BOOK EXCERPT

Reinvestigating the Aarushi murder: Was the front door really locked from within?

A new book examines the testimony of a key witness and finds it confusing.

On 3 September 2012, Bharti Mandal turned up in court, as usual without warning to the defence. Her testimony was vital to the CBI and her importance was explained to me by the CBI inspector Arvind Jaitley. Jaitley was a tall man in his late thirties with an air of casual calm about him. He stood out among the prosecution’s team because of his sense of propriety. He was convinced about the Talwars’ guilt, but he didn’t see this as a reason to get nasty. At the tea stall outside the court, a lawyer was asking Jaitley about his belief in the parents’ guilt. Jaitley told us he didn’t want to get into the merits of the case.

But the CBI, he felt, had just one task to accomplish to win it: It had to convince the court that the Talwars’ flat was locked from the inside when Bharti Mandal rang the bell at 6 a.m.

Once the court was made to understand this, the prosecution was home. This was perfectly reasonable. If the door was found locked from the inside in the morning, it would stand to reason the murderer was still in the flat. The burden of explaining the murders would now shift to the Talwars. It would be up to them to tell the court the story behind every bloodstain, fingerprint, bottle of liquor, missing key, lost phone. The CBI didn’t have to prove anything, not even a motive or what the murder weapons were. Four in the house. Two are killed. Either or both the survivors were therefore responsible for the murders. It was like one of Agatha Christie’s closed-door mysteries.

This is why Bharti Mandal’s testimony had so much riding on it. It was she who had rung the doorbell that morning. It was she who was the first witness at the crime scene. It was she who could tell the court whether the Talwars’ door was locked from within.

~~~


Bharti hadn’t been issued summons.

She said that CBI personnel had simply picked her up and brought her to court. This was done in secrecy, through an access from the rear to avoid any chance encounters with the media. Dressed in a bright yellow sari, Bharti looked tentative. This was an ‘event’ in her life, but she wasn’t sure whether it was a good one or a bad one. She began her deposition. She had been on leave the previous day, but arrived at the flat at 6 a.m. on 16 May and rang the bell, she told the court. And then:

I touched the iron [outermost grill] door but it did not open . . . Then I pressed the bell again, whereupon aunty [Nupur Talwar] opened the wooden door and stood behind the [second] mesh door and started talking to me.


She asked me where Hemraj had gone and I replied that I didn’t know . . . Thereafter, aunty told me that Hemraj must have gone to fetch milk from Mother Dairy . . . She also told me that Hemraj must have locked the wooden door [mesh door; emphasis added] and gone to fetch milk . . .


Aunty told me that you sit down, when Hemraj comes back he will open the door for you . . . I then told aunty you give me the keys I will open the door and come in . . . Aunty said all right you go down I will throw you the keys.


I went downstairs and from the balcony aunty told me that the door isn’t locked, it’s only bolted . . . But I told aunty that she better give me the keys, because if it is locked then I will have to come down again . . . Then aunty threw the long key [to the middle mesh door] from the balcony.


Thereafter, when I came up and put my hand on the outer [grill] door, it opened . . . Then I unbolted the mesh door.



Nupur Talwar had left the innermost wooden door open, and Bharti entered the flat. ‘I felt some thief had entered the house and that is why Uncle and Aunty are crying,’ she testified. ‘Aunty threw her arms around me and started crying, when I asked her why are you crying so much, she said go inside and see what has happened . . .’

The CBI scenario emerged. The reason the outermost grill door wouldn’t open was that it was locked from the inside. ‘I touched the door but it would not open,’ Bharti had said. Nupur Talwar threw the keys down to her maid and, in the couple of minutes Bharti took to come back up, she used the door in Hemraj’s room, entered the passage, unlatched the outer door, and bolted the mesh door to make it appear someone had locked them in their house from the outside. She then walked back exactly the way she came.

When Bharti Mandal reached the flat again, she said, ‘I returned to the door and put my hand on it and it opened.’

Case solved. Or was it?

~~~


Bharti’s testimony opened up the possibility that the outer door to the Talwars’ flat was indeed locked from within. The CBI was confident that this would be enough.

Except that there were a few problems. The biggest of these appeared at the very beginning of the court record from Bharti Mandal’s cross-examination: ‘Jo mujhe samjhaya gaya hai, wahi bayan main yahan de rahi hoon’ (Whatever was taught/explained to me, I’m saying here).

Bharti said this in the first minutes of her cross- examination, almost at the stroke of the lunch break. The rest of the examination would continue half an hour later. The stern-looking policewoman who chaperoned her to and from court whisked her away. Saini and company, beaming the day before, followed agitated.

When the hearing resumed, the defence objected to the witness leaving the court without permission before the cross-examination was completed. This was against court procedure. (All other witnesses in the case had remained in court during breaks. Mohapatra, the forensic scientist, for instance, had a fixed seat where he sat patiently through breaks.) In an application made right after the break, the defence alleged that the witness was taken away so that she could be schooled.

Judge Shyam Lal, usually so concerned about decorum and procedure—giggling policewomen, ringing cellphones and the like—ignored the application. And when Bharti returned to court, the proceedings took a surreal turn. Her statements to investigators were read out to her line by line. These were recorded in 2008, and were documents that the CBI had told the court it relied upon. Almost without exception, Bharti said she hadn’t told the CBI any of the facts attributed to her by the investigators of the time.

From her cross-examination, it appeared the CBI may never have interviewed her at all. That she was saying whatever she had to say for the first time, and only to the court. Including: ‘Jo mujhe samjhaya gaya hai, wahi bayan main yahan de rahi hoon.’

Excerpted with permission from Aarushi, Avirook Sen, Penguin Books India.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.