Delhi journalist Nishita Jha was a college student in May 2008, when the story of a DPS Noida schoolgirl murdered at home broke. The Aarushi Talwar case – a 14-year-old found in bed with her throat slit, a middle-aged male domestic worker, Hemraj Banjade, whose body was found on the roof a day later, distraught parents turned murder suspects, and a botched investigation – has obsessed Indian journalists and news watchers ever since.
Trial By Error, Jha’s new podcast, reconstructs a case that has literally gotten six seasons and a movie (or two) in the public eye. Commissioned last year by Arré Digital, which holds the rights to Avirook Sen’s bestselling book Aarushi, the podcast will on the Arre website and the Saavn music app on 1 May, 2016.
We’ve heard a version of the first episode and are hooked in spite of ourselves. Even if you, like us, have been put off by the reams of irresponsible journalism that has shaped – and possibly destroyed – this particular case, Jha’s conversational tones and crisp writing will make you clutch your headphones. It’s a good way to catch up with a case you might not know much about; on first listen, it’s also a responsible, scream-free way to reconsider the story.
Is it going to be your breakfast Serial? Jha and the podcast’s producers, Ayesha Sood and Udayan Baijal of Hauz Khas Village-based production company Jamun, love Sarah Koenig’s show. Sood has also been obsessed with the case for a long time, and she and Baijal are both interested in true crime. “It’s a great way to look at the systems we live in,” Baijal says. “We might say we’ll never commit a murder. But we can’t say we’ll never be accused of committing one.”
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The NPR-ish tone and strong reporting makes dramatic reconstruction much more appealing. “I tried to put on a “radio voice,” Jha says, “but it sounded awful. It took several tries to realise that what works on a podcast is to sound normal, like you’re talking on the phone.”
Fresh out of college, two years after the murders, Jha worked at Tehelka, a magazine that reported the story in deep detail, and in the conviction that the Talwar parents are innocent of the crimes. She never covered the case herself, but her connection to the story is more intimate still.
In May 2008, Jha’s younger sister Fiza was also a DPS Noida student – and the little girl whose outdated passport photo flashed all day on the television was Fiza’s dear friend. “Those early days were so, so strange,” Nishita remembers. “Most of our family friends are journalists, and almost anyone that came over to comfort her would also try to press her to remember details about Aarushi, or Hemraj, or the family,” she says. “Anything to help the case, or to get a story.”
Fiza speaks on Trial By Error; so do a score of others associated with the case. This is the “first time,” Jha promises, that many of these people tell their own stories – “not just the family, but also investigators, and other characters that I can’t reveal too much about.”
It's also impossible to talk about the case without talking about how its investigators and the media influenced its outcome. There are persistent charges that it was horrifically messed up by the police, but Jha won’t just rest on these assumptions. “I have to talk about and understand the world of the average UP cop that shows up on a crime scene like this.”
“We’d like to think of the podcast as ‘post-book,’” Baijal says. “Avirook Sen’s Aarushi shows you what happened, we’re trying to tell you how these things happened.”
We don't know if Trial By Error will offer its listeners a major news break. But as Serial showed, reconstructing old investigations in new ways can sometimes shed surprising light on a story everyone thought they knew.
Getting there: Trial By Error will debut on Saavn on May 1 as a weekly podcast; each episode will be about 20 minutes long. It will also be available on www.arre.co.in.
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