Author of ‘How to Kill a Billionaire’ shares views writing, lower courts and favourite works of literature
A.M. | March 13, 2021
Rajesh Talwar’s new fiction, ‘How to Kill a Billionaire’, explores crime, law and redemption in a deeply flawed world. It’s a story of a billionaire’s son going missing, a young girl committing suicide after rape, and her brother quest for justice. The brother is a trial court lawyer in the lower courts of Delhi and his target is one of the world's richest men. The story promises to take the reader through the labyrinthine corridors of India’s legal system.
To negotiate this complicated terrain, Talwar has got the right credentials: he once practised law and taught law at Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia. He has also studied Negotiation at Harvard, Human Rights Law at Nottingham, and Law and Economics at Delhi University. He has worked for the UN on legal and justice-related issues in Somalia, Liberia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Timor-Leste.
Talwar talks about his latest work in conversation with Governance Now:
‘How to Kill a Billionaire’ often comes tantalizingly close to headlines. Are there any real-life triggers that prompted you to write it?
There were several real-life triggers for this book. I had already written ‘Courting Injustice: The Nirbhaya Case and its Aftermath,’ published by Hay House, which discussed among other things the terrible situation a rape victim finds herself because of a dysfunctional court machinery. Another trigger was the case of billionaires who gets away with crime, be it white collar crime such as defaulting on loans or running down someone on the road. So, I thought it would be interesting to create a fictional situation where a billionaire is trying his best make the justice system work in his favour, but fails to do so! In most stories of a battle of wits between the defence and the prosecution, both lawyers try to use the strengths of the legal system to their advantage, whether it be the great tool of cross examination, forensics, or something else. In this story, paradoxically enough, the trial court lawyer, who knows better than the billionaire’s high-earning lawyers how the justice system is fatally flawed, uses those very weaknesses in the system (including the pervasive corruption) to outwit and confound the Harvard and Yale trained lawyers. Perhaps the most damning indictment of the justice machinery at the lower court level lies in the fact that my main protagonist, an experienced trial court lawyer, has little or no faith in the ability of our court system to give him justice where his opponent is one of the richest men on the planet.
The narrative here depends on the intricacies of the legal practice in India. How did your experience of legal practice shape that aspect?
I have had to carry out research from some of my other novels, but it wasn’t the case here. For the most part I drew upon my own life experience. Lots of writers do excellent and painstaking research into a potential setting. In my own case I spent many years as a lawyer in the courts so the setting, the ambience and all the court related characters, be it the judge, the munshi, the lawyer or even the chaiwallah, though fictional, have been influenced by people I have known and are about as true to life as they can get. The court setting too is about as accurate as it can get. We don’t have so many Indian novels with authentic court settings. Court scenes in most of the television serials and films are for the most part romanticized versions of how courts should be, but for the most part, the depictions are completely inauthentic and fake. ‘What about the Indian-British characters in the novel, like Lord Patel and his son’, you may well ask. Now, I have studied at various institutions in the UK and been a frequent visitor to that country during the course of my assignments in Europe with the UN, so there was no problem in getting those characterizations right either. Finally, although my sympathies as a novelist clearly lie with the trial court lawyer and not the Harvard and Yale Law School graduates who stand in opposition, I have personally had the opportunity to work with such lawyers during the course of my job with the UN, and could therefore get those characterizations right as well.
You have varied interests and a busy career. What made you choose writing?
You know, to a large extent, it was my writing that helped me secure a British Chevening scholarship to do an LLM in International Human Rights Law at the University of Nottingham. I still recall till this day the British Ambassador who was chairing the interview for that scholarship holding a copy of one of my books and nodding in approval to the other members of the interviewing committee. It was also my books and publications that helped land me a job with the UN a few years later. I have now worked with the UN for nearly two decades in different parts of the world including Somalia, Liberia, Timor-Leste, Kenya, Liberia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. To a great extent, it was writing that gave me my career with the UN, and as a consequence of my career with this organisation I was able to travel the world and study for shorter and longer durations at elite institutions such as Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. One thing leads to another, and I owe much in my life to writing. It would have been a real shame, even sacrilegious, for me to have given up writing itself!
