04 June 2012

Death in Mumbai

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.
In May 2008, a young, handsome television executive named Neeraj Grover was murdered in the apartment of his lover, a little-known actress named Maria Susairaj. The two main suspects were Susairaj and her fiancé, naval officer Emile Jerome. As the case unravelled in graphic detail in the Indian media, it was discovered that Neeraj Grover’s body was hacked, dismembered (into three hundred different pieces, one newspaper alleged), burned, and buried. The case was played out in court—and, most sensationally, in the news—until June 2011, when, three years and twenty-three days after Neeraj Grover was murdered, the trial court convicted Emile Jerome of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced him to ten years’ imprisonment. Maria Susairaj was exonerated of the murder charges and convicted of destruction of evidence. She was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and had, ironically, completed her term by the time the judgement was announced.

It was one of the most-reported crimes of the last decade in India. Its striking protagonists—all young, beautiful, ambitious, sexually liberated—dominated the media for months. The crime captured the imagination of an entire country and, notably, several filmmakers. In the aftermath of this spectacle comes Death in Mumbai: A True Story by Meenal Baghel, a comprehensive report of what has come to be known as the Neeraj Grover case. A book like this depends much on the timeliness of its publication; Death in Mumbai, perhaps because of rushed production, contains some typographical errors, questionable translations from Hindi, and minor inconsistencies, none of which, however, detract from the sheer thoroughness of the book. 

In this Capote-esque venture, Baghel extensively interviews the people involved in the case and puts together a compelling account. Her research is in-depth and painstaking. She follows both the paper trail and the human trail closely, and is careful to tell the story from several perspectives. Baghel journeys to the acting studio where Susairaj once enrolled, to the naval base where Jerome was posted, and, in a particularly poignant chapter, even to Kanpur, where she has a moving encounter with Grover’s grief-stricken family. She spares no detail in her description of the violent crime and the police investigation that uncovered its gruesome particulars. Her questioning is persistent and her writing straightforward. And, by its very nature, the story is gripping.

The night before the murder, Susairaj had invited Grover to her apartment, presumably to spend the night. She had also intentionally provoked her fiancé into jealousy by informing him of the fact. The crux of the case lies in Susairaj’s intentions that night. Had she, not unlike Roxie Hart in the musical Chicago, realised that Grover had been leading her on with his many promises of a television role, and invited Jerome to murder him? Or had she, miserable about Jerome’s inability to go against his family’s wishes and marry her, taunted Jerome with Grover’s presence in her apartment in a desperate attempt to push him into commitment? And, most importantly, what is it that triggers ambitious, intelligent professionals into such inconceivable depravity?

Unlike Capote, though, Baghel offers no insight into the motivations of the crime, even as she reconstructs it exhaustively. Very little is gleaned from a reading of this book that could not be gleaned from actually following the story in the news, aside from a careful de-sensationalisation of the events. In the last chapter especially, Baghel poses all the right questions—questions that everyone has been asking—but none of the answers. She compiles information in copious amounts, but almost never analyses it. While she does occasionally enter the pages of the book, it is to describe specific and momentary experiences and not to put forth an opinion.

While the case is still pending in court, Susairaj tells Baghel, “I have come to know [Emile] better in these last three years during our court meetings than I did in our one year of courtship. Given time and space I feel we can work out our relationship.” This is a most bizarre revelation, considering that Jerome has spent the three years framing Susairaj for the murder he was later convicted for. If Baghel had any reservations about Susairaj’s faith in her relationship with Jerome, she neither voices them nor investigates the statement any further. The rest of the book is filled with such alarm-bell moments, but Baghel seems to take almost everything she hears at face value, making the book a report rather than an investigation. She wonders, but does not hypothesize; she recounts, but does not examine.

What the author does do, though, is contextualise the brutal events. As in any other book set in Mumbai, the city spins its own narrative. Both Grover and Susairaj were seduced by the big city in ways their families never understood. Was it the city—the “dream factory”—that was to be their undoing? The Neeraj Grover case was the flag-bearer of what the book’s blurb calls “a new type of crime affecting the Indian city”.

The murder itself is dealt with very quickly, albeit thoroughly, in a few chapters. In the rest of the book, Baghel strays into Mumbai’s film and television industry through interviews with Moon Das, another scandal-ridden actress from a small town (who was, at one point, offered the role of Maria Susairaj in one of the films that the case inspired), Ram Gopal Varma, a maverick filmmaker who made a movie about the murder (and claims to have “a hundred per cent strike rate” with women), and Ekta Kapoor, India’s best-known producer of soap operas and made-for-television films, with whom Grover once worked.

These are the most telling sections of the book. Each is cleverly placed to inform our understanding of this particular brand of white-collar crime. They create the ambience of Oshiwara, the glamorous, deeply superstitious television heartland of Mumbai, where Grover worked, and where Susairaj hoped to work. They speak of the lengths to which aspirants will go to achieve fame and celebrities will go to retain it; they are full of surprising little revelations and flashes of insight. Ultimately, the book is more a portrait of this world than of Neeraj Grover’s murder.

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