journalism has undergone massive changes after the digital boom in India. Video journalism, backed up by social media, has created a space where the relevance of the old rules is slowly diminishing. The old model had journalists focusing on careful, research-base chronicling and the patient chasing of stories. This has gradually been replaced by a culture of real time, breaking news stories coupled with aggressive analyses in the form of opinion-based content. While one may argue that this has, to an extent, diluted the quality of journalism, it cannot be denied that it has also resulted in a democratisation of media space that has gripped the national consciousness. It is in this context, especially, that I feel Aarushi, Avirook Sen's second book, is an important and timely one: to an extent, it combines the virtues of both the old and the new models of journalism.
Sen's gaze is that of a seasoned and perceptive researcher. He patiently sifts through the documents of the case, a significant volume of criminal files, by any standard. The book raises a series of questions on the investigation. By the end of the narrative, one realises that the manner in which the Aarushi case was hastily finished by the police is unfortunately representative of the police and the legal system of our country. Perhaps the most admirable thing about Sen's endeavour is his never-say-never approach, a must when you have to chase a story set in the murky suburbs of Noida. It is as enthralling for readers as it is inspiring for budding journalists.
Aarushi is written in a gripping style, quite reminiscent of a crime thriller. Sen maintains a remarkable restraint throughout: he does not overly dramatise the story, which is the right call because of the highly volatile media attention that this case has received. At the same time, not a single page in this book compromises readability. This is easier said than done. Here, for instance, he provides us with a small but revealing sketch of Dr B.K. Mohapatra, one of the CFSL scientists who conducted DNA tests on the evidence collected from the crime scene.
"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'). He looked simple, and so were his concerns. As I sat next to him, he complained about the unpleasant extended summer, and the long waits in court. He then said it must be very hard work for reporters as well. He had seen us standing at the courtroom's door all day because we weren't allowed in. I mumbled something about everyone having to do a job, when he asked me: 'Do you get TA/DA?' I told him we didn't, but he was entitled to allowances, surely. He nodded, and I thought how the government had taken over the scientist in Mohapatra."
Sen maintains a remarkable restraint throughout: he does not overly dramatise the story, which is the right call because of the highly volatile media attention that this case has received.
In recent years, books like Dilip D'Souza's The Curious Case of Binayak Sen, Chander Suta Dogra's Manoj and Babli: A Hate Story and Ritu Sarin's The Assassination of India Gandhi have given Indian investigative writing a shot in the arm. These books aim to provide some kind of closure to the respective criminal cases they tackle, while pointing a finger at the system. However, books like these also run the risk of losing objectivity due to ideological fervor, in some cases.
Aarushi, when seen within this larger trend, appears as a text striving to make a statement by not just telling an untold story but also trying to establish readers' connection with this kind of writing. So while the book bares the futility and the exasperation of a grimly ambitious legal and social system in India, it is also highly conscious of its literary ambitions; at places, the overall tenor of the book approaches Agatha Christie territory. By doing so, Sen walks a tightrope.
But Sen is no stranger to this style: even his debut book, Looking For America, took quite a few risks with its all-or-nothing style. It had its share of detractors that criticised it for its alleged sensationalism. The uniqueness of Aarushi lies in engaging with this concern headlong. Sen rebukes the insensitive reportage of the Aarushi murder by most mainstream media houses. And he does it like an old school journalist should: by not offering judgment or analysis but leaving enough cues and facts to build an argument. For instance, the section about the narco-analysis (commonly known as the "lie detector" tests) speaks volumes.
"As the story panned out, the Talwars' undisputed presence in the flat that night burdened them with having to not just plead their innocence, but also answer the question 'If you didn't do it, who did?'
They did not know. In fact, investigators knew much more than them; the CBI had enough material to, at the very least, form a plausible alternative hypothesis. This is the material they hid from the Talwars, and prevented from being brought on the record in court.
This material was gathered by investigators in the months of June and July 2008. They are the reports of the scientific tests on the three servants. A few fragments were leaked in 2008, but once AGL Kaul took over, they were just buried."
While chronicling the various gaps in the CBI's final narrative of the case, while explaining the profile of the households which interrogate the case — Talwar's family, relatives and friends, household helps and the government machinery, which ought to help in dire situations — the author all but accomplishes what sociologists and social scientists would aim for in a detailed academic paper. Barring a few editorial overlooks, Aarushi is a highly recommended read.