By Selina Sheth May. 03, 2016
In the age of hyperlinks and 24X7 news, there is no way to arrest a snowballing rumour. The Talwars learnt this when they became the monsters in their own nightmare.
The summer I was fifteen, I went on a date with a nice boy in my year at school who “liked” me – we sneaked into a patchy screening of Grease 2 and held sweaty hands in the dark environs of Chanakya cinema. This was New Delhi, a naïve, hormone-charged Age of Innocence in 1987.
The morning after my date with romantic bliss, my teenaged dragon-slayer date morphed into a regular tell-all creep with a talent for embellishment. By third period geography, everyone in class believed that my bruises (from basketball practice) were love bites. By the time the bell rang at the end of the day, I was the slut who could be felt up by anyone willing to give me a ride home in a red Maruti. I laughed it off, not realising how much this mythology would define my entire adolescence. Even so, I escaped relatively unscathed. But I became aware of something larger and more important: how dangerous rumour can be, how ignorant assumptions can sometimes end in real, inescapable tragedy for people, families, and society as a whole.
Urban India of the late 1980s was a deprived, albeit interesting, landscape. But by 2008, it had changed into a harsher, more unforgiving ground. Rumour had morphed into a sinister, vicious tumour, a force more powerful than fact.
Which brings us to that year’s controversial double murder of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj Banjade in Noida, a suburb of Delhi’s NCR. Aarushi’s parents, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, had been convicted of the crime – as we now know, unfairly and purely on circumstantial grounds. What refused to die, however, was public opinion, a shapeless monster based not only on rumour but substantiated by its equally hell-raising twin, cultural conditioning.
In the days, weeks, months, and years that followed the death of 14-year-old Aarushi and the family’s domestic employee, 40-something Hemraj, much was said, conjectured, and spun out. The media stoically presented every update, and with it, a nightly dose of wagging tongues, masquerading as insider analysis, which creatively stabbed guesses at the mindset of every bumbling cop, provincial judge, social frenemy, moralistic neighbour, and confused onlooker. The soppy towel of rumour and cultural conditioning was wrung dry; sound bites and editorials amounted to little more than careless character assassination; social, economic, and class-based stereotypes thrived.
Aarushi was an out-of-control tease. Aarushi had promiscuous affairs. Rajesh Talwar had a temper. Rajesh Talwar was an alcoholic. Rajesh Talwar had promiscuous affairs. Nupur Talwar was a swinger. Nupur Talwar had promiscuous affairs. Nupur Talwar did not cry even once.
Aarushi’s parents had been convicted of the crime – as we now know, unfairly and purely on circumstantial grounds.
And what of Hemraj? He wasn’t sexy enough to speculate on. He was a servant, an anonymous Nepali worker with natural links to criminals from his vague hometown in the hills. A gang of them was drinking that night in Hemraj’s room, whisky fuelling their lust for the nubile Aarushi sleeping next door. Easy for any of them to attempt rape and then commit murder. Wait. Actually, it was Hemraj himself who had a thing going with Aarushi. Weren’t the two of them found in a “compromising” position by a furious Rajesh Talwar? An honour killing – no doubt about it.
The rumours swirled on and built in momentum for the next five years.
Coincidentally, during this time, I co-wrote the screenplay of a Bollywood film called Love Affair. The story is based on real events and is set around the 1959 South Bombay murder of Prem Ahuja, a wealthy, charismatic business tycoon with an eye for attractive women. Ahuja was having an affair with Sylvia, the beautiful English wife of a Gujarati-Parsi Naval Commander, Kavas Nanavati. As per court records, when Nanavati heard of the matter, he confronted Ahuja with a loaded gun and demanded that Ahuja do the honourable act of marrying Sylvia. When Ahuja scoffed and refused, Nanavati shot him in cold blood and then calmly turned himself in.
The scandal rocked the city, but even more shocking than the crime, was Nanavati’s acquittal by a lower court. Rumour and cultural conditioning had scored another victory: Nanavati was a naval hero, driven out of sheer macho honour to kill his wife’s scoundrel of a lover. The all-female Parsi jury cried into their hankies and saw Nanavati as a romantic figure; the tabloid BLITZ, owned by a fellow Parsi, further oiled and greased this myth of male pride and bravado; a blockbuster movie called Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke was quickly made to uphold the moral sanctity of marriage. And Prem Ahuja, murdered in his bath towel in his Worli bedroom, went from hapless victim to villain of the piece, truth and justice be damned.
Eventually, Nanavati was convicted, and a few years later, officially pardoned. He and his family left the country soon after. The case faded out, remaining notable for only one reason: It would be the last trial by jury in India. Because juries can be swayed – by rumour and cultural conditioning – and that counted for more in the early days of the Nanavati trial than the presence of eyewitnesses and solid legal evidence.
Both cases highlight how guilt and innocence is so deeply and often irreversibly determined by damning public perception
Hemraj Banjade’s role in Aarushi’s death has not been proved. He might have been protecting Aarushi from intruders, and even if not, he too fell victim and lost his life on that fateful, bloody night in May 2008. Judging by the coverage of the case, not too many people mourned him. His “kind” are no naval heroes akin to the Nanavatis of the world. Unfortunately for Hemraj, his life and death elicited little or no public sympathy.
Two sensational murders – and their subsequent trials – separated by half a century in time and playing to very different circumstances. Ironically, the public consuming these trials hadn’t changed all that much. Both cases highlight how guilt and innocence is so deeply and often irreversibly determined by damning public perception, a perception more stubborn and strong-willed than iron-clad facts.
Rumour and cultural conditioning will not disappear from the human psyche, from the individual and collective need of a continuously evolving society to speculate and demystify when there are no clear answers. In any case, the truth, as all philosophy will insist, has many layers and multiple interpretations. What is scary is when the truth simply becomes irrelevant – footnotes in a ghost story rather than the deserving finales of the dramas that are real life.
Selina Sheth has worked as a broadcast journalist, a network commissioning executive, a screenwriter and a content editor. She is an obsessive reader and a dedicated student of Hatha and Ashtanga yoga.