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January 22, 2016

ZEE JLF Conversations: Avirook Sen

Text by Huzan Tata

“Aarushi is as much a crime story as it is a story about our institutions, and in the end, about India”

On Aarushi
“I wrote the book because I got sucked into the compelling story that was playing out before me in court each day I attended the trial. But I soon realised that there was a much bigger story to be told. Aarushi is as much a crime story as it is a story about our institutions, and in the end, about India. I say in my foreword that the book is about what India looks like from the ground. And that’s a story worth telling, I think.”

On maintain objectivity
“I had the advantage of ignorance, I think, as I began reporting on the trial in mid 2012. I was out of the country working on my first book, when the incident took place in 2008. I cannot say I took any great interest in the case. That said, I was aware that the dominant narrative as reported in the media was that the parents were guilty. In a way, a case in court has objectivity built into it: two sides are heard, and everything is on the record. And my understanding is that this leaves little room for prejudice or speculation.”

On the challenges he faced
“The most challenging parts were also the most rewarding: going through thousands of pages of documents looking for missing pieces; trying to ferret out missing (or suppressed) information; sticking to the principle that every piece of information in the book has a named source. All of this was challenging, and all entirely worth it.”

On sensationalism
“I see it as a reality in the kind of media environment that we have. This isn’t just the fault of the media, part of the blame has to be with us, the consumers of media. But this isn’t to say, there is no good journalism going on. It just happens to be a little less loud.”

On the case being so thrilling for the public
“There are a couple of aspects of this case that one can point to: the first is that investigators had injected a healthy dose of illicit sex into the story. The urban middle class, which is, in my view, essentially conservative, laps this up. It was a story that had, in a slyly perverse way, elements of ‘entertainment’, even though it was hard news. The other reason is more fundamental – even universal. The idea that parents can kill their child is a polarised opinion in every drawing room debate. Unfortunately, these arguments are usually about how people ‘feel’ about the Talwar family. Not about what evidence there is in this specific case.”

On Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar
I have watched the film, and I think it’s excellent. The film differs from the book in substantial ways – mine is a pure non-fiction work, the film is dramatised. But fiction can be an effective way of arriving at the truth – Talvar has that ambition, and does justice to it.

On reading
I enjoy anything that has a compelling story. I like stories. I like the work of the graphic novelist/journalist Joe Sacco. And all the new journalism writers from the ’60s and ’70s. Closer to the here and now, I admire Amitav Ghosh’s work, and am a big fan of Christopher Hitchens.

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