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.