News television took its cues from her repeated successes. News became more dramatic, less about reason, more about what we wanted to believe.
Ektaaji had realised the potential of the Aarushi story – as entertainment – within weeks of it breaking. At the time she was ready to insert an episode based on the murders into one of her serials. The ministry of information and broadcasting prevailed upon the channel not to air it, but I was told by a former colleague who knew her well that she hadn't forgotten about the project.
In 2013, as the trial drew to a close, I travelled to Bombay and found myself in the lounge of Balaji Telefilms' offices in Andheri. My meeting with her was set for 2 pm, but she was notorious for being late. I spent an hour-and-a-half staring at a showcase full of every television industry award there was. I counted about 60, but these were merely the ones on display.
She arrived in ultra-casual attire, dressed in a loose, well-worn T-shirt and standard issue tights. She sat across a large table laid out on which was her famed collection of miniature Hindu deities. They were lined up like a terracotta army. There seemed to be hundreds of them. Incense was in the air.
Kapoor asked me what I thought about the case, and I told her about it briefly. She had her own version of the story and felt it was fascinating, with the lifestyles the Talwars led, the affair between the girl and the servant, and so on.
Where's the evidence?
At this point, I told her that my genre was non-fiction, and that going by what was produced in the trial, there was no evidence of the said affair.
"Yeah, but there was sex."
"Not according to the post-mortem report."
"What? No sex??"
"No evidence of it."
She looked stunned. I could almost hear her compose the background score and sharp echoes of fragments of dialogue that usually accompany dramatic scenes in her serials. Her mind had probably been working on these rather than listen to my bland narration. Now it all stopped.
She looked at me unconvinced. And said: "Well, who really knows what happens in these debauched households..."
This was September 2013, and she asked me what I thought would happen in the trial.
"They will be convicted by this court", I said, with both spontaneity and certainty. I knew this not just because I had followed the trial. I knew it subconsciously too. People would like to believe the scandalous affair between servant and teenager was true. They would like to believe that debauched parents could kill their only daughter. Ekta Kapoor, knew this well: she believed it herself.
It wasn't just Ekta Kapoor's audience that had bought the story. Society ladies from South Bombay were stakeholders in it too. Nor was it just television that was to blame.
Here's an excerpt from a column I wrote in July 2013:
It is sometimes forgotten in the din of breaking news that one of the early adopters of the tripe the CBI was dishing out was Shobhaa De, the influential celebrity columnist. No sooner had (the investigating officer) A.G.L. Kaul told his story in court, De reminded us of this herself. Patting herself on her elegant back, she blogged: ‘I wrote this on January 4 2011.... at the time, there was much outrage at what I had suggested – that Aarushi’s parents were the culprits. I received a lot of hate mail and a few nasty phone calls asking me to back off and zip up. “Well the startling revelations by the CBI officer today insist that it was Ramesh Talwar (sic) who clubbed and killed both Aarushi and Hemraj and then slit their throats. His wife helped him to dress up the scene of the gruesome crime. What sort of monsters are these parents??” ‘ She then republished the 2011 article under the heading Aarushi’s Monster Parents.
The column appeared in the Mumbai newspaper DNA, under the title Shobhaa De and death by mwah mwah. In it, I listed several absurd pieces of evidence given by the CBI in some detail.
In this country, perception trumps proof.
I wouldn’t dare threaten Ms De with a “zip up”. (I would no doubt be given the harshest sentence in South Bombay: death by mwah mwah). I ask her only to consider that freedom of speech isn’t just a right. For those of us writing in newspapers, it is a privilege. It comes with the responsibility of having to know what you’re talking about.
On judgment day, as I hung around the Ghaziabad court, word had got around that I was writing a book on the case. Having run out of material to shoot, many TV journalists interviewed me as an alleged expert.
That evening, I was invited to join India's most popular English news show, The Newshour, with Arnab Goswami. Shobhaa De was plugged in from Bombay. The debate began with the anchor asking me: "Now that the Talwars have been convicted, has the media been vindicated?"
Anyone who's watched the show knows what happens night after night on it, so I won't bore you with the details. But I did manage to make a point or two. First, the question of vindication did not, to my mind, arise at all. If the Talwars went in appeal and were acquitted, would we be discussing some sort of “un-vindication”?
Second, I felt that this was hardly a case where we could give ourselves some kind of good journalism certificate. Papers were running “exclusives” explaining that no fingerprints were lifted from the crime scene because the culprits wore gloves!
Shohini Ghosh, professor of Mass Communications at Jamia Milia Islamia University, had just two weeks before written:
In show after show, article after article, the Talwars were demonised as decadent, immoral, unfeeling, unrepentant, scheming and resourceful. Therefore, when a deranged vigilante within the court premises assaulted Rajesh Talwar with a meat cleaver inflicting serious injuries, bloggers applauded. Columnist Shobhaa De endorsed the attack with a cavalier Tough luck Talwar. De had long declared the couple guilty because they did not conform to her idea of grieving parents.
And there she was, my fellow panelist, smiling in her box on the screen. On the show I felt hailing the reportage on this case was as some kind of vindication was worrisome. I said: "Surely, Arnab, we can do better than that."
The next day, the Delhi paper The Pioneer congratulated itself. The Pioneer, which in mid 2010 had basically run the CBI story verbatim – complete with critical falsehoods – ran an editorial accompanied by its original story. The paper said it had been "vindicated."
But who did it?
Over the past two and a half years, every person who knew that I reported on the Aarushi-Hemraj murder has started with the same question. It’s a valid question. This is a murder mystery. People hate it when the final pages are missing. So far, I have told everyone the same thing: let's look at the evidence.
That is what I've set out to do in this book.
Avirook Sen's book on the Aarushi double murder trial, Aarushi, was published recently.