AARUSHI by Avirook Sen

Let me start this review by nailing my colours to the mast.

“Aarushi” is a brilliantly written, meticulously detailed, gripping piece of work, and should be read by every single person who cares about India and justice.

This is a book that should be made compulsory reading for every student of law, for every aspiring policeman or policewoman, and for every student of journalism.

For this book holds up a mirror to the first two professions, revealing their flaws and defects and, in parallel, the huge moral responsibility they both bear.

And any student of journalism should be proud to take a leaf out of Mr. Sen’s book –  his research and attention to detail are meticulous, his research is thorough, unbiased and clearly presented.

Reading Avirook Sen’s extraordinary book “Aarushi” is an emotional experience in so many ways. Reliving the horror of the murder of a 13 year old girl is traumatic, even for we the readers.  For anyone who was living in India at the time – May 2008 – the memory of the gruesome murder, the arrest of the child’s father, his release, then the subsequent arrest, trial and the shocking conviction of both parents for her murder –  all those memories are still surprisingly fresh, for this was a sensational case, which had every one of us gripped.

I remember blogging about the case, willing the parents to be innocent.

But the lurid details of wife swapping in Noida, the widely circulated theory that the 13 year old was having a consensual sexual relationship with a middle aged male servant, all of this was fodder to what passes for journalism here in India.

Sorry if that sounds harsh, but there you go.

We have a hysterical TV press at the best of times, and this cocktail of sex, murder, servants, wife swapping, golf clubs, locked doors, seemingly unemotional parents (that must prove they were guilty, right? No public hysteria was suspicious, right?)…oh, it was all too good for the TV ratings.  No matter that most of it was hearsay, unproven, salacious tidbits leaked by an irresponsible investigating team.

Don’t believe me?

Well, read this astonishing book, and you soon will.

In the first few pages of the book, we see the police at work.  It is a truly terrifying catalogue of incompetence, to put it mildly.  The words I would actually like to use would not make for polite reading.

Read this extract below, and pray that you never, ever, ever find yourself at the receiving end of such inept, unprofessional, insensitive “policing” :

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Mr. Sen writes in a clear, unbiased voice about the chaos and cacophony surrounding the trial of 2 bereaved parents, and though never taking an overt stand, you know where his sympathies lie.  With the dignified, grieving Talwars, rather than the servile, incompetent authorities.

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Unlike the TV anchors going after ratings (and did one of them really dip his hands in red paint to simulate blood on camera?) Mr. Sen attended all the court hearings, quietly interviewed as many of the protagonists as he could, and, in a hugely chilling end to the book, he re-visits and re-chats with the main players once the trial is over, and the Talwars are incarcerated.  Even in jail, bereaved, the Talwars remain dignified.

And if your blood hasn’t already boiled with the parade of self-serving, incompetent police, CBI and lawyers who were let loose on the Talwars, then the conclusion of this fine book will certainly make you angry.  And very, very scared for anyone fighting for justice.

Trust me.

The most frightening interview in the book is the one Mr. Sen has with Shyam Lal, the now retired judge who sentenced the Talwars, and promptly retired a few days after sentencing.

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The above is straight out of the realm of buffoonery.  But to be fair, not everyone can speak and write well in English, but why the system allows such a travesty as this is mystifying.

But it is the final moments of the book that should make you sit up and make you very angry:

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The only thing I still can’t quite comprehend, even after reading this fine book is this: why?

Why did 2 people have to bear the brunt not only of a personal tragedy of unimaginable horror, but also the full weight of a conniving, incompetent system?

Evidence was withheld, was blatantly tampered with, and yet no-one seemed to be in the least concerned.  The case of the purple pillow is so shocking that you keep wondering if you have somehow misunderstood the implications.  But no.  Evidence was tampered with.  And no-one other than the Talwars seems bothered.  Certainly not the investigative agencies.

If the Talwars had been politicians or industrial giants or CEOs or cricketers or Bollywood stars, you could (with perhaps some justification) claim such a travesty of justice to be a cover up or a vendetta – whatever was appropriate.

But these were 2 ordinary middle class people.  Professionals.  Educated.  Loving parents.  So why the massive all-encompassing travesty of justice?  It can’t surely all have been a self-serving cover-up, with everyone too scared to admit to their mistakes and failures?  So just bluff your way out and compound the situation?  Surely not?

But, terrifyingly, that seems to be the only conclusion.

If you haven’t already bought this book, then please do so now by clicking on one of the links.  You owe it to yourself.  And to the Talwars.

GOD IS A GAMER by RAVI SUBRAMANIAN

What a very clever and intriguing whodunnit this book is.  A financial thriller, involving banking (yes, indeed, banking of all things) and gaming and bitcoins and politics and death and love  – and the whole combo makes for a great read.

This is the second book by Mr. Subramanian that I have been asked to review, and one thing is patently clear  –  the writer has got himself a way better editor this time round.  When I reviewed “The Bankster” I commented on the poor editing that did Mr. Subramanians’s fine writing  no favours.

