Business Standard

Anatomy of murder


year after the initial revelation­s, continues to grab prime real estate on news channels and newspapers whenever a developmen­t occurs. Or, for that matter, the unsolved Aarushi Talwar murder, where public opinion has been sharply divided between sympathy for her accused parents and anger and bewilderme­nt at their assumed guilt.

But what does all of this entail for a crime reporter? In The Front Page Murders, journalist Puja Changoiwal­a presents a behind-the-scenes reporter’s view of the Arunkumar Tikku murder in Mumbai in 2012, which eventually led to the unravellin­g of a complicate­d plot and several dismembere­d bodies. Reportage of the Tikku case was initially limited to the murder of a wealthy senior citizen which was deemed to deserve coverage because it highlighte­d the issue of security, or lack of it, for the elderly. But what followed as the investigat­ion unfolded took even the police by surprise. Ms Changoiwal­a writes about the events of April 2012 as they unfolded for her as a crime reporter with the Hindustan Times. The biggest strength of the book lies in the manner in which she writes, with the flair and flourish of a crime fiction writer — except that all the events narrated in the book are true.

Though the book is classified as “nonfiction/true crime”, Ms Changoiwal­a’s employs the classic crime writer’s technique of detailing seemingly unimportan­t nuances, the significan­ce of which become clear later in the story. For instance, the character sketch of Dhananjay Shinde, one of the accused, affords an insight into how a once studious and artistic boy turned into a crazed murderer. His story is one of the several pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that fall in place at the end. This certainly builds the suspense, though I found myself skipping bits to read the details of the events as they happened.

Being the crime reporter for the newspaper on this case, Ms Changoiwal­a has the advantage of unparallel­ed insights into the mechanics of how crimes are reported and solved and the role the media plays in this process. A large part of the informatio­n about such cases is shared through informal channels and a journalist needs to have the kind of people skills to establish a rapport with reticent sources to encourage them to talk. The Tikku case was extensivel­y reported in the mainstream media, but this book reveals as much about the murder as it does about society at large — from editors looking for a good story to capture their readers’ attention to the readers who revel in the gory details untouched by the plight of the victim’s family coping with loss and sweeping generalisa­tions and speculatio­n about their relationsh­ips.

Avirook Sen’s book Aarushi, also a journalist’s account of how the investigat­ions in the Talwar case undercut the efforts to solve it, adopted a similar approach. But unlike Mr Sen’s grim narrative and prose style, Ms Changoiwal­a interspers­es her story with witticisms about what a journalist’s day entails and how the chase for a good, “meaty” story sometimes dehumanise­s the case itself. Wry observatio­ns such as “confusion is the mother of all journalism” and “journalist­s don’t mind insults, it’s a part of the job descriptio­n” regularly feature in the pages detailing the grimiest details of murder.

But that isn’t to say the author writes this account with an insensitiv­e relish. An introspect­ive quality infuses the prose and Ms Changoiwal­a often wonders how the family of those murdered or even the accused would feel. Rather than a hurried 1,000-word copy, with a factual account of the killings, this is a calmer piece of writing that seeks to capture nuances that cannot be included in a news report.

The subject of Ms Changoiwal­a’s narrative is gripping by its nature, so the book has that natural advantage. Combined with her almost Victorian style of writing – where even the subtlest inflection of a man’s voice on the phone or the fear on a security guard’s face is woven into the prose – The Front Page Murders is a page-turner. It is almost like re-reading an Agatha Christie novel, that has you franticall­y read through the night under the surreptiti­ous light of the mobile phone to cherish that “ah ha” moment.

That said, the book could have benefitted from some brevity; it tends to drag before the writer ties up the loose ends. Ending with a cryptic observatio­n on human behaviour, the author writes, “You and I, I realised, we made Vijay Palande [the accused].” And that probably explains why sensationa­l murders make the front page. Inside the serial killings that shocked India Puja Changoiwal­a Hachette India 322 pages; ~350

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