This is not a book I would normally be drawn to. I don’t care a bit about the unravelling of a murder investigation, no matter how thrilling or disgusting. I can live without knowing whether the body had really been cut into three hundred pieces. But I leapt at this book because it was written by Meenal Baghel. I suspect that any number of readers will do the same. In a country where mainstream media has very little credibility, Meenal is known – and slightly feared – as a ferocious professional. I’ve only met her once, briefly (and relieved to find her a laughing, friendly person) – but have known her for years by reputation through the Mumbai Mirror and the various Mirror images around the country she spawned. “She knows exactly what she wants” is what people who have worked with her tend to say. I do know that she’s very good – unlike many others in her position – at returning phone calls, answering emails, and following up on reader feedback.
Still, this is the story of a crime that I was not interested in – so it was a surprise that, when I put this book down after about fifty pages to try and get back to work, I couldn’t concentrate because the lifelike characters Meenal Baghel described were pulling me back into their story.
In May 2008, Neeraj Grover, a twenty-five-year-old television executive from Kanpur was killed. The prime suspect was Maria Susairaj, a Kannada starlet and aspiring TV actress. Her ‘fiancé’ Emile Jerome, a naval officer based in Kochi at the time, was almost certainly implicated in the crime.
If you read the Cast of Characters and Preface at the beginning of this book, it is no longer a murder mystery. But if you follow the sequence of events and the side-by-side analysis and description, as I did, the end comes as a satisfying resolution of plot with everything falling neatly in place.
After a chapter laying the background and describing the killing, subsequent chapters tell the separate stories of Maria and Emile. In the next section which describes various attempts to make a film of this gruesome incident, the chapters tell of Ekta Kapoor, Moon Das and Ram Gopal Varma. The final section is Neeraj’s story and winds up with details of the interrogation, the confession, the court case, and the verdict.
Although most of the book is high-quality fact-filled descriptive reporting, the bits I enjoyed most were gossip, conjecture, and Meenal Baghel’s editorial voice-over of historic footnotes and her occasional flight of poetic fancy. “In the pre-L’Oreal generation, an academic duffer’s best bet was to study home science,” she writes, “and an ad extolling her homely-comely charms in the matrimonial section of a newspaper. But the collective fetishizing of Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra as beauty queens opened up a whole world of possibilities for middle class girls who otherwise failed at the Great Indian Crucible: Studies. Now, everyone was worth it, deserving of a stab at the good life. Beauty pageants became the new UPSC.”
I felt a bit disappointed in places when I felt Meenal Baghel was being judgemental and opinionated – though I’ll admit enjoying her sudden insight that all the vamps in Ekta Kapoor’s shows (for some reason I got the feeling that Meenal Baghel is not a great admirer of Ekta Kapoor), from their clothes down to their intricate bindis, looked remarkably like her mother Shobha.
I loved the descriptions of the new age Oshiwara:
Just as Soho has its sex shops, Charminar its bangles, Castro its gay community, and Ginza its boutiques, Oshiwara has its clairvoyants, astrologers, vastu consultants, gemologists, tarot card readers, rune readers, aura diviners, and numerologistsThe descriptions of police chowkies were fascinating too:
The Oshiwara police station resembled Lego blocks assembled by a disinterested child. Wadala TT was situated in the middle – yes, smack in the middle – of busy railway tracks. Go complain at your own peril. Likewise Yellow Gate near the docks lay at the end of a deserted lane with no lights. At the Antop Hill police station the only drinking water available was from a filthy sink plumbed right at the door of an even filthier loo. When the promised land for their building failed to materialise, the cops at the Maharashtra Housing Board police station in Borivali (like their counterparts in various other suburbs of Mumbai) were instructed to set up the police station within their own living quarters.But I was happy to learn that the Maharashtra police force has intelligent, sensitive, well-read and highly-skilled officers like Inspector Raorane – though I’ll admit feeling diffident about ever meeting the man; if I did he would notice the dark rings around my eyes right away and oh my god, what will he ever think.
Now. Is this book, as its blurb boasts, ‘a fascinating insight into a new type of crime affecting the Indian city’? I suppose so. However, if we must have a trite summing up, I'd offer ‘not just the report of a murder investigation but also a telling commentary on Indian tabloid journalism, neuroses that afflict the entertainment industry, and police investigative techniques’ as more appropriate.