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.