NEW DELHI, INDIA—The game of cricket, a passion for money, dreams, earthquakes and religious riots: Aarushi Talwar, 13, was lost in the world of the novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life . It was the night of May 15, 2008.
The next morning, this only child of two dentists was found dead on her bed in the New Delhi suburb of Noida, her body covered with her white flannel blanket. There was blood on the pillow, blood on the walls, blood on the floor. A camouflage-print school bag on her face covered cuts on her head, inflicted by three blows. Her throat had been slit.
Nov. 25, 2013 update: A family reels from the impact of the guilty verdict
One week later, my family and I in Toronto turned on our television and, along with millions in India, watched a packed press conference where police declared Aarushi’s father, Rajesh Talwar, then 44, a murderer.
The facts, as presented by Inspector-General Gurdarshan Singh, were these:
Rajesh was having an affair with another dentist. “His extramarital affair was known to both the girl and Hemraj (the family’s 45-year-old cook). The two used to discuss this and had become close. Dr. Rajesh could not tolerate this even though his character was not good . . .
“He killed her in a fit of rage even though his character was just as poor as his daughter’s (for her relationship with Hemraj).”
Sex. Illicit affairs. Murder. Indian media, which combines British tabloid sensibility with U.S. cable’s cutthroat competitiveness, snapped it up and fed it to a gossip-hungry audience, catapulting the crime to the top of the news cycle and making Aarushi a household name.
“ India’s JonBenet Ramsey case? ” asked a Time magazine headline.
Four-and-a-half years, one state police force, two federal investigative teams, two sets of suspects, five arrests and countless fumbles later, Aarushi’s murder remains unsolved.
Both her parents have been charged with murder and conspiracy. Her father is also charged with destruction of evidence. They are free on bail, facing trial.
Aarushi’s mother Nupur, now 47, is bewildered but defiant. “They (people) want a soap-opera situation,” she tells me. “I can’t stop anyone’s mouth. They’re free to think what they wish to think. But that doesn’t change the truth.”
Nupur is my cousin.
For a long time, I could not comprehend what was happening. My family’s account of Aarushi’s death and the investigation diverged from the media coverage so thoroughly that it was as if they were different cases.
But after my cousin was jailed last spring, I knew I had to go to Delhi. I had grown up in India and had worked there as a journalist before moving to Canada. It was painful to watch Rajesh and Nupur being ripped from their sheltered, middle-class cocoon and flung down a rabbit hole that is India’s justice system.
This is not a story of grief or loss, although a child was murdered. It is not a story of conspiracy, although “facts” have repeatedly changed. It is not a story of helplessness, although it pits one family against their country.
It is a story of two people on trial for murder with a questionable motive, no proven murder weapon and evidence that even investigators admit has holes. Two people who lost their daughter, lost their happiness and lost their naive illusions about their homeland.
“I never expected what has happened to us to happen in India,” says Rajesh.
This is a story of betrayal.
May 15 was the second-last day of classes at Delhi Public School before it closed for the summer. Aarushi and her friends were discussing her birthday sleepover that weekend, prank calls and boys. She was in the middle of a break-up with a boyfriend of one month, a boy she had met for lunch and movies. Her parents knew about him and some of her friends envied the family openness.
She was a huge fan of Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan . When she saw him in a commercial, she would say to her friends, “I wish I could just jump into the TV and marry him right now.”
She was shy, but there was one secret desire she confided in friends. “I want to become famous.”
That evening, Hemraj Banjade, the Talwars’ live-in Nepali cook, prepared okra, lentils and rotis. He took a phone call at 8 on his cell phone. Dinner was at 9:30. Afterward, Aarushi went to her room. Her parents followed with an early birthday surprise: a Sony 10-megapixel camera that was much better than the model she had asked for. Click, click, click, the last one taken at 10:10 just before her parents retired to their bedroom. One of those photos would identify Nupur’s clothes as the ones she wore in the evening and in the morning, before and after the murder.
It was typically hot for May, around 45C. Air conditioners were on in both bedrooms.
