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The Vaishnodevi Experience 2023

My first trip to Vaishnodevi was unimpressive. Climbing was hard, and it only served to highlight how badly out of shape I was, while my in-laws managed to cope so much better. Further, I hadn’t quite realized that the cave experience wouldn’t be the same as I had imagined, since the original cave was only opened at certain times a year, and that we only entered a newly created tunnel, one far easier to access, and hence more manageable with the crowds that thronged the mountain shrine. The resulting experience at the shrine, for barely a fraction of a second, hardly compared to what I had expected / imagined / heard about. So, for me, Vaishnodevi was like any other temple, nothing to write home about, something that was reflected (though not explicitly mentioned) in the blog post I wrote then.

Book Review: Death in Mumbai

Reading crime stories isn’t new to me. In fact, crime and mystery would probably figure right at the top of my reading list any time! However, would I enjoy reading about an actual crime? Should I, in fact, enjoy reading about it? Such were the questions that cropped up in my mind as I considered the book ‘Death in Mumbai’, by Meenal Baghel.

Meenal Baghel is the editor of the Mumbai Mirror. It was one among the many newspapers, which eagerly lapped up the gruesome murder of Neeraj Grover. For weeks, we seemed to read little else in the papers, or see anything else on the TV. In ‘Death in Mumbai’, she puts together the whole story, not like a mystery, (which it wasn’t, by the time the media had ripped it apart), but through the eyes of those connected, directly, or indirectly, with the case.

The story had all the elements of a Bollywood potboiler – love, sex, betrayal, and murder! The characters seemed to emerge straight from the script of a movie – Neeraj Grover - a young television executive going steadily up the corporate ladder, his girlfriend - the aspiring actress, Maria Susairaj, and her jealous fiancé, Emile Jerome, an upright young man serving in the Navy! And then there was the mystery – Neeraj’s disappearance and the eventual discovery of his body hacked to pieces!

The thread of the Film industry ran right through the story. The victim was a cog in the wheel of the television industry and the prime suspect was a beautiful young actress who had dreams of making it big in Bollywood. One was from Kanpur, in the north, and the other from Mysore, in the south. Both cities had their place in history, but they paled in comparison to the glitz and glamour Mumbai seemed to ooze. Like countless others, the two had arrived in Mumbai seeking the money, success and fame they thought the city would provide. Their time in the spotlights did arrive, but a bit too late, and in a manner, none probably imagined! The third was the only one who was not attracted by the lure of the city, but he too could not remain unaffected by the events. The result was a crime of passion that hogged the headlines for weeks. Not surprisingly, the story spawned scripts galore, of which one eventually found its way to the big screen.

However, these three weren’t the only characters in the story. Their families, their friends, their colleagues, their acquaintances.... each of them were affected by the murder... some to a larger, and some to a smaller extent. ‘Death in Mumbai’ might be the story of the Neeraj Grover Murder case, but it is actually the story of the people connected in some way or the other to the case.

As I flipped through the pages, I realised that the book told me nothing new about the case itself. The media had done such a thorough job of dissecting every piece of information, that even someone like me who avoided reading such gory items couldn't help but know about it. However, what was interesting to me, were the interesting titbits about the city, the film and television industry, the police force, and the various celebrities associated with the story, which kept cropping up all through the book.

The book is divided into three sections.

The first section deals with the event itself – the killing, and the events of the days that led to it. The main characters here are Maria and Emile, and we read all about them, their backgrounds, their friends, and of course, their activities on the relevant days.

The second section is completely different. It has little to do with the murder, focussing instead on the Film and Television industry. Three characters take up this space – the first is a woman who churns out serials by the dozen, which Indian women seem to love to watch, and who thought of making a film on the murder, which never took off. The second is an actress who never made it big. She was a perfect fit for the role of Maria Susairaj, she too had come to the city with stars in her eyes, and had faced tragedy. She was slated to act the role of Maria in another film, which too never saw the light of day. The third is a maverick filmmaker, who made the only film on the case, which actually released on the big screen.

At first sight, the second section seems to have nothing to do with the story. But Meenal manages, with this section, to give us a glimpse of what brings so many to the city. For a person like me, who has lived here all my life, and yet has no attraction or even an interest in the film industry, this reads like the ‘Page 3’ section of the newspaper – a mixture of events, happenings, celebrities and gossip. Yet, there is no doubt that these are the very things that bring stars to the eyes of those who dream of one day becoming one of the celebrities themselves! Through the words of these people, she gives us a glimpse into the world of Neeraj and Maria, a world into which Emile arrived with such disastrous results.

The third and final section is the most difficult to read, for it deals with the actual blood and  gore. Meenal spares no words in her descriptions, and it is evident her sympathies lie with the victim and his family. It makes for a difficult reading, for the simple reason that one can’t help but be affected by the plight of Neeraj’s family following their beloved son’s death.

However, this is also the section, which deals with the investigation of the murder, and it is here that I believe Meenal has done really well, for nowhere else do I remember reading of how efficiently and perseveringly our police force worked to bring the murder to light and the murderer to justice.

On the back cover, the blurb asks “What made these young professionals turn to violent crime? Was it the savage pressure of the city or was the motive even darker?” Meenal tries to answer these questions through her long conversations with all the people involved, but when I finished reading the book, I couldn't help but wonder if she had her answer at all, for I still didn’t.

Overall, it was a book which was quite gripping from start to finish. I will not use the word ‘enjoy’, because I don’t think the word applies to a book like this. However, don’t expect anything new or surprising about the case, because there isn’t. It is a book about the people, not the crime, and it seeks to bring up questions, not answers. 

P.S. This book was sent to me for review by Random House India.


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