Thursday, August 13, 2015

Aarushi - Avirook Sen

Avirook Sen's puts the entire story in perspective - which is the scary part - as we realise while reading the book. For the first time, I read the whole story as it unfolded, and not in small bits and pieces. What I remember about the case was how the tale twisted and turned wildly and how it was spiced by by unsubstantiated revelations of debauched activities that had somehow got bigger than the death of two people, one of whom was the supposed killers own precious daughter. Since so many experts and authorities were at work, and India's premier investigative agency, the CBI, was at work, we, the normal public, believe that they cannot all go wrong and that there must be ample evidence to convict the couple (which was finally the case - the dentist couple are in jail now). 

Avirook Sen's book reveals how we live in a fool's paradise if we think that all the experts and authorities are by themselves checks and balances to arrive at a just and fair outcome. It is not about who is guilty really. Avirook exposes the kind of unscientific reports experts present, the way the system is manipulated to show or hide evidence and more importantly the social factors that seem to be at play underneath all this show of inefficiency, ineptitude and indifference. Not to mention how we lose all our senses when it comes to any mention of sex.

Avirook is a writer and journalist who covered the trial, met the people concerned, pre and post the conviction of the Talwar couple - for murdering their only child Aarushi and their man servant Hemraj. The trial court found them guilty and their appeal is pending in the high court now. Without going deeper into the story - I will try and relate what impacted me, the story as the book says (and as I understood it).

Bharti Mandal, the temporary maid of the Talwar's (the regular one is on leave and has asked her to step in for a couple of weeks!) comes to the Talwar's home at Jalvayuvihar on the 16th of May, 2008 at 6 am. She rings the bell which is normally answered by the live-in man servant, 45 year old Hemraj from Nepal. Bharti is standing near the outer grill door which leads into a small passage. Once into the passage one encounters an outer mesh door that can be locked from the outside as well as the inside and then the inside wooden door which leads into the main house which can only be locked from the inside. The inside door is opened by Nupur Talwar, wife of Rajesh Talwar. However she finds the mesh door locked from outside. The maid goes down to find the man servant who they think may have gone down to fetch milk, but as the maid goes down she asks her mistress to throw down the latch key so she can let herself in if she does not find the man servant. She does not find him and returns soon after. Once she lets herself in she finds Nupur Talwar crying. She thinks there has been a robbery. Nupur Talwar shows her the room of her daughter, thirteen year old Aarushi. The maid finds Aarushi lying in bed, her skull split by a blow and her throat slit. The walls are splattered with blood. But next to Aarushi are her stuffed toys, seemingly clean.

Aarushi's body was found by Rajesh Talwar who woke up after Nupur, walked into the dining area, and found a bottle of his whisky two thirds consumed. Since he had not drunk any whisky the previous night he suspects foul play and opens the door to his daughter's room. He finds her murdered. The neighbours, family and friends are called, the police come and news of the murder breaks out.

Since the man servant is missing, all suspicion points to him. When Nupur tries to reach him on his phone someone picks the phone and then switches it off. There is some blood on the door leading to a terrace in the Talwar's house, the keys to which were with the man servant Hemraj. The blood stains notwithstanding the police do not try very hard to open the door all day. In fact many items of evidence are handled badly or ignored blanking out many possible leads. Aarushi's body is sent for post mortem. 

Next day, the door to the terrace is finally broken down by an ex-cop K.K. Gautam who visits the house in the capacity of a "family friend" or "well wisher". The ex-cop finds the swollen, decomposed body of the man servant Hemraj on the terrace who was till then the main suspect. Two identical murders, with one blow to the head with a heavy object and a slit throat have been committed while the other two people inside the house were asleep.

One theory is that the two survivors in the house murdered the other two and covered up the job. Another theory is that outsiders were there and they committed the twin murders and let themselves out.

If the entrance was found locked from the "inside" when Nupur Talwar opened it in the morning, it meant that only four people were in the house. If the door was locked from the "outside", it could mean that there was an outsider. The door locked theory became important to establish that fact - which is where the new maid and her testimony became important. If there were others, did they leave traces of their DNA behind? 

