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Aarushi Talwar case: The prisoners of Dasna

Nineteen months after Nupur and Rajesh Talwar were convicted and jailed for the murder of their daughter and servant, a new book says that they are victims of a grave miscarriage of justice.

Anjali Puri 

The Aarushi Talwar murder case refuses to die. Nineteen months after Nupur and Rajesh Talwar were convicted and jailed for the murder of their daughter and servant, a new book says that they are victims of a grave miscarriage of justice. A Vishal Bhardwaj-scripted film, out later this year, will also challenge settled notions about the case. Anjali Puri reports

As you draw closer to Dasna Jail on National Highway 24, leaving behind Delhi's suburban sprawl, grey factories and green fields begin to appear, and the accent of western Uttar Pradesh (UP) grows thicker. You turn off the highway into a narrow, winding lane with shabbily dressed visitors walking towards a shoebox-shaped building with peeling plaster and a limp Tricolour. It is here, unmolested by TV cameras, that Rajesh and Nupur Talwar now pass their days; as convicts, dentists, bereaved parents, a married couple and seekers of justice.

Some years ago, Rajesh Talwar, speaking of Dasna jail, told the writer Patrick French, "It's a different world in that place. Time just stopped." Sent here after being arrested by the UP police in May 2008 for the murder of his daughter, Aarushi, and his servant, Hemraj, Talwar recalled his early terror at stinking sheets, layers of excreta in the loo, thieves and drug addicts "all spitting on the floor". Talwar got his reprieve from Dasna after a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) team took over the case, junked the UP police's salacious theory that he had killed both Aarushi and Hemraj after finding them in an "objectionable" position, and declared three neighbourhood servants suspects.

But as all of India knows, the reprieve didn't last. A second CBI team resurrected the "honour killing" theory and presented a sexually graphic case that eventually saw not just Rajesh but Nupur too convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by special CBI judge Shyam Lal who likened them to "freaks of nature". From the courtroom, they were driven to Dasna. Their bail was rejected last year. They are in an unending queue of appellants before the Allahabad High Court.

Some accounts of the case did portray the Talwars as the victims of a Kafkaesque investigation. But much of India lapped up CBI's story, delivered in their living rooms by the media, that a popular, lively 13-year-old with fantastic grades was involved with a servant who had grandchildren of his own; that a liberal professional couple killed him and their only child after finding her with him in her bedroom. Pulp fiction queen Shobhaa De declared the Talwars stony-faced villains nearly three years before a court did. Their conduct, she wrote, "conveys just one thing : catch us if you can …"

Is it time to re-examine that view of the Talwars? A new book, Aarushi, unpeeling layer upon layer of the case, argues compellingly that they are victims of a shocking miscarriage of justice. A film fictionalising the case is also likely to challenge the mainstream view that 'the parents did it'. Expected to release later this year, it is partly shot in the Noida housing complex where the family lived. Director Meghna Gulzar says it is too early for her to comment on her film, "given its sensitive nature". However, a member of the cast, who prefers to remain unnamed, says, "Vishal Bhardwaj has written a terrific script, one that takes a position and leaves you very disturbed indeed. It implies the parents have been framed."

Journalist Avirook Sen took 30 months to write his book, Aarushi. He attended the trial, conducted about a hundred interviews with investigators, lawyers, witnesses, family and friends, and read thousands of pages of documents. Having lived abroad during the murder and its aftermath, he began covering the trial for a Mumbai paper without having a strong view of the case. But that was to change.

"Within months, I got sucked in," says Sen, in an interview. "I began to ask myself why, if it was such an open and shut case, as claimed, were the key prosecution witnesses changing their original statements, and why was the prosecution lying about forensic evidence?"

His account of the trial in a mofusil courtroom is chilling. Policemen and post-mortem doctors deliver testimonies very different from what they first said, whether on the crime-scene, the likely murder weapon or Aarushi's private parts. They stonewall blandly, sometimes comically, when questioned. Witnesses are sprung on the defence for cross examination with no time for preparation. A maid, Bharti Mandal, a key prosecution witness, lets slip in court that she was tutored. The CBI counsel screams in court that Aarushi and Hemraj were having intercourse on her bed, as the dead schoolgirl's parents look on in dismay.

But it is a grubby pillow cover that becomes, in this book, a metaphor for everything rotten about the Aarushi case. Sen hears the prosecution claim in court that this pillow cover, with Hemraj's DNA on it, was found in Aarushi's room; a crucial claim in light of CBI's assertion that Hemraj was bludgeoned by Talwar on Aarushi's bed and then dragged by the couple to their terrace. But when the pillow cover is finally unsealed in court, it becomes clear, Sen writes, that the agency had been "misleading the court" about its location. The tag attached to it, bearing official signatures, says it had been recovered from Hemraj's own room. This means that there is no DNA evidence to show Hemraj was in Aarushi's room.

