Hope is a terrible thing.
It can gently lift your expectations with the promise of possibilities. And when you tentatively grasp it, it can mercilessly be dashed to the ground.
It was hope that prompted Rajesh Talwar and my cousin Nupur to turn to the CBI to investigate the 2008 murders of their daughter Aarushi, 13, and cook Hemraj, 45.
It was hope that led the dentists to challenge the CBI's closure report in 2010 and ask for a continued investigation.
It was hope that helped them mount a formidable defence of their innocence in court against the charges of murder.
To realize now that they need not have bothered at all - the judgment was written even before their arguments were made - deals a crushing blow to the little dignity they were afforded by the pretence of a "fair trial."
Aarushi, a book by investigative journalist Avirook Sen, is a detailed case study of all that is wrong with the investigation of the Aarushi-Hemraj murders and the trial of Rajesh and Nupur Talwar.
The book might be "unputdownable" as some readers have observed. But Nupur could not bring herself to pick it up when she first saw it this week. For a mother, even for one who has clinically discussed the forensics in her daughter's death, the sight of drops of blood around Aarushi's name on the book cover was simply too distressing. Typical Nupur, she internalized her stress and her blood pressure shot up immediately.
Still, the contents of the book can't be ignored.
As family (Nupur's mother and mine are sisters), we knew of course that the case in the CBI court was stacked against us. When the CBI, which examined 39 witnesses, told the court Nupur and Rajesh should not be allowed to call any witnesses at all in their defence, well, we pretty much knew we were facing not just prosecution from an investigating agency but also malice.
And when the CBI which knew fully well that its evidence could not withstand objective scrutiny called for the death penalty, it exhibited a shocking level of vindictiveness.
And yet, it was deeply disturbing to read in black-and-white how the CBI pressured witnesses to change their testimonies, how brazenly it twisted the truth and how it manipulated the media by feeding a hunger for sensationalism.
We have learnt over the recent past not to overestimate the value of the truth.
The findings in the book should have been a moment of vindication for us. But that dratted hope, dashed too often, has left some profound wounds in its wake. It broke my heart this week to hear my aunt, Nupur's mother, Lata Chitnis, bracing herself for the consequences of even this book. "Anything we say or do goes against us," she told me in Marathi. "So I'm frightened. What if there is something in the book that someone will twist and use against us?"
And yet, and yet. Maybe it's distance that allows me to feel this, but I must confess I feel I can, just perhaps, dare to hope. Surely the only recourse - the only just thing to do - when confronted with such troublesome revelations is to declare a mistrial and release Rajesh and Nupur? Finer legal minds can debate whether this is by the letter of the law - but in the spirit of justice - surely they should be set free?
Surely, in a country with such elite intelligence, there will be one person with the power to make change who will find the courage to stand up and say, "Enough. Let's make changes so this never happens again - not to Nupur and Rajesh and not to any other ordinary Indians."
I have written about this case at some length in the Toronto Star. But there was much that was revealed even to me by this book. Here are four of many bombshell revelations from Sen's book that has left us aghast:
1. KK Gautam, the former cop who found Hemraj's body on the terrace hours after Aarushi was found dead, had told the Noida police right away that he had seen the bed with the impression of three people on it and had described partially-drunk bottles of alcohol. This meant there were other people in the Talwar apartment that night. During the trial, KK Gautam changed his story entirely, under pressure from the CBI, says the book. It was critical for the CBI's case against the Talwars to establish Hemraj was killed in Aarushi's room. In the book, Gautam tells Avirook Sen why that was impossible and how he knows Hemraj was killed on the terrace upstairs.
2. The book provides statements of the three domestic helpers, Krishna, Rajkumar and Vijay Mandal, who were arrested in connection with the murders, and then released when the CBI said there was no evidence of their involvement. Their statements made for disturbing reading as we have never got any answers as to what really transpired that night. India's leading behavioural scientist told Sen that based on narco-anaylsis, brain-mapping and other tests conducted on all the suspects including Nupur and Rajesh, the Talwars consistently appeared innocent, and the others guilty.
3. Bharati Mandal was the poor, hapless maid whose testimony suggested she tried unsuccessfully to open the front door on the morning that Aarushi was found dead. This testimony was important for the CBI to establish that if Talwars were locked inside, no outsider broke into the house. But the book says Bharti blurted out in court that she was simply parroting what the CBI had asked her to say. Months later, when Sen went around to meet her, Bharati plainly told him she had never tried to push open that front door. "Servants don't barge into people's homes. We have to wait to be let in
4. The many shenanigans of M.S. Dahiya, whose report was the basis of the trial. He is the forensic expert who can apparently reconstruct entire murder scenes from photos and can match weapons to wounds without actually seeing either. He didn't know until Sen told him that there was no evidence of Hemraj being in Aarushi's room. But if it stopped him in his tracks, it was only briefly. He quickly changed his expert testimony of "fact" to "opinion."
"I was asked for my opinion. I gave my opinion. The court accepted it as a fact," he is quoted as saying.
(Shree Paradkar is Deputy Editor, Multimedia at the Toronto Star in Canada, where the first piece she wrote on this case appeared at thestar.com/aarushi. She is also Nupur Talwar's cousin.)
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