The initial police investigation was conducted so shoddily that forget about seizing evidence properly and lifting finger prints carefully etc, they failed to recover a body lying in the same premises for want of breaking down one lock for over a day even after blood stains were detected on the hand rails and the terrace lock. The crime scene was allowed to be washed off the same day - so all sorts of theories had to be explored, evidence found and then the case put together. That's the first thing that hits you - what sorts of procedures do the police follow in such crimes. The toys are not seized, many other items near the bodies are not seized, the bottle of whisky which has bloodstains of the victims on it has been handled badly and no finger prints are found and so on and on. 

Lacking a suspect, now that Hemraj is dead, the police chief, IGP Gurdarshan Singh, with no evidence really announces to the press that the father is the killer within a week. The theory is that the father found the daughter and the man servant in a compromising position and had killed both, dressed up the scene and hid the body of the man servant in his own house (why would any one do that?). The father is arrested and put in jail (during which time he is assaulted by a mad man with a meat cleaver). Meanwhile the case is transferred to the CBI. But the sex angle sticks to this case forever thanks to our sensitive authorities - and the media. More stories appear, of orgies, wife swapping clubs and affairs. All of them are unsubstantiated but the public and media are salivating already.

The CBI team pursues an angle where three other servants, friends of Hemraj's, working with friends and relatives of the Talwars come into the picture. The dentists assistant Krishna had a grouse against Rajesh who recently publicly admonished him. Raj Kumar was a servant of their dentist couple friends, the Durranis, whose daughter went to the same school as Aarushi and was her friend. A third servant was Vijay Mandal who worked in the house of a neighbour. Based on the CBI's investigations Rajesh Talwar is released for want of evidence and the servants are arrested and sent for narco tests (which even the Talwars take). The narco tests implicate the servants fully, and clear the Talwars. But narco tests are not admissible in court. In the narco tests, there is talk of a khukri that Krishna had which was used as the murder weapon and which could be found in his house (it was found in Krishna's house with traces of blood on it along with a pillow cover that had Hemraj's blood stains). The two mobile phones of the dead people are said to be with Krishna and Raj Kumar according to the narco tests.

An eight member team from AIIMS submits a report on the post mortem including the two doctors who performed the post mortems (Dohare and Naresh Raj) that a khukri was in all likelihood the murder weapon. The report also says that nothing abnormal was found in Aarushi's sexual organs. That should have put the honour killing idea to rest.

Though the narco tests seem to point to the servants guilt, there is still not enough proof against them. The two servants steadfastly deny their involvement despite saying the opposite in the narco tests where they implicated each other - Krishna said Raj Kumar killed and Raj Kumar said Krishna killed. Caught in a bind, the CBI team works on Vijay Mandal to turn approver. When the deal is almost clinched the CBI chief rejects the proposal to make Vijay Mandal an approver.

Given the delay in making a headway in the case, a new team from the CBI comes into the investigation. Enter a new investigation officer (IO) A.G.L. Kaul with a dubious track record in terms of methods used to close cases. Avirook does enough homework here about Kaul's past cases and history. Kaul turns the case back into an honour killing case. He makes the post mortem doctor Sunil Dohare who originally found 'nothing abnormal' with Aarushi's sexual organs in the post mortem, makes an additional noting after a whole year that he had actually found it dilated. He changes the statement again after some more time - this time saying that the "vaginal opening was prominently wide open and the cervix was visible'. His statement is incredibly supported by two sweepers in the morgue who also note that the vagina was wide open (sweepers? giving testimony in medical matters?). When questioned on why he is bringing in his new observations so late in the day when they were not mentioned in his post mortem report nor in the AIIMS committee report Dohare says he did not include them in the report because he thought the 'findings were non-specific and very strange' (one would think that warrants a mention in a report). 

The mischief is this. What it does is that it suggests that Aarushi was sexually active - and if she is proven to be promiscuous - it now gives a motive for her father to kill!

It is evidences like this, based on completely unscientific conclusions that forms the basis of the conviction. 

A key piece of evidence is almost lost - retrieved - and finally ignored. The CDFD which analyses all the evidence finds traces of Hemraj's blood on Krishna's pillow which is recovered from Krishna's house after the narco tests along with a khukri. That pillow suggests that Krishna might have been in the house that night. In one simple stroke the CBI and the CDFD say that there has been a typo and that the pillow with Hemraj's blood is actually his own. A typo? On evidence on which hangs the fate of people's lives and reputations? Now Hemraj's blood on his own pillow in his room is one thing but how does one explain Krishna's pillow cover with Hemraj's blood on it? This evidence thankfully is rectified and CBI also corrects the version in the end - that Krishna's pillow cover was found with Hemrajs' blood. And incredibly it is left at that - despite the narco tests, despite finding a khukri with him and despite this hard evidence of the pillow with Hemraj's blood. No one pursues that angle of that pillow.