You have written several works of both fiction and non-fiction. When starting out on a new project, how do you decide if it’s going to be fiction or non-fiction?
Will the tale be more effective if rendered in non-fiction or in fiction? That is the question I always ask myself before making a decision. ‘Animal Farm’ which I allude to a little ahead was a far more effective critique of totalitarian systems feigning adherence to principles of equality than scores of non-fictional materials on the subject. Sometimes fiction works better; at other times it is non-fiction. At the end of the day, you have to establish a rapport with your audience, the potential reader.
Will you tell us your (five or so) favourite works of fiction and non-fiction?
Five favourites in non-fiction would include
a) ‘India: A Million Mutinies Now’ by VS Naipaul. It’s a great work because it is an older, more mature Naipaul writing and therefore his approach is more balanced than it was, for instance, in ‘India: A Wounded Civilisation’. In that earlier, mercilessly critical book the focus is more on the ‘wound’ that India suffered as a result of colonisation and less on its great civilisational past. In the later book he is far kinder and much more optimistic about the future of India. I prefer the more balanced approach. The book is a thick tome, but well worth the read.
b) ‘The Autobiography of Malcom X’ would definitely be on the list of top five non-fiction reads. It’s a very moving account of a black man growing up in racist America, and in the run-up to the US election this year, we saw how the book remains hugely relevant. The US has still a long way to go, setting its own house in order, before it can start to lecture the rest of the world on human rights.
c) ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’ by John Mearsheimer will make it to the list because it’s a very practical and convincing explanation and critique of the way great powers work. A thick tome, I consider it to be essential reading for anyone who wishes to have insight into the world of geopolitics, and what our collective future may look like.
d) ‘Autobiography of a Spiritually Incorrect Mystic’ is a hugely entertaining and intellectually stimulating work on the life of Osho. I love the part, for instance, where Osho turns up for his professorial duties at the University of Sagar in a loin cloth confounding the rest of the suited booted university professors.
e) ‘The Communist Manifesto’ by Karl Marx. I first read this book while I was still in my teens at Hindu College studying for a Bachelors in Economics, and it stunned me with its powerful and eloquent prose. The book is a wonderful and stimulating read, even if you are in disagreement with the ideology or how communist systems have worked in practice the world over (see my views on ‘Animal Farm’ below).
In fiction/poetry I would like to include the following:
a) ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran. This is a work of wisdom, and you can read it again and again, and every time it is rewarding. Gibran has written much else that is beautiful and moving but this is, deservedly, his best-known work.
b) ‘Gitanjali’ by Rabindranath Tagore. I first read this in my twenties and was unmoved by it, reaching the premature, and hasty conclusion that Tagore was highly overrated. I read it again twenty years later in my forties and it almost felt like a spiritual experience. I was shaken to the core by the power and beauty of its words. Here too, I believe this particular collection of poems, are deservedly Tagore’s best-known work.
c) ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell. It’s a great book on the duplicity of totalitarian systems that preach equality. It can be read and enjoyed at two levels: simply as a fable, and as a deadly allegory on what communist parties have done the world over, be it in Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia or even modern-day China. I do hope that when the day arrives when the Chinese communist party is overthrown in China, this book will become prescribed reading in schools and colleges across the country.
d) ‘The Idiot’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It’s a masterpiece and personally I rate it higher than ‘Crime and Punishment,’ or ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ which are the writer’s better-known works. I love the theme of an innocent at large in a corrupted society.
e) ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde. I have loved Wilde’s plays which have inspired some of my own plays, but I consider this to be his all-time masterpiece.
Fire on the Ganges: Life among the Dead in Banaras By Radhika Iyengar 4th Estate / HarperCollins, 348 pages, 599
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