No such issues this time round.

So, the story.  I can’t tell you anthing about the ins and outs of the plot, now can I, since this is, after all, a story involving murder and crime on a massive scale, so any plot spoilers would be, well, just downright criminal.

Mumbai, Washington DC, New York, Goa –  the action shifts between these places, involving a cast of Indians and Americans.  The story unfolds in short crisply written chapters, as we explore worlds that were totally unknown to me before  – the worlds of gaming and of bitcoins.  “God is a Gamer” reveals to us the highest levels of finance and politics, top secret computing and the virtual bitcoin economy.  The story centres around high-level technology, but manages not to baffle the reader.  Take me, for example – I knew next to nothing about gaming and bitcoins –  and yet never felt excluded from the story.  Enough was explained to bring me up to speed, without the storyline being slowed down.  Good writing, if ever there was.

The gradual drawing together of all the different threads in this tangled, dangerous, intercontinental web – politics and romance and computing and terrorism and murder and the FBI and banking – is cleverly done.  But I can’t tell you how or why, or it would spoil a great story.

If I have one teensy weensy caveat, it is that the end seems rushed.  Throughout the book, the writer maintains a detailed pace, leading us slowly and carefully ever deeper and deeper into the dark heart of his story, and then all of a sudden, it’s over.  There’s a quick bit of mopping-up in the epilogue, telling us which characters went where and did what and where they ended up, but I felt a bit cheated.  I would much rather have had a longer read, and no quick wrapping up.

But there is one great twist, right at the end.  Really clever.

 

I certainly learned a lot from this novel, because of course I googled bitcoins and TOR and Satoshi Nakamoto.

And they all exist.

Which makes me wonder, of course, what else and who else also really exists outside the pages of this book…

 

Recommended.

 

Just published by Penguin, the paperback of “God is a Gamer” costs Rs299 (real money, not bitcoins).

If you would like to read the book now, having read this review, it couldn’t be simpler.  

Just click on one of the links below :


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THE HABIT OF WINNING by PRAKASH IYER

“The Habit of Winning” is a self-help motivational book but with a distinct Indian masala twist, which will most definitely appeal to the Indian reader.

Prakash Iyer has written an easily readable, crisply written book, divided into handy bite-sized chapters.

He draws on his years in corporate management to pass on his own tips for success, for self-actualisation, for motivation, all done in a concise, snappy style.  He uses the technique of a story-teller, making each of his points about positivity, perserverance, confidence building via a story or an anecdote.  Each short chapter has its own piece of advice, which is then summarised in a one or two sentence conclusion, almost like a mantra you can memorise and carry with you.  There is a variety of stories, each one forming a chapter : inspirational anecdotes about the likes of Ratan Tata and Winston Churchill, Gandhi-ji and a newer icon, Michelle Obama, about NBA basketball players and even the legendary story of Dastur Neryosang Dhaval, who led the first group of Zoroastrians to India in AD 755.

With his cosmopolitan mix of stories, some Indian-themed, some are global stories, and some are personal anecdotes, Mr Iyer keeps reiterating his mantra that everyone can become a winner.

There is a nice story about the legendary Michale Phelps, who won eight gold medals for swimming in the Beijing Olympics.  After an injury in 2007, we learn how this determined, focused young man continued to practise in the pool, despite having his arm in plaster. Unable to swim using his arms, he worked especially hard on his leg muscles. Analysis of his 7th gold medal win, by the heart-stopping 1/100th of a second’s margin over his rival (poor fellow, by the way) would show that in the final 5 metres, Phelps’ super strong leg actions clinched the race and the gold medal.

The moral of this ultimate feel-good story is clear : “When you are down and in trouble keep fighting. Don’t give up.  Keep kicking.”  Literally.

A story like this is easy to relate to, and it’s also easy to extract Mr. Iyer’s message.

I particularly liked Mr. Iyer’s own personal story about flying kites as a 6 year old little boy in Jaipur.  He loses his kite because he doesn’t tie a knot around the tin of Cherry Blossom shoe polish which he uses to wrap his kite string around.  Rather endearingly, he tells us that he didn’t actually know how to tie a knot at that young age.  He uses this anecdote as an illustration of how to handle people in a team –  just as you (apparently –  I didn’t know this) make a kite fly higher by pulling it towards you, so you let people working for you soar, by pulling them towards you with care and interest.

If it doesn’t sound odd, one of the things that I like about the book is the fact that the chapter are short and to the point.  You can dip in and out of the book, read one or two chapters, and then take time to think them over.

I also love his chapter titles, some of which entice you to read them simply because they are so quirky sounding : “Who stole my cookies ?”  “Lessons in survival from frogs and Phelps.”  “Don’t change your rabbit.”  And my personal favourite : “Catching fish with strawberries and cream.”

A feel-good read.

Published by Penguin, “The Habit of Winning” costs Rs 299.

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