How many of you can recall the shattering Nirbhaya Case. I am sure many of you still remember that incident which created headlines and after the untiring efforts of Indian law and Nirbhaya’s parents, the culprits got punished. But why am I saying all these? Dear Readers this time I am presenting the author of the book, Courting Injustice: The Nirbhaya Case and Its Aftermath, Mr. Rajesh Talwar. Join me what author Talwar shared with me about his journey in the industry.
Welcome Rajesh Talwar Sir, it’s a definite matter of pride for me to present you on this platform. I am sure many know you already but for my readers, I insist you share few words about you, your family, and your education.
Let me start with myself, and the family. I’m what they call an ‘army brat’ although I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly brattish (smile). My late father Vidya Sagar Talwar was a Colonel in the army and as a result, we kept getting transferred from one city or town to some other place every few years. The disadvantage here is that the children such as we were keep getting uprooted every three years or so and have to make friends all over again. The great advantage though is that of exposure. Over the years before you reach University you have already had a kind of Bharat darshan.
It might seem that my family was not a literary family given the nature of my father’s profession but that is not strictly speaking true. My mother Pushp Talwar was, and continues to be, till this day, a great reader. She would handle my father’s absences – when he was in field area or in a war such as the 62 war with China – by getting immersed in books. She also – in a very natural way, without any force feeding – got me and my two brothers into the reading habit.
Both my brothers are Generals in the army; one serving and the other retired. My elder brother Lt General Sanjiv Talwar, PVSM retired as Engineer-in-Chief a couple of years ago. My younger brother Major General Sumit Talwar has just returned from a posting in Panagarh, a small town in the Durgapur suburb of West Bengal, famous for being infested with deadly snakes. The reading habit continues and all three of us keep suggesting books to each other every other week.
It might seem that my father was the only non-literary one in the family but that is not true, strictly speaking. Every now and then he would mouth some wording from an Urdu sher or ghazal and every now and again recite obscure but profound Persian poetry that would leave all of dazzled!
I finished schooling at La Martiniere, Lucknow. I did my BA Hons at Hindu College, in the University of Delhi, a wonderful place then and now where we learnt life’s most important lessons. In 1996 I went on a British Chevening Scholarship to do my LL M in International Human Rights Law from the University of Nottingham. Since then, I have attended courses at the London School of Journalism, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the London Film Academy, and so on. I have also studied for longer and shorter durations at Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge – and hope to write about my experiences there someday.
So far you penned down on multiple topics ranging from social justice to law and culture. What is that particular topic about which you enjoyed writing the most and why.
It’s really difficult to pick a favorite book. It’s a bit like asking a parent to choose between his children. But since you ask about enjoyment, I must say that I have enjoyed writing all my children’s books a great deal, be it ‘Fabulous Four Battle Zoozoo, the Wizard,’ or even ‘The Sleepless Beauty’. It was sheer pleasure or enjoyment, unlike the case with some other books targeted at an adult audience. What happens is that when you write a novel, you suffer alongside your characters, so it is not really ‘enjoyment’ as the word is traditionally understood. So, in the case of my new novel ‘How to Kill a Billionaire’ I really suffered alongside the principal character and even some of the less important characters. It was a hugely satisfying experience but also in many ways a very painful experience. Even in my book on Subhash Bose, ‘The Vanishing of Subhash Bose,’ even though it was non-fiction, I suffered along with Bose in all the difficulties he faced.
Your book ‘The Judiciary on Trial,’ (Cosmos Publications, Delhi; 2002) is one of the notable works of your which received appreciation from the late Khushwant Singh, veteran journalist, and commentator. Can you share a few words on this book and how you decided to write on the subject?