At 11, Aarushi was reading her novel when Nupur came into Aarushi’s room to turn on the Internet router. A police report would later note Rajesh sent an email to the American Academy of Implant Dentistry at 11:37:54 p.m. and that he was on the computer until 11:45.
The doorbell woke Nupur and Rajesh at about 6 a.m. Hemraj usually let in the maid but a groggy Nupur had to answer the front door.
Where was Hemraj?
Nupur tried his cell phone. No one answered and the ringing stopped abruptly. When she called again, the phone had been switched off.
Rajesh came into the living room. He was surprised to see a near-empty whisky bottle on the dining table. Surprise turned to alarm. “Check on Aarushi,” he said to Nupur.
They rushed into her bedroom. There she lay in her blue pyjamas, covered by a sheet, the schoolbag on her face. Underneath, her head turned to one side, a necklace of blood.
“Rajesh started shouting and screaming,” Nupur says. “I was inanimate. I couldn’t shout or scream.”
The maid came in, saw what had happened and called neighbours. Those first few days are a blur for Rajesh and Nupur. But the memory of Aarushi’s bloodied body haunts them. They die a little every day.
By 6:50 a.m. , the police arrived. The media gathered by 8, drawn to a story about murder in an affluent neighbourhood.
“An open-and-shut case” a senior police officer told the Talwars. Hemraj, still missing, was the prime suspect. The media reported police saying he had consumed whisky, broken into Aarushi’s bedroom, assaulted her, hit her with the blunt edge of a kukri — a Nepali knife — and cut her with its sharp blade. Police announced a 20,000 rupee ($400) reward for tips leading to his capture.
Police did not cordon off the crime scene. At least 100 people — friends, family, journalists and the curious — traipsed in and out of the Talwars’ home.
Blood was not only in Aarushi’s room but also upstairs on the handles of the locked door to the roof terrace. A neighbour testified later that he had pointed out the blood to a policeman, who mused about the door being an escape route. The key could not be found and police did not break open the door.
A post-mortem was conducted by noon. It lasted a little more than an hour and established the cause of death as “shock due to hypovolumia (sic)” or excessive bleeding. It determined the time since death as “1 to 1 1/2 day (sic).”
The report observed three wounds to Aarushi’s head, and measured the incision on her neck at 14 centimetres by six centimeters. It also noted the presence of “whitish discharge” at her vagina and wrote that the genital area was “NAD” — nothing abnormal detected.
Dinesh Talwar, Rajesh’s brother, asked the post-mortem doctor if Aarushi had been raped. The doctor said there was no sign of it, but that the vaginal discharge would be tested.
The body was brought home and laid on ice slabs in the living room.
“Nupur had turned to stone,” says our cousin Smita Patil. “She just sat there, expressionless, biting her lip, stroking Aarushi’s hair, running her fingers on her face like you would with a sleeping child.”
The body was decomposing on the fast-melting ice. Police allowed Aarushi’s room to be cleaned. A large piece of the mattress had been cut out and sent to a forensics lab along with the pillow, bedsheet and clothes. When cleaners took the mattress to the terrace, it dripped blood on the stairs. The terrace door was still locked, so they threw the mattress on the neighbour’s terrace.
Family elders pushed for cremation, saying it would give the parents closure. Dinesh reconfirmed that police did not need the body for further examination. Aarushi was cremated around 5 p.m. The wood pyre burned through the night. The ashes would be collected the next day in a hand-stitched cloth bag and immersed in the holy Ganges River.
Nupur’s mother , Lata Chitnis, 72, is the second of my mother’s two older sisters. She was a small-town girl with aristocratic roots from India’s western state of Maharashtra; my most illustrious maternal ancestors were trusted diwans or chief advisers to a revered 17th-century king named Shivaji.
My aunt and my uncle had, through travel, broadened their outlook and embraced cosmopolitan values.
Nupur was my cool cousin who spent the first few years of her life in England, where her father, an Indian Air Force officer, was posted at the High Commission in London. I call her Nupur didi — a respectful address for an older sister.
Nupur was shy but academically brilliant. In the mid-1980s, when she brought home fellow dental school student Rajesh Talwar, a Punjabi, there was no hue and cry at home.