The saga takes another twist when, on reading Shyam Lal's judgement, Sen discovers that this pillow cover with Hemraj's DNA is, in effect, back in Aarushi's room. The judgment says it was found there, despite all the unsealing and name-tag reading in court. So then, when Sen interviews the now-retired Shyam Lal, he pointedly questions him about this. The judge stiffens, says he does not remember, and advises Sen, "Let bygones be bygones".

While written like a thriller, the book compels the reader to weigh the evidence and assess the integrity of the investigation and the trial: how should one read the crucial admission by Bharti Mandal to Sen that contradicts her testimony in court? Did the second CBI team repudiate explosive evidence that surfaced, implicating an earlier suspect, Krishna, because it would have raised embarrassing questions about its pursuit of the Talwars? What should one make of the servants' brain mapping/narcoanalysis reports, not put on record by CBI, but revealed in this book, in which each one placed himself at the scene of the crime in his narration of events? Why would Vijay Shanker, former CBI head, tell Sen, a year after the trial, " …this is one of the most unfortunate cases, one in which the cause of justice has not been served as yet"?

Of course the question does also arise, why would anyone conspire against a pair of dentists who had lost their only child? Sen's answer is that while there was no explicit conspiracy, several elements came together to create that effect, including professional incompetence, departmental powerplay and the imperative to close a high-profile case, even if it meant abandoning ethical restraint. But deep prejudice against a couple seen as "too posh" also played an important part. "Different worlds collided," says Sen, in his interview with Business Standard. "The world of the urban middle class, and a constabulary and lower judiciary with semi-urban and rural roots."

But it is not as if the higher courts, media and urban citizen come off well in this deeply troubling book. In fact, it is hard to disagree with Sen when he writes that the case is "a commentary on the country we live in." Lawyer Rebecca John, too, who has appeared for the Talwars, stresses that the case stands for something much bigger than itself. "It represents," she says in a conversation, "the helplessness of the individual in the face of monumental prejudice and monumental investigative failures."

You almost don't register the Talwars when you first see them in Dasna jail," says a friend, describing her first visit to the jail after their incarceration. "Without a media mob closing in on them, without uniformed policemen hustling them in and out of courtrooms, they seem at once more diminished and more dignified." Nupur, in a printed salwar kameez, examining a pair of orthodontic retainers just delivered to her from the "outside world", and Rajesh, standing beside her in full sleeved shirt and trousers, seemed exactly, she says, like the unremarkable professionals they were before tragedy and scandal became their life.

That impression is reinforced by their resolute normality, their civil, low-voiced conversation. At times, says the friend, they seem not just normal but almost impossibly brave. They speak about the support they get at Dasna because "people around us, inmates, staff, know we are not criminals, that we are in the wrong place". They describe the professional respect they get from dental students who visit the jail to work at the clinic they run, and how moved Rajesh was when one recently touched his feet. They speak of how much stronger their marriage has become, even when they live in different barracks, because of the "miscarriage of justice" they are facing together. "We are just 100 yards away from each other at night, but it is as far as infinity. But emotionally, we are closer than before," Rajesh had said.

But at other times, the Talwars seem painfully, heart-stoppingly fragile to their friends after 19 months of jail. They long, and wait anxiously, for visitors, confessing that the world would simply recede without them. They spring to deferential attention when uniformed figures loom into view. They recall how the smallest things bring Aarushi to mind, even in this place far removed from the world in which they raised her: a prisoner's child playing on a swing, an inmate talking proudly about his son's grades. "Even after we leave here, there will be no Aarushi. How does one reconcile with that?" Nupur once remarked, despairingly. Even the realities of jail life seemed bearable, compared to the loss of Aarushi, she said, whether it was soaring temperatures, being locked up at 6.30 every evening in a barrack with 50 women, or having personal space about the size of a single bedsheet to call her own at night. Rajesh often shakes his head in disbelief and says: "Why does no one ask, how can you talk such rubbish about a 13-year-old girl?" Neither has read Shyam Lal's judgement. They say they would start crying if they did. Visiting them at Dasna a year after their incarceration, Sen writes: "The Nupur Talwar I saw... did not have the bearing of the woman I had seen striding into court. She had, instead, the sharp movements of a bird on constant alert for approaching predators."

As Rajesh speaks with the animation only a dentist can be capable of, about composite fillings, root canals, and extractions, you hear a parallel narrative unfolding, says the friend: of an educated man trying to stay sane, to relate to his poor and mostly illiterate fellow-travellers, to earn goodwill and security for himself and his wife in a precarious and fraught environment.

As is to be expected, the Talwars welcome a book and a film that will look afresh at their case. But, they do so in the manner of people for whom hope is a precious commodity to be rationed carefully. And the friend repeats Nupur's haunting comment: "People read something, they feel affected it by it, but the feeling may fade in two or three months… and we will still be here."