Before I began working for the United Nations, as a young lawyer who practiced law, taught at University and wrote on legal subjects for national newspapers I was disturbed by what I saw happening in the courts and so I penned a treatise on what ailed our legal system. This was eventually published in a hard back under the title ‘The Judiciary on Trial.’ Originally, I self-published it with the help of a group active on AIDS related issues. I had several hundred copies of the small book published from a small printer in Chawri Bazaar, and sent off complimentary copies to different newspapers and magazines in the country. The aim was high and desperate: that of sparking a national debate on urgently needed reform in our Courts. That book published on cheapest quality newsprint had a subtitle: The Terrible Truth about our Courts.
Most journalists and editors dismissed the material as junk mail, with the single honourable exception of Mr. Khushwant Singh who incidentally spent several years practicing law at the Courts in Lahore before turning his hand to journalism. I was pleasantly surprised to return home one day to find a postcard from Mr. Singh acknowledging the free copy sent to him. (I have to say that this was the solitary acknowledgement received from any of the thirty odd editors of national and regional dailies I had mailed complimentary copies to.)
Mr. Khushwant Singh was not only kind enough to acknowledge receipt of the copy sent to him but he also promised to read it as soon as he had undergone some surgery for his eyes. He explained that although the book appeared interesting, he would unfortunately not be able to review it since ‘it was not available in book stores’. I was gratified by his courtesy but saddened and disappointed by his decision not to review the book despite it being for perfectly understandable reasons. As soon as I turned the postcard though I espied a postscript in which he wrote that he had read a few pages and would review it.
I wondered what he would write but did not have to wait long for only a single week went by and then on the following weekend, delivering more than he had promised, he opened his column of ‘With Malice Towards One and All’ with an extraordinarily introspective review of the book speaking of his own struggles as a young lawyer practicing at the Courts in Lahore. Under a header of ‘Sorry State of Law and Justice’ he explained how terrible his own experiences as a young lawyer had been at the Bar and how also after reading my book, he realized that in post independent India things had gone from bad to worse.
Now Mr Khushwant Singh’s popular column was translated in many languages and syndicated in dozens of newspapers and magazines. I understood from reliable sources that it was republished by many magazines and newspapers that do not even bother to pay him a royalty or seek his permission. He was okay with that- which befitted a journalist and writer of his stature. While ending that particular column he mentioned that copies of my book were available from the Aids group that had helped with the publication.
I had borne the expenses of publication out of pocket but chary of having the book appear like a self-published vanity project had used the group’s name and address with their permission. The next time I went to meet this group of social activists I found a huge packet waiting for me. It was full of hundreds of letters and postcards addressed to me from all over the country. A dozen or so letters had even been written by readers from Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh! Some letters sought to congratulate me on my effort while others wished to receive a copy of the book. The book then came out in hardback from a mainstream publisher.
Another masterpiece work of yours is “The third sex and human rights” about hijras. Now my question is at the time of writing this book do you personally interacted with the hijra community people and then developed the draft of this book? If yes, how was their reaction towards you, and how they contributed to shaping this book?
Yes, I did engage with the hijra community before writing The Third Sex and Human Rights. There were members of the community who would drop into my lawyer’s chamber to seek alms or a donation and on those occasions, I engaged them in conversation. At first, they thought I was looking for sexual favours and one of them even twisted my finger suggestively. Over time they realised that I was just genuinely interested in them and their problems. This book was the first book of its kind. They had been many books on hijras prior to mine but those were written from a sociological perspective. My book looked at the community through the prism of human rights. I remember The Asian Age published a large extract in their main Sunday magazine, and it got a lot of attention because at the time the newspaper also had a London edition. It is now prescribed reading in human rights courses at several universities in India and overseas.
Courting Injustice: The Nirbhaya Case and Its Aftermath’ (Hay House; 2013)- what is the base or plot of this story we all know, but how you decided to write a book on such a sensitive topic? How was the reaction of the readers towards this book?