As with cross-racial partnerships in Canada, marrying outside the community is still rare in India. But Nupur had not been exposed to orthodoxy. She had never been expected to serve elders and men in the family before feeding herself. Indeed, she didn’t know how to cook.
Rajesh and Nupur were married in 1989.
Aarushi’s birth in 1994 gave my Aunt Lata deep joy, and she would regale us with tales of every development in her first grandchild’s life. Nupur moved from Delhi to suburban Noida so her parents could help with the baby. While Nupur was busy building her career, her mother fed Aarushi, soothed her, played with her, taught her. And when Aarushi was older, she stayed with her grandparents after school, until her parents were done with their patients. Aarushi was a picky eater, my aunt, a fabulous cook.
My aunt is a gentle soul, given to putting family ahead of herself, fretting and feeding everyone. When she talks, it is with a smile playing about her lips.
That smile is all but gone. “I hate cooking,” she says flatly.
When we’re going through photos for this story, my aunt gazes at forgotten images, transported to happier times.
“Look at this one,” she says in Marathi — our mother tongue — pointing to a photo of toddler Aarushi sitting in a vegetable basket. “Such an imp, my baby.”
And then, softly: “She was still little, you know. She wouldn’t even have comprehended these people were killing her.” Tears. “It must have happened so quickly, she wouldn’t have felt any pain. Right?”
Where was Hemraj?
A day after Aarushi’s body was found, visitors continued to arrive with condolences, some of whom barely knew the family. Among them was retired police officer K.K. Gautam.
“My police instincts took over,” he was quoted as saying in the media. “I checked Hemraj’s room and the bathroom and then noticed the bloodstains on the stairs leading to the terrace. . . .
“I broke open the door and found Hemraj’s body lying in a pool of blood on the floor. He had a slit mark on his throat and many injury marks on his body. His body was severely decomposed.”
Rajesh told police the bloating was so bad he couldn’t be sure it was Hemraj — a statement that would later be taken as evidence he was obstructing the investigation.
There was a bloody palm print on the stucco wall next to Hemraj’s body. A chunk of the wall was removed and sent to a forensics lab. Police photographed a bloody shoe print on the terrace.
An autopsy , hastily conducted that night, recorded injuries similar to Aarushi’s. It also noted abrasions to his elbows. And it determined the time since death as “1 1/2 to 2 days.”
The “Noida double murders,” as they became known, spawned millions of armchair detectives duking it out on Internet forums and in living rooms. Every development, every twist, was covered by the media. National talk shows dissected the case. Police were usually anonymously quoted. TV networks hired private investigators.
The media hammered away with questions. How could the parents have slept through the murders? Why did they rush to cremate Aarushi? Why did they clean the crime scene so quickly?
The house was rich with evidence.
But police missed the dead body on the roof. They were unable to identify fingerprints on the whisky bottle, which had been found with the blood of Aarushi and Hemraj. The palm print was made with Hemraj’s blood, but the fingerprints could not be identified. The sample had been “exhausted,” police said in their report.
On May 18, when the Talwars heard that police had said the murder weapon was not a Nepali knife but a “surgical” tool, they thought investigators were trying to make the real killer complacent.
But the tone of investigation changed.
“Why was Aarushi reading this book?” police asked. “What mistakes had she made?”
“What’s a sleepover? Did it involve adults?”
“No,” said Nupur. “They didn’t want adults around.”
“Ha. Why not? Why would she not want you there?”
A week after the murders, Rajesh was arrested. TV networks repeatedly showed him being dragged and pushed into a police car, shouting “Dinesh, they’re framing me.”
Next came the inspector-general’s press conference. After he accused Rajesh of an extra-marital affair, Gurdarshan Singh said that Rajesh had gone out at around 9:30. “And when he came home at around 11:30, he found Aarushi and Hemraj in an objectionable, though not compromising, position.
“Talwar was enraged and took Hemraj to the terrace and hit him on the head with a heavy weapon and then slit his throat. He then came down to kill Aarushi after having whisky, locked the terrace and slit his daughter’s throat.”
