The Front Page Murders
Author- Puja Changoiwala
Publisher- Hachette, Rs350
Puja Changoiwala, an Indian journalist-turned-crime-writer speaks with Avantika Bose about serial killers in India as well as about her gripping book, The Front Page Murders, which is based on a real case that she had covered
Why did Vijay Palande’s case inspire you to write this bookIJ
It was mainly because Vijay Palande challenged all my notions about serial killers; in fact, he humanised them for me. Before I got acquainted with Palande and the overwhelming amounts of blood he had spilled, I believed that serial killers were material only for racy sitcoms and American pulp fiction. I was convinced that even if the unsocial psychos did exist, they were in those far-away hinterlands of the first world. They did not live in posh apartments in Mumbai; they did not attend glitzy showbiz parties, and they definitely didn’t visit the same restaurants as you and I. But Palande, I discovered, did all these things. He was a serial killer who wasn’t one of them madmen; he was one of us — a living example of horror in real life, of truth being stranger than fiction.
How long did it take you to finish your bookIJ
It took me two years to finish the book — a year for research, another for writing. Since Palande has been a criminal for a while, his first crimes dating back to 1998, there was a substantial amount of digging to do.
Serial killings are common in the US. In fact, a lot of their TV series are based on serial killers. However, it is not so in the context of India. Can you throw some light on serial killings hereIJ
India has had her share of serial killers. It’s just that our serial killers haven’t evolved. They are still the oldest, primary kind — comfort killers who kill for money or profit. India, as per my research, has seen only a handful of mentally unstable serial killers so far — Auto Shankar in Chennai, the Nithari killers in Noida, Punjab’s Darbara Singh aka The Baby Killer and Amardeep Sada, the country’s youngest serial killer.
Most of our serial killers, like Palande, have largely been non-aristocratic, driven to multiple murders mainly for money. Their intentions, have been to rob, and killing, in most cases, has been part of collateral damage.
What was your first crime reportIJ How did it shape you as a reporterIJ
My first crime report, I remember clearly, was about an accident in central Mumbai. A private vehicle had crushed a few slum dwellers sleeping outside their shanties on the road, run over one of their faces when the person was asleep. Of course, it was harrowing, my first encounter with a real tragedy — the family’s grief, their monetary ineptitude to give their deceased a decent farewell, and further, the unknown identity of the driver, and the questionable possibility of justice. But I think it’s these harrowing stories, these tragedies that kept me close to reality, shaped me as a reporter. When you meet these people, when you tell their stories, you want to help them, help the larger scheme of things, and that instinct to help, that’s where journalism is.
Were you ever threatened given the nature of your jobIJ
Well, yes, once. A jeweller was shot dead at lokhandwala, and from my sources, I had learnt that the shootout was carried out at the behest of a famous underworld gangster. After the report was published, my office got a call asking who Puja was. ‘Woh jaanti nahi kya ki bhai kaun haiIJ’ the caller had said. Next threat was when I was writing this book. I don’t wish to name the person who threatened me; actually, he tried to deter me from writing the book. He said, “You know who you are writing about, rightIJ It wouldn’t require much thought for them to knock you off!”
After all these years of being a crime journalist and seeing so much, do you feel that murderers aren’t born but are created by society.
No, I think murderers choose to be murderers unless they have a psychopathic disorder or they’re committing the crime in a fit of sudden rage. Every individual has a different threshold — for deceit, pain, and injustice. And once that threshold is crossed, the lid blows off, igniting the murderer, leaving blood for debris. To explain, the serial killer in my book, Vijay Palande took to murders after he was cheated by a close friend of his hard-earned money. Another murderer in my book killed his first victim, a schoolmate, after being tormented by him for years.
Having said that, I do believe that every society gets the criminals it deserves. It’s our naivety, our notion of wealth being indispensable to a man’s worth, our judicial processes and their drawbacks that add to a murderer’s motivation, if not create it.
Do you think that the due to the crazy rat race of who will print something first or give an exclusive report journalism has lost its true essenceIJ
Absolutely, yes. I really believe that somewhere, the pressures of competitive journalism, of 24x7 news reportage, of scoops and meat-driven press, overwhelm each of us journalists. And the casualty, each time, is the soul of journalism — her ethics. After all, it was not for nothing that lance Naik Roy Matthew recently committed suicide after a web journalist secretly videotaped him as he spoke to her about the army’s Sahayak system, and uploaded ‘the sting’ online without his consent. It was not for nothing that the apex court slammed the Indian media for our live coverage of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, of the blow-by-blow account which provided crucial leads to the terrorists’ Pakistani handlers. And it was not for nothing that the Nepalese asked the Indian media to retreat when we marched to the Himalayan state in 2015, armed with our cameras and pens, and added to the woes of those earthquake victims.
What are your opinions on conjugal visits in prisonIJ
Whether we legalise conjugal visits for Indian prisoners or not, we cannot turn away from the fact that there is sex in Indian prisons — either in the form of forceful or consensual homosexual intercourse, or sex with wives, girlfriends and prostitutes during court, hospital visits after bribing police escorts. The concern for rising cases of HIV+ in prisons is a legitimate one. So why not legalise these visitsIJ The way I see it, it protects the prisoner’s right to progeny and on a psychological level, it keeps him attached to his family, motivates him to mend his ways for them. These are proven positives of such arrangements in western countries.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court, in 2015, upheld the prisoner’s right to have sex. I don’t see why the order shouldn’t be duplicated in other states. The logistics can be a little difficult, but I’m sure they can be worked out.
How helpful have the police been to youIJ
I have worked with the Mumbai Police, and I can say that I respect them. There are black sheep, of course — officers who are too lazy to register complaints or to investigate, personnel who accept bribes and let off offenders, and cops who abuse their power and victimise innocents. But it would be futile to complain about these men if we do not wish to understand the underlying issues.
Despite the distressing nature of their jobs, policemen in our country are poorly remunerated. In fact, cops often shell out money from their own pockets to provide funerals to unidentified bodies; the homes provided to cops are extremely tiny, often riddled with water and electricity problems; there’s little appreciation for their work, among so many other issues. Further, there is the dedicated disrespect for them from the public. I really believe that all of a policeman’s patriotism is lost to being patriots in uniforms in our country, and if we want great policing, we better pay the policemen their dues.
What about the victims’ family’s ordealsIJ
I think the family’s greatest ordeal does not lie in accepting the fact that their loved one was killed; it’s in living with that fact for the rest of their lives. Further, while the families are struggling to accept the death, survive it one day at a time, the cumbersome judicial process aggravates their suffering. The trial can take years to complete, and even if they try to forget their tragedy, they can’t. There will always be a cop, a relative, a newspaper article that will recurrently remind them of their misfortune, push it deeper into their veins. And the most disturbing truth is that eventually, a man’s murder gets reduced to a stack of case papers, to the undramatic recital of his post-mortem report in court. Eventually, everybody moves on — the press, the cops, the judiciary, even the killer — but not his family. For them, it’s life now.