At the time Nirbhaya happened I was working for the United Nations in East Timor. The case sent shock waves across the world. Everyone was asking me about it, even in that far flung tropical island. I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about what had happened, and determined to write a book on the legal issues that were connected with the case. Fortunately, on a subsequent India trip, I met with an excellent editor Sanjana Roy Chowdhury who worked with Hay House at the time, and they agreed to publish the book. The book had an excellent response from general readers but unfortunately many of the suggestions made in the book were not acted upon. It is one reason why such terrible crimes continue to happen.
So many books by you and you have so many readers. Many gave positive as well as negative reviews for sure. But I want to know which review from your readers is still the one that touched your heart and why?
When a reader figures out a writer’s inner motivations its specially rewarding. There may be a relatively unknown blogger who writes something that touches your heart, and on the other hand a review in an important newspaper could leave you unmoved. It is not only praise that a writer seeks; it is praise for the right reasons. A few weeks ago, I was startled to read the review of my children’s book ‘Fabulous Four Battle Zoozoo the Wizard’ by a young Bengali blogger, Apurba Ganguly. She titled her review ‘Upsets all tropes in children’s fiction, again’ and as I read through her review, I saw that she clearly understood my motivations in writing the book in a certain way. It really gladdened an author’s heart when a reader ‘gets’ his story so completely.
Your latest work is the legal thriller How to Kill a Billionaire? Plz share few words about this book.
Since Khushwant Singh’s review was published all those years ago my life took a turn in many ways. Over the last many years I have worked for the United Nations in various countries including Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan, East Timor and Liberia helping post conflict societies come to terms with their judicial problems. I have often wondered during my sojourns in Africa and Eastern Europe as an expert for the United Nations trying to help in the restoration of rule of law in post-conflict settings whether there was another way to highlight the problems with the justice system in India.
My new book ‘How to Kill a Billionaire’ is precisely such an effort. It is a fictionalized treatment of much that ails the justice system in India, especially in the context of crimes against women.
Some readers have compared ‘How to Kill a Billionaire’ with ‘The White Tiger’, which these days is so much in the news because of the excellent film recently released based on the novel. One reviewer on the Juggernaut website, where my book is available in a digital imprint, was even kind enough to say that he thought my book was better! It is true that there are some similarities between the two novels since both have a very special and distinctive narrative voice, both books talk about a corrupt, rotten system, and in both books the principal character is an underdog. Here the similarity ends, and the two books are otherwise very different from each other. Ah, yes, there is one more thing that the two books have in common. ‘How to Kill a Billionaire’ is also very filmable and I suppose it is only a matter of time before someone makes a movie out of it. ‘The White Tiger’ was first published in 2008 and so it took thirteen years or so before the film came out. Hopefully, it was not be so long in the case of my novel.
Mr Talwar, we heard that you are also a playwriter. On what topics you concentrate most in playwriting?
Most of my plays are on social themes ranging from dowry deaths (The Bride Who Would Not Burn), to the situation in Kashmir (Kaash Kashmir) to nuclear destruction (A Nuclear Matricide). I have also written historical plays, one on Aurangzeb, which was well received and one on Gandhi and Ambedkar, and their different attitudes to the evil of untouchability (Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Four-legged Scorpion).
Can you name a few of the notable works of yours in playwriting?
I was engaged with other playwrights at a discussion forum at the Blue Elephant Theatre in London; and they decided to stage an abridged version of my play on dowry deaths titled ‘The Bride Who Would Not Burn.’ My play ‘Inside Gayland’ was published many years ago by the Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA) and used as campaign material to ask for the abolition of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. My play on the theme of untouchability was used by a senior judge in the training of young judicial officers to sensitise them to this important issue. My plays have also been translated into Hindi and used by a Ngo in Rajasthan to discuss sensitive issues around female empowerment. A couple of years ago I wrote ‘The Killings in November’. There is this monster at large, a serial killer, who is taking people’s lives in New Delhi; and only towards the end the viewers realise that the monster is actually a metaphor for air pollution that peaks in November. A bright, young student Ananya Sharma (now a journalist) got together with some friends from Delhi University, and carried out an excellent production of the play at the Lok Kala Manch in 2018. Even the teaser they prepared for the play is worth watching. You may wish to check it out at
Share some words about the recognitions you received for your works.