What was unclear was where such a detailed narrative came from. No evidence was presented.
Journalists tell me the inspector-general — the third in command in the state police force — took charge at the last minute when he saw the large gathering of media, and that he did not even know the details of the case or even Aarushi’s name.
The character assassination of Aarushi sparked outrage. Her schoolmates rallied at a candlelit protest in Delhi.
Says her classmate Rajeshwari: “I would associate this sort of behaviour (the alleged relationship with the much-older Hemraj) with someone who does not get enough attention maybe in the school or in their life. She had a beautiful relationship with her parents. She had lots of friends. She had no reason to look for affection elsewhere.”
“A 13-year-old,” Nupur tells me. “They talk about her as if she was 30 years old. The child is not even there to defend herself. I hope God forgives them for what they’re saying about her.”
Renuka Chowdhury, then federal minister for women and child development,demanded the inspector-general be suspended.
A month later, the inspector-general was transferred. Two months after that, he was transferred back .
Three years later, he was promoted to additional director-general.
The day after Rajesh’s arrest, Nupur was interviewed by NDTV , a premier news network. It would have been Aarushi’s 14th birthday. She remembers sitting at a studio but not much else. “I was like a zombie,” she says. “I was completely stunned, didn’t know what had struck us.”
In Bollywood films, when someone dies, a woman invariably lets out a piercing, heart-wrenching scream. Nupur did not. She spoke coherently and was devoid of emotion. To viewers, her stony face was damning evidence of guilt.
Aarushi had been dead 10 days and Rajesh arrested for three when Nupur broke out of her emotional paralysis.
Our cousin Smita, a meditation trainer at a spiritual group called the Art of Living , helped unlock her feelings.
“Nupur wasn’t even halfway through the session when the tears came,” Smita tells me. “She didn’t cry. She howled. It was a tremendous outpouring of pain and grief and lasted 45 minutes before it subsided into normal tears. I just let her be.”
Rajesh is still grappling with the loss. “It cannot get worse than this,” he says. “It’s not like losing your parents. Even if you lose your parents early, it is something you can accept.
“This is something I will not accept till I die.”
Nupur’s father , Group Captain B.G. Chitnis, 80, is a decorated war veteran of the Indian Air Force.
When Nupur was born, my uncle was away fighting the India-Pakistan War of 1965. He recalls rolling into Punjab on the way to Pakistan and the soldiers being hailed as heroes, being plied with rotis and other food. “There was a sense of nationalism and national pride. We had hopes of a country that would be united and strong.”
He stands tall, in a black-and-white photo, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal, or a VSM, in 1980.
Today, my uncle is a shell of his former self, his strong voice the only clue to his once-arresting persona. He and my aunt attend every court proceeding.
He draws strength from his near-death experiences in war. “When you see death is approaching you . . . that calmness is there. That gives courage to a person, ultimately.”
But he feels betrayed.
“Absolutely betrayed. I wish I was not born in this country.”
When it seemed things could not get worse, they did.
For months, media feasted on leaks from unnamed police sources. They were scandalous, accusing the Talwars of extra-marital affairs, incest, swinger parties, wife-swapping and an “honour” killing. As the whispers grew louder, the well-to-do professionals morphed into extravagantly wealthy deviants who, if allowed, would buy their way out of murder.
A prime-time television drama added a plot twist, featuring the murder of a rebellious 16-year-old girl whose kohl-rimmed eyes were just like Aarushi’s. The murderer, of course, was the father.
But in all the wild reports then, and in the prosecutors’ case today, one claim was common. That Aarushi and Hemraj had been in her bedroom that night.
There was no evidence of a relationship. There had never been a rumour in the neighbourhood. Who planted the idea?
Krishna Thadarai did. He was an assistant at the Talwars’ dental clinic. A man in his early 20s. He lived in the same housing complex and was Hemraj’s friend. Only weeks before the murder, Rajesh had offered to pay for Krishna’s education. “You study,” Rajesh had said. “I’ll get you work.”
