At 7 pm last Thursday, I reached a packed hall at Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC) to attend Speak For Aarushi—an event organised by the newspaper Mumbai Mirror and Penguin Random House, the publishers of Aarushi, Avirook Sen’s recently released book on the infamous murder. I was determined to leave with a copy from the well-positioned kiosk outside the hall—impressed by the copious attention, largely positive, that it had received in the press. (Read a glowing review here; an excerpt here.) By the time I left the event two hours later, I could not bring myself to do so. I had entered the talk ready to admire Sen and his achievement in tracking a difficult, murky investigation. But the event left me with the unpleasant feeling that if the tone of the book had anything in common with what I had just witnessed, it would not be the stellar read some reviewers had made it out to be.
The discussion was moderated by Manu Joseph, the novelist and former editor of Open magazine; the participants were Tanveer Ahmed Mir, the counsel for defense; Ellen Barry, the South Asia bureau chief of the New York Times; and the author himself. Barry’s presence on the panel was noteworthy. Earlier this month, she wrote one of the few critical reviews of the book for The Wire:“Sen does not win our confidence as a narrator,” she suggested. The book offered very little in terms of new information, according to her review; even though Sen was striving to construct a comprehensive account of the case, he seemed unable to to resist siding with the Talwars, the parents of the murdered teenager Aarushi. Barry argued that this left the reader to piece together for themselves why Sen seemed implicitly to trust the couple, at the expense of every other person or agency involved.
Barry was by no account a fan of the book. That she had been invited to the talk—on the insistence of the author himself, a person associated with the event told me—was a welcome sign of willingness to engage with dissent. Or so I thought. What transpired was actually a spectacle, the highlight of which appeared to be Barry’s review.
A little over fifteen minutes into the discussion, Sen turned on Barry. He told her that her review was “thoughtless” and an example of “bad journalism”. Barry made some attempts to explain her stance, but Sen asked her tartly, “Ellen, who is Hemant?” Silence descended on the room, as Barry looked blankly at the writer. “Tell me Ellen, who is Hemant?,” he repeated. “You killed him in your review!” A moment later, he turned to look at the audience, and declared that Barry had misspelt the name of Hemraj, the Talwars’ domestic worker who was also murdered alongside Aarushi, as Hemant. Sen asked Barry whether this would have passed in the New York Times. Uncomfortable laughter from the audience followed.
In what seemed to me to be a diversion from Sen’s writing about the investigation itself, he proceeded to deliver a monologue about Barry’s critique. He could not take seriously a review that did not even get the names of the characters right, he said. He went on to “respond” to her criticism, explaining to the audience, with increasing disdain, that he had tried to do decent journalism. He did not think that it was necessary to provide an alternate explanation for the murders. If that was the case, he seemed to suggest, he might as well have been "Avirook Holmes." No one at the discussion pointed out that Sen did, in fact, offer an alternate explanation in his book, one that in Barry’s opinion is an unsatisfactory one. Amidst her barely audible responses, Joseph intervened in an attempt put an end to the obvious hostility. He tried to pacify Sen by saying that he too wished that he could do this to critical reviewers.
In June this year, The Ladies Finger—an Indian feminist zine—popularised a concept most Indian women in the public sphere were familiar with but hadn’t named yet: manels. As the essayist, Ashwini Ashokan, explained, the “manel” is a word to describe the phenomenon of expert panels—in nearly every field, it turns out—packed exclusively with men. Speak For Aarushi was not a manel; it was far worse. It was the kind of panel in which the sole woman appeared to have been invited so that the male members of that panel could attack her criticism without giving her a chance to engage in turn.
I found their behavior insufferably patronising. At one point, Mir was explaining some of the more fantastic parts of the judgement. He described how an investigator had dismissed an important piece of forensic evidence by claiming that it had an incorrect label, due to a “typographical error.” “That is not a typographical error,” Mir declared indignantly, “Now when Madame”–he meant Barry–“called Hemraj, Hemant, that was a typographical error.”
This was an event dedicated to a 13-year-old who has been maligned by what is popularly called a “media trial.” Sen himself suggested that she and her parents had been wronged by a lack of nuance in the telling of her story. But even as he appointed himself judge, jury and executioner of the media’s conduct in the coverage of the case, he seemed unable to accept doubts about his own work. Barry is not even the only reviewer to ask questions of Sen’s work: in Newslaundry, Rajyasree Sen’s review also criticised Sen for the “vanishing” of his objective voice when writing of the Talwar parents. Rajyasree Sen wrote that “Such sympathy or empathy is not shown for either the servants who were accused—none of whom or their families are interviewed or spoken to, or their former employers.”
Towards the end of the talk, Joseph seemed to think that it was time for the woman on his panel to have one more shot at speaking. He turned to Barry and acknowledged that they had just about calmed the fires, but he wanted to know: “What would you have done differently had you written the book?” Barry, who to my surprise had not chosen to walk off the panel, wisely refused to engage. She did, however, take another, cautious stab at defending her criticism. She explained to Sen that she had only hoped he would be able to answer to readers, the reasons that prompted him to take a “leap of faith” and trust the Talwars as he did.
Sen began his response to her by saying, without a hint of irony, that he was not trying to attack her. Then, with exaggerated patience, he explained that the trial court judge had outlined 26 reasons for his belief in the guilt of the Talwars. Of these, at least 25 were absolutely absurd, Sen said. He extended his argument by stating that the prosecution’s job was to prove the Talwars’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and that they had failed to do so. To me, this did not seem like a direct response to Barry’s question on why he began to view the Talwars not just as wronged, but as trustworthy as his book made them out to be.
The following day, as news of the event circulated online through a story on the blog The Delhi Walla, Sen’s behaviour was called “embarrassing” and “disgraceful.” It is not common to see a panel that consciously includes the views of critical participants—or of women. But the solution to this problem is not extending the discussion to such people in bad faith. Sen had every right to debate Barry's criticism, but to dismiss it with taunts and sneers about the quality of her journalism was not something that Barry's thoughtful, if provocative review warranted.
I now had the distinct impression that Sen’s book would be limited in its scope if this was also how he controlled his narrative. As story-tellers, perhaps the single most important skill we have, or aim to develop, is the ability to listen. This was something Sen appeared to have no interest in during the discussion. I left without buying the book. But as Sen might say—and did say during his talk—“What do I know?” I’m just another journalist.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a Supreme Court judge had outlined 26 reasons for his belief in the guilt of the Talwars. The Caravan regrets the error.
Nikita Saxena is a staff writer at The Caravan.