There is this oft quoted saying that only a fool wrote for anything but money. I completely disagree. For me it is the converse that is true, and only fools and lesser minds write only for money. Money may come, but it cannot and should not be the primary motivator for writing a book. I’m not saying money is unimportant but you may get something better than money! You may, for instance, get recognition that may also have a commercial aspect. Let me give you a real-life example. The first two books I wrote got me a decent amount of money but it wasn’t more than, say, two hundred thousand rupees. The books were however substantially responsible for securing me a British Chevening scholarship to study at the University of Nottingham, which was worth, at the time, around twenty-five thousand pounds, say twenty lakhs. Now that is a pretty substantial amount, is it not? What I am saying, to anyone who wishes to write, is that benefits and recognition will come your way, but they may come in unexpected ways.
What are your other passions in life?
I love listening to music and cannot do with less than an hour a day. I am a huge fan of world cinema. I love travelling. Before Corona grounded us all, I used to try and travel to a new country every few months. I haven’t written a travelogue thus far but hope to remedy that soon. I may start by writing a book on my travels to China and other countries with sizeable Chinese populations such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. You know many Singaporeans don’t like mainland Chinese visitors who come to their country? The same goes for the Taiwanese. So, my book will simultaneously explore what must change in China and how this can happen.
What are your future plans- what else you want to do?
As Ghalib said famously: ‘Bahut nikley meray armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikley.’ There are more countries to be visited, more books to be written, more beauty to be savoured in music, in the arts. I’d like to contribute in a small way to bettering the world we live in. These days I am trying to learn how to draw cartoons in my spare time.
What next in the pipeline in books and of what genre?
I usually work on two or three books at the same time. So, there is a light fiction titled ‘Guilty of Love, Your Honour,’ which I have almost finished. There is also in progress a fantasy fiction for young adults, on a romance between two goldfish. There is a biographical book on the lessor known Gandhi, that will provide an unusual, rather different perspective on him, despite hundreds of books already written on him. Also in the pipeline is a memoir of my time spent in Afghanistan, a book on the future of excellence in education, and a book on the meaning and mantra of success.
Traditional or self-publishing what are pros and cons of both type of publishing?
In the case of traditional publishing the publisher takes care of many things, so that makes it really easy and comfortable for the author. However, there can be downsides, and an author needs to be alert even with a top-of-the-line publisher. Unless you engage with the publisher, he may come up with a boring cover for the book, or invest too little in publicity in which case your book could be in trouble. One of my friends found a top-level publisher for her non-fiction book but it took three years before it eventually came out. Three years?! Can you imagine how difficult it is for an author to wait that long? With self-publishing you have far greater control, but on the other hand you yourself have to be involved, to some extent, with the marketing of the book, whereas you should really be focussed on your writing.
Any tips for budding authors?
I won’t say much about the process of writing here, but let me just mention two other things that matter. Think long and hard about the title to your book. I have an author friend who wrote an excellent book but his choice of title was too generic. In this age of the Internet your title should not only be strong and relevant but also distinctive. Secondly, the cover is hugely important. Spend some time with the artist even if you have found a publisher. In my book on the hijras the artist and I went through hundreds of photos before we found a face that looked suitably vulnerable and sensitive to be right for the book cover. In my book on the Nirbhaya case, I was very clear in my mind that. that it should be a sober, arresting cover. I had many discussions with Sanjana, my editor at Hay House who liaised with the artist, till we got the cover exactly right.
Define Rajesh Talwar the author in One line?
It is said that in the case of all great writing it flows through you through some mysterious external force. The writer becomes a vehicle, a mere passage. I believe this to be true and if I had to speak for myself.
I write, because I am; I write better, when I am not…