“Bad news,” read a one-line email from a relative on May 16, 2008. “Aarushi was murdered by the servant last night.”
Five months prior I had been blessed with my first-born in Toronto. I had thought there could be no similar life-changing moment again.
What happened next is part of urban legend in India, in its various forms of imagination, innuendo, lies and part-truths; with one thread of truth holding it all together – both Aarushi and the household help Hemraj were dead.
Today, Aarushi’s parents Rajesh Talwar and my cousin Nupur are serving life in prison for the murders.
All of us in the extended family believe they are wrongfully convicted – there simply has been no evidence of guilt and no motive for murder.
It is said that when a grave injustice is done, the truth doesn’t just stay trampled, that it creates a restlessness within society, a movement that then churns out art as a weapon of protest, a tool to right the wrong.
Sometimes it takes the form of a song (think Hurricane by Bob Dylan), sometimes it’s in a painting (think Picasso’s anti-war ‘Guernica’).
These are productions independent of each other and independent of our family. Sen reported on the trial, did his own research, followed the logic and came up with his own conclusions. Likewise, Gulzar and her team did their research and produced an objective look at the case in film that I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In my separate discussions with the author and the filmmaker, it emerged that the labour that went into their projects was long and intense but compelling. Neither work was produced without its challenges, neither is perfect. And both look at the story from very different perspectives.
But both set the bar high for their respective professions and both force us to hold a mirror to ourselves.
The film releases worldwide October 2, Gandhi Jayanti as well as International Wrongful Conviction Day.
If reading the book left me in a state of shock, watching a visual depiction of the tragic events in the film left me emotionally drained.
I had dealt with the issues with the clinical eye of a journalist, immersing myself in the facts, only letting emotions seep through in safe doses. The film offered no escape; the murder scenes were especially an assault on my senses. But the scene that made me feel most frustrated, most helpless, was that of seeing Aarushi’s character alive, reading her book moments before she was gone.
I desperately wished I could rush in and push her out of harm’s way. Or dive in and fight the men. Or raise the alarm. Or do something. That was the moment before everything changed. Not only would it emerge the next morning that two lives were gone, but Rajesh and Nupur would be sent into a hellhole of unjust damnation and despair.
Rajesh once told me that night haunts him and plays out in his head over and over again, each time with an altered outcome of reality.
In one scene, he’s asleep, he hears a sound, goes out, confronts the men in the living room. In another he’s about to sleep, then gets up to lock all the doors to the house – including Hemraj’s – before going back to bed. In a third, he’s asleep. He wakes up and realises it is all a nightmare. Aaru is safe and sound.
Sometimes the guilt of not being able to protect their daughter – of being asleep while she was killed next door – is too much to bear for the couple. The depths of their despair are unfathomable to the rest of us.
Nupur, who inherits her father’s stoicism doesn’t express her emotions as readily as Rajesh does. But when I met her in prison in March this year, her armour felt a little brittle. She is the one I worry about.
I lived in Bangalore in the ’80s and remember going to New Delhi during school holidays, when Nupur who was at dental school then brought her boyfriend Rajesh home for a visit. They teased me and indulged my pre-teen awkwardness. I found them so cultured and sophisticated, although when I think of it now, they were not even 20 then. My sister and I had looked up to “Nupur didi,” our gentle cousin whose hand-me-down sweaters we’d worn with pride as little girls.
The girls in our family were expected to be independent. So Nupur was always going to choose a profession that afforded her that empowerment. Apart from lack of evidence, this was one reason the idea of her being a silent accomplice to the murder of their only child never rang true – she had no dependency entrapment with Rajesh.
I had only met Aarushi as a baby, who was born after years of Rajesh and Nupur trying to conceive one. They were happy with having a child, whether a girl or boy.
I knew of Aarushi’s developments through her grandma, my mother’s older sister Lata Chitnis. But I have got to know Aarushi much better since she was gone. I have interviewed her friends, quizzed family members and pored over photographs and videos to understand who she was.
One thing that will always stay with me is what she once laughingly told her friends, “I want to be famous.”
Our poor little girl.
She never deserved to have her life taken or her dignity shorn apart as it has been seven years since her death.
RIP, people say, when they think of Aarushi. But as long as her parents are in jail, how can she rest and where is the peace?
(Shree Paradkar is Nupur Talwar’s cousin. She is also Deputy Digital Editor at ‘The Toronto Star’, where she has written extensively about the case.)