Rajesh Talwar is a lawyer who practised in the Delhi courts before joining the United Nations to work on justice reform. His crime thriller How to Kill a Billionaire is a visceral take on the inequality in Indian society, and on the Indian legal system’s many loopholes. A billionaire’s son goes missing, and only a lowly lawyer at a Delhi trial court holds the answers.
Juggernaut digital editor Amish Raj Mulmi spoke to Rajesh Talwar on whether the book was based on real incidents, and whether laws can be manipulated the way they are shown in the book:
From practising law to writing crime thrillers — how did the transition happen?
I grew up on a diet of Agatha Christies and Perry Masons. Although my taste evolved when I became a lawyer, I still curl up with a good thriller on weekends. I like Peter James and some of the Scandinavians like Jo Nesbo. My present assignment with the UN requires me to do a fair amount of travel and I often take a James Hadley Chase with me.
I should add that I’m in good company here. Pablo Neruda was very fond of reading Chase, and considered his plots representative of values in a capitalistic society. It’s great that Indian writing is now experiencing a renaissance, and I thought the time was ripe to write on a subject I knew quite a bit about.
I don’t think I’ve been inspired by any particular writer, but I like to think of How to Kill a Billionaire as an intelligent man’s crime novel. You won’t find any gratuitous violence or swearing for instance. The violence or gali galoj that is there is essential for the plot.
Where did the idea behind the book come from?
Many years ago, an actual billionaire came to me with a matter pending in the courts. I remember how astonished he was at how courts worked here. In the novel, the narrator tells Lord Patel, who studied law at Harvard, that he may not have any idea of how trial courts in India function and he, the lawyer, would like to give him a crash course in how they work – or don’t work. I’ve studied at Harvard myself for a short duration, and know that the theory of law prepares you little for what you will encounter at the trial courts. A former legal colleague refers to the Delhi courts as the ‘killing fields’.
There are cases that have been widely reported in the media, where celebrities and the super-rich manage to manipulate court cases in their favour. I wanted to consider a scenario where a powerful man such as a billionaire is pitted against someone who knows how things really work! I’m hoping that just like the narrator, I’ve managed to provide the reader with a crash course in how our courts actually operate!
The scenes at the court complex are quite reminiscent of Tees Hazari in Delhi. Why did you decide to give the book such a setting?
The courts in How to Kill a Billionaire are referred to as the Thirty Thousand Courts, but they are representative not only of Tees Hazari but of trial courts all across the country. Why did I choose this setting? Veterans of the craft of writing say, ‘Write what you know about,’ don’t they? I spent many years in courts before joining the UN to work on justice reform, and the courts are all familiar territory to me. The book’s anchored in a reality that you have to know before you can write about it.
How to Kill a Billionaire also teaches the reader there are several loopholes in the Indian legal system. Do all these loopholes, and the corruption depicted, exist in real life?
Every trial court lawyer in India is familiar with the loopholes referred to in the book. Even the corruption that I repeatedly allude to is rampant. While I was a trial court lawyer in Delhi, there were so many tales of corruption and how so and so judge was on the take. A lawyer then set up a system for fooling his clients that a judge was on the take, even when this wasn’t the case. He would tell the client that the judge was prepared to rule in his favour if he was willing to pay such and such amount. Of course, clients are not so trusting, so to gain the clients’ trust he would make a call in their presence, ostensibly to the judge. The conversation would take the form of an informal chat and, with the client listening on with bated breath, he would bring the discussion around to the client’s case. The judge on the other end of the line would hum and haw, and finally say he would see what could be done.
In reality, there was no judge at the other end. There was only his father, also a lawyer. This particular scam had been invented by the father-son duo! So if the verdict went in favour of the client, the lawyer would say, well, he accepted the money and gave you the verdict you asked for. And if by chance the verdict went against the client, the lawyer would then tell the client that the High Court was scrutinizing lower court judgements rather carefully. The judge could turn grey into white or grey into black, but he could not turn white into black. And in such cases, the lawyer would then return the bribe!
One of the most interesting characters in the book is Khargosh — the hitman. Tell me, do you know any such characters in real life?
I have met both amateur and professional criminals – and those in transition – during my time in the courts. Khargosh is not entirely a figment of my imagination. He is possibly an amalgam of some of the people I know.