But one day before the murders, Rajesh remembers sharply reprimanding Krishna for ordering an incorrect dental cast.
India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI ) was established in 1963. Its initial mandate to investigate federal government corruption expanded to include murders, kidnappings and terrorism. A special crimes division was set up in 1987. Today it is the national investigative agency.
On May 31, a week after Rajesh’s arrest and at Nupur’s request, the case was transferred to the CBI, under Joint-Director Arun Kumar.
Kumar was no stranger to high-profile cases. In 1998, he had been involved in a shootout in Calcutta that ended with four gangsters killed. In 2005, he led the investigation of businessman Abdul Karim Telgi in a $3.6-billion counterfeiting scandal.
The crime scene at the Talwars’ home had been so compromised that forensic evidence seemed a dead end. So Kumar turned to polygraph (lie-detector) and brain-mapping tests and narco-analysis — administering the so-called truth serum.
These tests analyze people in three states — conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious. Two years later, the Supreme Court of India would rule them unconstitutional but it would let investigators use these tests for leads.
Rajesh and Nupur took two lie-detector and one brain-mapping tests. None showed evidence of deception.
An expert team recreated sounds in the Talwars’ home with the air conditioners on. Nothing could be heard in their bedroom.
The CBI found no evidence that Hemraj had been killed in the house. His blood was not in Aarushi’s room or on the Talwars’ clothes.
The agency turned its attention to Krishna.
He was the only one who had told state police Rajesh was having an extra-marital affair and that Hemraj and Aarushi were somehow involved. As well, after Nupur tried calling Hemraj on the morning after the murder, tracking technology showed the phone had been in the cluster of flats where the Talwars lived. Krishna lived there, too.
The CBI gave Krishna polygraph and brain-mapping tests. Investigators searched his house and took a pillow cover, a blood-stained kukri and trousers. The pillow cover would later prove to be crucial evidence.
Rajesh was still in jail on July 11, when Arun Kumar held a press conference .
“There was no evidence against (Rajesh) as per the case diaries of (state) police,” he said. The CBI had found no evidence either.
What he said next was explosive. After being administered truth serum, Krishna had confessed to the crime and had incriminated two other men — Raj Kumar, a servant, and Vijay Mandal (a.k.a. Shambhu), a driver in the neighbourhood.
According to Arun Kumar, Krishna had told investigators he arrived at Hemraj’s room late at night and began drinking. The other two joined them. “They consumed alcohol and discussed Aarushi and entered her room.
“She got up and tried to scream. She was gagged. She was first hit by a hard, blunt object. They tried to sexually abuse her. That led to a scuffle. They went to a terrace, and on the terrace after a lot of struggle, Hemraj was killed. They locked down the terrace, and came down in the room of Aarushi and then slit her neck.”
All three were arrested. But this drug-induced confession was not enough to charge the men. The agency was going to pursue other evidence, Kumar said. Rajesh was released on bail after 50 days in prison.
In September, the three men were also released. The bail order said polygraph, lie-detector and narco-analysis tests showed they were involved in the killings, but police could find no hard evidence.
One year later, Kumar was removed from the case. The state government simply said his tenure at the CBI had ended. News reports said a new CBI team would take a “fresh look” at the case.
Within weeks , the fresh look led to a fresh story.
It started with changes to Aarushi’s post-mortem report . First, the suggestion that her virginity had been long lost. “Hymen was ruptured and healed (old),” wrote Sunil Dohare, the same doctor who had conducted the post-mortem 16 months earlier. “On external examination, the vaginal opening was found prominently wide open.” He did not clarify what this implied.
The doctor said he omitted these facts in his original report because “the findings were non-specific and were very strange.” The original report had said “NAD” — nothing abnormal detected.
A crime-scene analysis done for the CBI a month later, in October 2009, concluded the doctor’s revised post-mortem report indicated the possibility of an honour killing. (In India, honour killing is a stereotype of the north, including Punjab. Talwar is a Punjabi surname.)
Dohare retroactively backed this analysis by making another material addition months later. The wideness of the vaginal opening, he wrote, “indicates possible cleaning of the vaginal canal.” In other words, an attempt to eliminate any trace of sexual activity.
