In March, The New York Times announced that its India-based South Asia bureau chief, Ellen Barry, would relocate to London to become chief international correspondent. Accordingly, Barry loaded everything she owned onto a container ship in Mumbai that was already rounding Cape Horn when she found herself reporting one final story.
“For this one, my editors let me break a lot of rules, beginning with the use of the first person. I think that is because it was my last story. I cannot think of a better explanation.”
Perhaps because “How to Get Away with Murder in Small Town India” was Barry’s last dispatch from the region, her editors let her get away with using first person, which she employs to softly humorous and cinematic effect while conducting a series of exasperating interviews to uncover the truth about a woman’s brutal murder.
In fact, it’s one of the triumphs of the piece: Barry portrays herself, unsparingly serving as a stand-in for “the interloper” in India, be it the colonial imposer or the foreign correspondent. As a result, this reporting feels vulnerable, visceral and urgent.
“If you are using the first person, you almost by necessity need to be a character,” Barry says. “Being a rich white person in rural India, or any place that poor, is a strange, uncomfortable feeling much of the time. So I suppose I wanted to explore that.”
Both in the narrative and the annotation below, Barry discusses the challenges inherent in turning India’s slow yet significant cultural and economic change into riveting reporting. Whereas, she notes in the story, “violence writes itself.”
“How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India” combines both narratives, weaving the violence into the cultural change. Two-thirds of the way into the story, for instance, a new gas stove arrives in a village beset by poverty. Geeta, the woman murdered by her husband, had signed up to receive the stove, and now it will be used by the husband’s new wife, who is also wearing the dead wife’s makeup and jewelry.
In an act of meta reporting, Barry, who won a Pulitzer Prize winner for her Russia coverage in 2011, also allows her narrative to voice concerns about the foreign correspondent’s efficacy. At one point she writes of her exchange with a local constable: “If you had asked me at that moment I would have had difficulty explaining why the truth mattered since no one I had spoken to seemed interested in re-opening the case. But I kept asking him and he kept lying till we were both exhausted.” After interrogating the constable and failing to flush out his lie, she quotes him as he turns the tables, “This is the trick that foreign countries like yours are playing,” he said. “You will write something. People will read what you write, and say, ‘This country will progress only after 100 years.’”
And he was right: Some readers wondered if the story would change anything in India.
“Will this article help make a change in the politics of a small village? Will officials be made to answer for their corrupt behavior? Will a larger government entity step in and charge Geeta’s husband for murder and make an example out of him? Will the violence that occurred ultimately beget more violence as Geeta’s children grow up and extract revenge on this despicable human being?” a commenter named “Laura G.” asked.
On one count, at least, the story had results: After it was published, the husband was arrested.
But even without the arrest, Barry’s journalism threatens to spill into literature, and thus is not easy to forget, or shrug off, even as the next paper overtops the last, and the digital homepage refreshes with newer news. The complex lives (and one death) of the people of Peepli Khera will haunt readers long after Barry has caught up with her belongings in London.
The answers below, which came in an email correspondence, have been slightly edited for length and flow. The entire story can be read on The Times site; ellipses mark the spot where a passage has been trimmed.
My questions are in red, her responses in blue.
“How to Get Away with Murder in Small-Town India”
By Ellen Barry
Originally published in The New York Times on Aug. 19, 2017
PEEPLI KHERA, India — On my last week in India, I went to say goodbye to Jahiruddin Mewati, the chief of a small village where I had made a dozen or so reporting trips.
Jahiruddin and I were not precisely friends, but we had spent many hours talking over the years, mostly about local politics. I found him entirely without scruples but candid. He suspected my motives but found me entertaining, in the way that a talking dog might be entertaining, without regard for the particulars of what I said. Two questions right out of the gate: 1. You’re deploying humor! Even when we know from the title something brutal lies ahead. Is this your way of charming the reader, and/or is it somewhat of a survival skill, a way of staying buoyant in grim situations? 2. This graph establishes both source and reporter as people with foibles, as palpable, and as co-subjects of this article, at least at the outset. Readers will encounter this meta reporting at least three more times throughout the course of this piece–what prompted you to report on yourself and culture as seen through the eyes of the article’s subjects? 1.When I decided to write a piece about the dark material of this murder, a woman bludgeoned to death before her neighbors, I thought it would be interesting to open by describing a comic figure who, by the end, appears much more sinister. This is truly the way I felt about him: I liked him. But by the end of this reporting, I did not find him comical. 2. We rarely use the first person on news pages, but it’s becoming more common. It is one of a range of changes ushered in by digital journalism; this would not have happened at the New York Times 10 years ago. We have a far greater burden to engage readers than we used to, and the first person is sort of an adrenalin shot (which I certainly learned from this piece.) In this case, before I had any idea what I would write for my final piece, the international editor, Michael Slackman, suggested that it be in the first person. If you are using the first person, you almost by necessity need to be a character. To write about yourself, you need to be unsparing.
Jahiruddin, though uneducated, was an adept politician, fresh from winning a hard-fought local election. During our conversations, he would often break into rousing, patriotic speeches about truth and justice, thumping the plastic table in emphasis and making it jump. The effect was somewhat tarnished by his Tourette’s syndrome, which caused him to interject the word “penis” at regular intervals.
He was frank about the dirty aspects of his job. He occupied a post reserved for women from lower castes, but no one pretended this was any more than a sham; his wife’s name appeared on the ballot, but the face on the poster was his.