The other big expert in this case whose testimony becomes important is that of Dahiya, a Forensics expert, from FSL, Gandhinagar. Sitting in Gandhinagar, without seeing anything other than what is told or supplied to him, he makes a report which says that the weapons used to slit throats need not be khukris but surgical knives used by doctors because the wounds are very surgically done (no one checks whether a dental surgeon uses scalpels capable of such wounds, no surgical equipment is seized from Talwars) and that the head wounds are quite likely caused by a golf club and not a hammer as originally suspected (Rajesh Talwar plays amateur golf!). The expert has not dealt with golf clubs before, does not have measurements of the wounds or the clubs, but somehow concludes that it appears to be a case of 'honour killing' and that he is certain that the servant and the child were having intercourse when they were killed. These are his findings and conclusions in his report. 

More importantly he also says that his findings indicate that the two dentists dressed up the crime scene i.e. Rajesh Talwar hit Hemraj with a golf stick and then clubbed his own daughter. In this process, the expert says the wall had two 'blood splatters' which proves two murders were committed there - all from photographs. Rajesh Talwar then slit their throats with a scalpel and then hid Hemraj's body on his own terrace (where he perhaps hoped it would never be found). But here's the interesting part, there is no trace of any blood, fluid or any DNA of Hemraj in Aarushi's room. How then would one conclude that Hemraj was in her room at all, after having his his head bashed up and his throat slit?

The answer to that is this. The expert feels that the doctor couple carefully cleaned the room of all traces of DNA, left only Aarushi's blood on the walls and removed only Hemraj's blood from the walls. After all they were doctors - they would know which blood belongs to who.

Many of the theories that the experts present are astounding and one wonders how anyone can get away with such 'expert' findings. From rapidly changing reports, statements and testimonies of both the post mortem doctors, Dahiya, the CDFC officials (on the typo pertaining to the crucial evidence of pillow covers), completely inefficient and incoherent testimonies by the police on the crime scene (one policeman just says he cannot see an object that is clearly seen in a photograph in court), use of force and other tactics to win over friends against Talwars, all agencies, experts, authorities came together as one to somehow make sense of what did not make sense.

The golf club under suspicion had no blood on it. In a set of 12 golf clubs, two were found to be cleaner than the rest, which is the only cause for suspicion (they had been cleaned!). No scalpel was ever found. Hence the two theories remain exactly that - theories.

The next CBI chief decides to close the case and IO Kaul is asked to file the closure report for lack of substantial evidence against anyone.

Kaul instead goes to Dahiya again and asks him to reconstruct the crime. He also gets two of Rajesh Talwar's friends to testify against him and takes statements from them - non-retractable statements before a magistrate. These statements have little substance to prove their complicity but only point at the lack of emotion of the Talwars stuff like that. These reports are sent to the judge ahead of the closure report. Then the closure report is sent with a tone that is - we know the parents are guilty but we have not found enough so we will close the case.

Based on this suggestive closure report the judge finds enough evidence to treat the closure report as a charge sheet. The Talwars are asked to stand trial in the murder of their daughter and man servant. 

The Talwars are arrested and go to court. They land up in judge Shyam Lal's court. He is also known famously as Saza Lal for his high rate of convictions. The trial is another incredible story and must be read. The CBI summons over 100 witnesses but only cross examines 39. When the defence seeks to cross examine more witnesses, they are refused. Finally the defence seeks to examine 13 witnesses an the judge allows only 7. Everyone wants the proceedings to get over fast. The narco analysis never comes up in the court. The defence proves that a golf club could not have been used in Aarushi's room to murder her. The defence does not get copies of evidence and goes to the Supreme Court to seek copies - even then they get only partial information. Despite all this, all the weak and fluctuating expert testimonies, despite lack of solid evidence - Lal covicts the parents just in time - four days before his retirement. He has delivered a 210 page judgement on one of India's most sensational crimes and completely negated the points raised by the defence as to why they cannot be guilty and many times overlooking (Avirook proves point by point how the judge has somehow overlooked what has been said or proved otherwise - worth a read) what the witnesses and evidences presented in court have said otherwise. The Talwars are given life sentences.