The CBI analysis also changed the murder weapon that delivered the blunt force. It was now identified as a golf club, not a kukri , because of the “triangular-shaped head injury.”
This analysis was based on photographs of the crime scene, not the actual crime scene. But it became the basis for CBI’s final report, which was released in December 2010 and leaked to Indian media.
The final report was supposed to provide definitive answers. It did not. It suggested both Nupur and Rajesh were involved in the murders, yet it also sought to close the case.
The report first cleared Krishna and other two servants on such grounds as, “No servants will have the guts to assemble in a house when the owners are sleeping.” It also said Krishna’s family provided him an alibi for the night.
As for the Talwars, it said, “A number of circumstances indicate the involvement of the parents in the crime and the cover up.” It, too, hinted at an honour killing and mentioned the “surgical cuts” were “the work of professionally trained experts” and suggested one of Rajesh’s golf clubs had delivered the deadly blows.
But the CBI admitted the circumstantial evidence had “critical and substantial gaps.”
That Hemraj’s blood was not detected on Rajesh and Nupur’s clothes was one. “The absence of a clear-cut motive” and “non-recovery of one weapon of offence” — the “surgical” tool — were others.
Citing a lack of evidence, investigators sought to close the case.
Had the Talwars not challenged the report, they would be free.
In reviving the theory first floated by Singh — he of the original press conference — the final CBI report would have saved face, and perhaps careers.
The Talwars, like most Indians, believed the CBI was independent of state police. It is not. It consists of officers drawn from state police forces across the country. It turned out that all the CBI officers in the Talwars’ case were colleagues of the state police who originally botched the investigation.
In seeking to close the case, the CBI appeared to tempt the Talwars to escape the arduous justice system.
Instead, the Talwars argued the case should not be closed and appealed to a court set up exclusively for cases investigated by the CBI.
The court was in nearby Ghaziabad, situated amid dirt alleyways, heaps of garbage and decrepit offices with crumbling walls.
As Rajesh left the courtroom and walked past a throng of television cameras after a hearing in January 2011, a man lunged at him and slashed his face with a meat cleaver, slicing an artery and a nerve. When Rajesh held up his hands, the cleaver tore into them, cutting tendons and breaking one finger.
The vigilante, who was overpowered, said he was upset at the slow pace of the case.
As for Rajesh’s appeal, the CBI court disagreed with both him and the CBI. It ruled there was enough in the report to charge the Talwars with murder.
With the Talwars standing trial, defence lawyers now had access to all the evidence. They came upon a forensics report dated Nov. 6, 2008, two months after Krishna and the other two suspects had been released.
It analyzed the items taken from Krishna’s room by the first CBI team, and concluded that the blood on the kukri was from an unidentified animal. The blood on the pillow cover was Hemraj’s.
Here was evidence that directly tied one of the victims to a man the CBI had originally named a suspect.
The Talwars rushed this document to the High Court. How did the CBI explain it? It said the lab had made a “typographical error” in identifying the origin of the pillow cover; it came from Hemraj’s room, not Krishna’s. There were no documents to back this assertion.
The High Court accepted the CBI explanation. That was on March 18, 2011.
The CBI next released a letter from the lab that acknowledged the typo and regretted “the inconvenience caused.” It was dated March 24, 2011.
The Talwars appealed the CBI court’s order to stand trial at the High Court and lost. They took it to the Supreme Court.
There, the defence argued that the CBI was relying on flawed evidence to prosecute them. They wanted the huge palm print found on the Talwars’ terrace and the whisky bottle tested by the Touch DNA test . This test extracts DNA from cells of the outermost layer of skin left behind after touching a surface.
The Supreme Court rejected the Talwars’ appeal, refusing to order further investigation.
Dinesh Talwar, 51, is an ophthalmologist of repute, but he may as well be a lawyer. For the past 4 ½ years, he has been a thorn in the prosecution’s side, an aggravating, detail-oriented engine for the defence, constantly pushing the Talwars’ lawyers to do more, to demand more, to expect more. He has read each word in every case document — there are thousands of pages — and has at his fingertips document numbers, dates and details.
