Why I Won’t Be Reading Avirook Sen’s Book

By NIKITA SAXENA | 30 August 2015

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.



21 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Be Reading Avirook Sen’s Book”

By your decision to not read “Aarushi” after having attended the 27th Aug’15 event at IIC (i too had attended and didn’t find anything ‘abnormal’ in Avirook Sen’s frank display of displeasure over Ellen Barry’s non-sensical remarks in her review in NYT; in fact, you will understand why he rebutted her publicly), you will be committing the biggest error of your life! … Just buy your copy and read it and then share your feelings if Aarushi indeed got justice …

Well said, Anju!

It is because of such irresponsible, attention craving media folks like Nikita Saxena that this perverse public frenzy against the Talwars got accentuated beyond redemption.

The reasons for your ‘why you wont be reading the book’ is not even related to Aarushi or the case or her justice, for which you have attended the event on the first place. This article is about personal opinions and following the trend oriented fast media with the habitual lets-turn-this-into-gender-or-feminist-issue game. Irony.

Barry’s a bureau chief for NYT and a long-time correspondent so presumably has formidable credentials. Yet she was unable to defend her criticism and lapsed into silence for most of the panel. Yes, of course, it must be because she’s being oppressed *rolls eyes*.

Just playing grammar Nazi. Please don’t publish this comment.
“He did not think that it was necessary to provide an alternate explanation for the murders.”

I think it should be “alternative” rather than alternate.

Great article!

It is a basic tenet that ‘The burden of proof’ to show the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt lies with the prosecution in criminal cases. This implies, rightly so, that the defendants, the Talvars in here, enjoy the benefit of doubt. It doesn’t matter whether they are trustworthy or whether we, the author or the critics have reasons to trust them or not. All that is required of anybody concerned is to reasonably doubt that the defendants are guilty and see whether the prosecution negates all those reasonable doubts. The book’s purpose is to explain why the author believes that they have not. It would be superfluous to give reasons, new or otherwiseotherwise, why Talvars should or can be trusted. They are not bound by law to earn your trust to raise reasonable doubts about their culpability. It is plain old parti pris (for I’m sure it is not ignorance) to expect the defendants or their sympathizers to try and earn your or Barry’s trust.

Dear nikita,

How long have you been a journalist and how old are you exactly? By your headline i wouldnt peg your age at more than 14…is this your way of throwing a tantrum because an event you were invited to and had expectations from did not turn out as planned?>

I am not defending Sen’s behavior, its juvenile and he could have handled himself better but come on girl, Barry is no babe-in-the-woods and if she really was a journalist worth her salt, 1) she’d ably defend herself on that panel/walk out with her dignity intact 2) not be pleased with your even weaker defence of what you have ridiculously made into a gender bias.

Can you point me to the sections of your rant which speak of Sen’s gender bias? Again let me reiterate that his behavior (and taking your version to be the absolute truth) was uncalled for and he deserves censure.

having said that….to pronounce rather haughtily, “Why I Won’t Be Reading Avirook Sen’s Book” is childish, and typical of lets-throw-the-bathwater-with-the-baby-out-of-the-window syndrome. Read the book not for Sen but because this is NOT HARRY POTTER or the latest SHOBHA De that you are critically reviewing for a plot. Here every character is real, and as of now there are two people sitting in jail serving a life sentence whose lives your fraternity played a great role in ruining.

Nikita read the book because tomorrow when you grow up and have young daughters/sons, you may want to protect them more, teach them of a flawed judicial system, tell them that sometimes they have no choice but to believe in God because justice has been left to chance. as for Barry’s review, she might have been reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey for her cold and ridiculously clueless opnion. Sample this:

Barry states in the opening of the article, “an examination of the shambolic investigation” and “Sen does a good job cataloguing investigative and prosecutorial errors” and yet she says “Sen does not win our confidence as a narrator” because “Witnesses for the prosecution are portrayed as paan-chewing oafs. The judge is a rube obsessed with demonstrating that he speaks English, long the province of the upper classes.” ….MY GOD!!!! She is silly enough to be comparing facts with linguistics and caricatures. I doubt that Barry understood any of the legalities involved, she seems like she got bored in the middle of the book and then just decided to churn out a review. Maybe its because shes a foreigner and doesnt really get the complexities, i dont know, but its definitely NOT because shes a woman!!!

i have read the book and followed this story for the past 7 years …read every article by some of your noteworthy and not so worthy colleagues and also gone to the extent of accessing documents (the chargesheets, etc) available in public domain to decide for myself regarding the guilt of the parents. Whether or not their innocence is proved, it is people like you who jump to rhetoric versus fact that have done them and us the greatest disservice. In an India bereft of justice, may the Almighty forgive you for your incompetence.

Nicely said Kryptic Krusader. A book cannot be judged by such events. As journaists, you need more toughness & maturity. I have read the book. It gives you facts & insights. After that you may have your opinion whether or not the Talwars are guilty. I could not decide but know that investigation was not properly carried out.

I think that Nikita is paid for a negative review, many people do that. Considering the judicial and political system in India, it is very much possible.

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