Right now the Talwars have filed an appeal. Both are lodged in Dasna jail. CBI's Kaul passed away of a heart attack, Judge Shyam Lal retired and is practicing in Allahabad. (There's an interesting interview with Avirook at the end with Judge Shyam Lal where he learns that the judge has started typing his judgement even before the final arguments were heard.) Dahiya gets another extension and a promotion perhaps. The servants are nowhere.

It is a book that must be read not for the story but to understand how our system works. What is frightening is the realisation that dawns on you that this is not an exception; this is the rule. Which is why we are all scared of going to the cops or any authority because they can easily foist false cases against you. As I read it I found it difficult to sleep, read it twice over and wondered what the logic was - two dentists kill two people, one of whom is their own, only daughter in the most macabre of manners, leave the bodies in their house. So far, I can understand some impulsive hot headed, violent person losing his mind and doing such stuff. (If it was an honour killing he would also wear it like a badge and confess to it wouldn't he?) But to attribute that same person a clear sense to clean up all DNA and fluid of one person from a huge mess and simply stay put at home waiting for the police to find it all there beats me. And not one, but both parents. What is the logic? (And if the CBI prosecutor is to be believed - Rajesh Talwar sat there drinking whisky all night after the murders and subsequent clear ups, watching pornography until Bharati Mandal turned up in the morning!)

It is interesting to note that particular statement made by the prosecutor to the press. One of the reasons for the moral indignation of the cops seems to be the internet activity on the night of the murders which suggested that someone was up through the night (watching porn!). However what was conveniently left out seems to be that the same internet activity continued through the next day - after the murders were found - when the couple was not accessing the internet.  

I wonder what happened to the khukri that was found in Krishna's room. Did it show any DNA? Surprisingly the servants, though they implicate one another in the narco analysis, stay put and do not flee after the murders. Its an intriguing case no doubt and a tough one made tougher by the shoddy handling of the case from day one. But one feels after reading the book and the many errors of commission and omission by the CBI and other bodies, that not enough evidence exists to convict the dentist couple. There are too many gaps, to many assumptions. The decision to close the case was perhaps the best in the given circumstances since there was not enough evidence. But now, unless the points raised in the book are sifted through and answered by the authorities convincingly and beyond doubt, it will point an uncomfortable finger at our system. 

If the Talwars are found not guilty at some point, its astounding what damage the system has done to two lives, nay four lives, because the reputations and dignity of the dead has been brutally compromised. If on the other hand the narco analysis and the servants angle proves some lead pointing to their complicity, its even more macabre - the system has let off the perpetrators and has punished the victims. The question to ask which is more relevant is this - does this happen often or is it an exception? 

One realises that this can happen to anyone. The incompetence, apathy, utter disregard of systems and procedures, departure from common sense and all intelligence, rule us. And when it all gets together, as it does more often than not, its a nightmare. 

Avirook writes with great energy,  with rare courage and honesty, humour and compassion, clarity and focus. And without worrying if he is trodding on anyone’s toes (and if any cases will be foisted against him). He writes as he feels, as he thinks, from his perception of right and wrong, and does not give the kind of unwarranted respect to authority that most of us in India do and by doing so elevate complete nincompoops to the levels of gods. Avirook brings everyone down to earth – his only question being – has the job been done well and in the interests of justice. Unfortunately it does not seem to be the case (to put it mildly). Here it is more about getting my job done, all else be damned. Children, humans, parents – nothing matters as far as we are recognized for some sensational disclosure. 

I wonder what happens now – he has raised enough points for people and the media to consider and reconsider. What is worrisome is that there may be a huge silence from all parties. The story has already served its purpose – no further juice can be squeezed out of this story. Almost all angles have been covered. So why bother now? Let justice take its own course while we search for the next bit of entertainment. This possibility could well happen. And if it does god help us because certainly no other human will help. They will simply change channels.

Read this book. Its brilliantly written. Not many would have written it, could have written it. It's explosive stuff. Its deeply disturbing and that's something you cannot say for many books. Some of the stuff that the experts give as findings is unbelievable. Pure gems. And there's tonnes of humour (black - I was once asked very severely by another writer friend of mine what this black humour was - she did not like the insinuation that I said she was good at that - but I do like black humour.) Buy it and read it. Like Avirook says in the beginning, this is about how India looks from the ground.

Avirook Sen, for more than one count, mostly for the courage to stand up for what you think is right, take a bow.

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