He is the brother you want if you’re in trouble.
He has drastically cut his own clinic hours and his income has been halved. But he is driven by a vow made in 2002 to his dying father. “I promised I’d take care of my little brother,” says Dinesh.
Dinesh’s role is the most visible in the family.
Others in the family are trying to drive social media support. The Facebook group Justice for Aarushi Talwar has 4,000 supporters. The nascent @justice4aarushi handle on Twitter has 300. Friends have started an online petition for the Talwars to be given a fair trial.
Nupur’s brother, Samir, cut short his own fine life overseas and returned to India, contributing money for expenses even if it means his own young family has not had a vacation since 2008. There are monthly expenses, bail money, fees for lawyers at the CBI court and High Court.
Many of the Talwars’ patients have remained loyal even though their appointments are frequently rescheduled to accommodate court dates. The clinic’s assistant, the maid and the driver have all stayed by their side.
“If I thought (Rajesh) was guilty, why would I stay?” asks driver Umesh in Hindi. “If a man can kill his daughter, what could he do to me?” For his loyalty, Umesh was beaten so severely by a senior CBI investigator that it tore his ear drum.
And yet, the lifelong struggle is for the Talwars alone.
It had been 14 years since I last saw Nupur. When I left India 12 years ago in search of adventure, Nupur was balancing a career with mothering a 5-year-old. Not in our wildest imaginations did we foresee the circumstances of our next meeting on Sept 16, 2012.
A murder charge in India usually means a drawn-out battle for bail. Rajesh has been free since 2008, but after the CBI charged them both with murder, Nupur was arrested. That was last April.
I arrived at Dasna Jail armed with two books for Nupur, a notebook, a pen and a few questions. Rajesh came with bags of snacks and fresh fruit. A friend of theirs — the woman Rajesh was accused of having an affair with — sent a Bible for a group prayer that a Christian jail guard had organized for Nupur. Her bail hearing was to be held at the Supreme Court the next day.
The jail was built in 1996 for 720 men and women. Its superintendent, Viresh Raj Sharma, tells me it has 4,200 inmates. Of these, he says, 360 are convicts. That means more than 90 per cent of them are awaiting bail or trial, some for years. A majority of the women are accused of killing their daughters-in-law for not bringing sufficient dowry, he says.
We waited half an hour, swatting mosquitoes. The whirring fans circulated hot air and the smell of sweat and body odour. The walls had peeling plaster and dark red stains from the spit of chewed betel leaves and tobacco.
We were fingerprinted and frisked and led into the meeting room. “Hello, doctor sahib,” the policemen greeted Rajesh. The Talwars are Dasna Jail’s most famous inmates.
Two layers of metal grill separate inmates and visitors and we watched as a dozen prisoners streamed in. The last one stopped in front of us.
It took me several seconds to reconcile this fragile woman to my memory of Nupur. We raised our hands to touch fingers through the two square inches of metal. She looked at me, began to smile, faltered and burst into tears. True to form, she quickly recovered.
It’s a lonely place, she told me. “The physical discomforts one learns to live with. It’s the lack of moral support, of emotional support, not having your family or loved ones around you, not having anyone to talk to that is difficult. Time really stops. That’s hell. Completely.”
The Supreme Court of India sits on nine hectares in central Delhi. The towering domed building, made of red and white sandstone, spreads its wings on either side to represent the scales of justice. Proceedings are held in English. Transcripts are available online.
Case No. 85, Nupur Talwar vs. CBI, pitted some of country’s finest legal minds against each other over her bail application.
For the CBI, senior advocate Siddharth Luthra, a specialist in criminal law, white-collar crime, extradition and technology. He gave up his private practice to become additional solicitor-general of India in July.
For Nupur, a battery of lawyers including Harish Salve, a master strategist who was once solicitor-general. He is considered India’s top defence lawyer. Mukul Rohatgi, a tireless workhorse, an aggressive defender. These defence lawyers reportedly charge about $55,000 for a full day in court, unaffordable for the Talwars. They are working pro bono.
Key for the defence is the indomitable Rebecca John, also working pro bono, who has been with the Talwars since Day 1. Her commitment has withstood personal tragedy; within a week of her own mother’s unrelated murder in 2011, she was in court for the Talwars.
“I have gone the extra mile because I believe if you allow the investigating agencies this kind of power, then none of us are safe in this country,” says John. “None of us.”
Only two family members are allowed in the court gallery. Rajesh’s cousin Bobby and I were selected. Rajesh was near Dasna Jail to relay the outcome to Nupur. Her parents stayed home after extracting many promises from me to call after the hearing.
The Supreme Court had heard Nupur’s bail application previously. CBI prosecutors had argued then that she could tamper with 13 testimonies, (from a total of 141 witnesses). The court had directed the CBI to examine those 13 witnesses on priority.
The prosecutor opened by saying the CBI court trial would end in December. What was the harm in keeping Nupur in prison for a few more months? (It is nowhere close to completion today.)
The defence team said it could take two years to finish examining witnesses in the CBI hearing, given the current pace. Was it fair to imprison her that long when there was no evidence of witness tampering — the reason prosecutors wanted her held without bail?
Luthra said two key witnesses were missing, “which we find suspicious.”
Who were these two witnesses? One was a security guard at the housing complex where the Talwars lived. The other was a domestic help, one of India’s faceless migratory millions, who left her job at Nupur’s mother’s house three years ago.
The judge wrapped it up. Bail is granted, he said.
I called Nupur’s parents.
When I tell my cousin’s story to non-Indians, the reaction is usually shock and puzzlement. How can a country have democracy and anarchy in equal measure? How can an IT powerhouse accept outdated forensics and investigative techniques?
The answer is simple. There are many Indias.
I grew up in one of them. I lived in the same cocoon as Nupur, Rajesh and about 350 million middle-class Indians — a third of the country. Members of that group enjoy varying degrees of luxury; we had maids, cooks and drivers. Human rights, sciences and the arts are discussed within this cocoon.
The police operate outside of it. I knew they were not like Law & Order SVU . I did not expect yellow tape around a crime scene. I did expect police to protect it by at least shutting doors. It came as a shock an investigative system could fail so badly.
It has been sobering. The birth of my two children in the past five years has made me consider what I value about where I live. Before Aarushi’s murder, India was a magical place for me, despite its flaws. Since then, it has become intimidating. I once cherished my pride in the country. I now grieve the loss of that pride.
For the couple in the epicentre of this tragedy, life has been intolerable. Robbed of a chance to grieve their daughter’s death, Nupur and Rajesh are despondent and bewildered.
“Even a thing like going to the temple is difficult,” says Rajesh. “People stare, point, talk among themselves.”
The social judgment has made them defensive, withdrawn and inward-looking. Rajesh was once garrulous. He can now sit quietly for hours, looking blank.
“I just keep wondering, why has it happened to us?” Rajesh says. “What did we do wrong? I didn’t harm anybody, not even meant any harm to anybody.
“We have just no answers. We’ve gone from Hinduism to spiritualism to Islam to Christianity to everything . . . we’ve met gurus. Why are we facing this? The only answer we get is it must be your karmas (deeds from past births that you pay for now).”
The CBI declined to speak with me for this story because the trial is underway. Hearings have been held twice a week since November. Even under this “fast-track” process, the defence still expects the case to last at least two years — before any appeals.
Nupur’s father, the old soldier, still has fight in him. “We’ve got to strategize, Nupa,” he tells her, a day after she was released from jail. “Rest up. We’ll fight them.”
Nupur squares her shoulders. “I feel a little stronger now. I never thought I’d say that five months ago when I entered (jail). I think our child is giving me the strength. The grief will always be there. But I’m not going to sit back until I get justice for her and for us.
“Society has really treated her badly, treated us badly. Somewhere this has to end for all of us. It’s not a matter of us getting vindicated and us sitting back.
“The criminals still roam free. How can we let that happen?”
Indian media reports that Krishna is back in Nepal.