Nearly everything he did in local government was transactional, driven by the desire to secure the votes of minuscule family and caste groups. The funny thing was, it seemed to be working pretty well.
Among his pet constituencies was a community of former beggars, some of the poorest people I had met in India. I had visited these people regularly over the past two years, and their lives had improved in striking ways — in some cases through Jahiruddin’s intervention.
He had persuaded — and by this I mean bribed — caste leaders to allow their women to work as day laborers, and their rising incomes were apparent in new brick houses and well-nourished children. A new subsidy had provided women with gas stoves, freeing them from the grinding task of scavenging for firewood. That shift struck me as quietly revolutionary, like the arrival of the contraceptive pill in the West.
I wanted to compliment Jahiruddin on his advocacy for these people, and also to say goodbye. This description of Jahiruddin and his work reminds me of novelist William Maxwell’s prose—nothing superfluous, nothing lacking. The sum of all your interactions with Jauiruddin bears down on these 12 elegant sentences. Do you write a lot and boil off the water, or, did this piece coalesce from years of trying to convey much in the fewest words? I genuinely thought that he had overseen a rise in the living standard for this group of people, though his interventions were self-interested, an effort to secure the votes of this group of families. I wrote a 6,000-word narrative in 2015 about this village, so I knew the place really well. Everything I owned had already been loaded onto a container ship that had left the port of Mumbai and headed past the Horn of Africa.
Jahiruddin seemed unsettled by the news of my departure and, perhaps assuming that he would not have another opportunity, peppered me with questions for the next 45 minutes.
Why did the British leave India? If the British left, why are you still here? What do you people like to eat the most? Do you think I am asking stupid questions? In America, if I like you and take you away, will your father kill me? What is the benefit to you of writing stories from here? How much money do you have in the bank? What is your salary? If you do not tell me your salary, how will I know how much money you have? Is it true that white people are not honest? When your replacement arrives, would he like to lease a car from me? I love the repetition and rhythm of these questions, which captures Jahiruddin’s perspective on the role of foreign correspondent while simultaneously evoking your four-year tenure there. Was that your intent? This opening was originally a Facebook post which I shared with my friends, which largely consisted of the questions that Jahiruddin asked me at our last meeting, many more than I was able to include in the article. Often when I am reporting, I send outtakes to my friends, typically just raw quotes or dialogue. Well, these outtakes were often more interesting than the stories I wrote. I thought his questions were very funny and telling, as was the fact that after all this time, he did not know, or care to know, my name – I was a generic Englishwoman.
It went on like that. I promised to keep in touch, and he saved my telephone number under the name “Angrezi,” which translates, more or less, as “white lady.” We parted on good terms.
A short while later, someone told me about a murder in Peepli Khera, and I realized I had to visit him one more time. So you’re bidding adieu, your stuff has left, and you believe you’ve truly concluded your reporting–can you say more about learning of the murder and becoming aware that, in fact, you are committing to write another story? When I made this trip, I had time to write one last story – a torturous fact since I had six or seven half-finished stories that I cared about — and I actually went back to the village wanting to write a good-news story, about the arrival of gas canisters. My plan was to spend a few days with a woman getting her first gas canister, and maybe weave it together with the dark material of the murder. But the gas canister reporting fell through, because the distribution program was so flawed. So I couldn’t write that happy story I set out to write, and this left me with the murder. Over time, though, I realized that by describing every interview I could give readers a sense of how funny/absurd/boring/embarrassing/vexing it is to be a reporter in a place like this.
Thursday: A Grim Rumor
While reporting in Peepli Khera, I often set myself up at the home of a woman named Anjum, who lived next to a hand pump for water and therefore served as a clearinghouse for gossip.
I was lounging there when I heard that a woman had been killed last year, bludgeoned to death by her husband in front of at least a dozen people.
Anjum said the woman’s screams had woken her from a deep sleep, and she stumbled through the dark to the neighbor’s house, some 20 feet away. The woman, Geeta, was cowering in a neighbor’s bathroom, a U-shaped enclosure used for showering, while her husband brought a bamboo stick down on her, again and again, she told my colleague Suhasini, who was translating.
“I dragged her out to protect her,” Anjum said. “No one was protecting her. Everyone was just watching.”
But when Anjum stepped away, Geeta’s husband — a slight man named Mukesh — stood above Geeta, who was slumped on the side of a rope cot, and brought the stick down on her head several more times. She died on the spot.
What bothered Anjum, she said, was that the police had been contacted about the killing but almost immediately closed their investigation, releasing Mukesh after a few hours.
In fact, just the day before my visit, Mukesh had remarried, to a girl who was lighter-skinned and taller than the dead woman, and he kept driving his new wife around on the back of his motorcycle, showing her off.
Mukesh’s brother, Bablu, happened to be hanging around Anjum’s, and he said his brother had caught Geeta cheating and had killed her.
“He was sad,” he said of his brother. “But then yesterday he got another one. So why would he be sad?” Earlier you said violence writes itself, but perhaps so do the citizens of Peepli Khera? Your use of quotations throughout the piece intensifies the characters and the drama. When you hear “pungent” dialogue and/or “money” quotes, do you feel a mix of emotions, such as: Aha!/ka-ching + outrage, or…? Yes, when someone says something powerful, and clear, and shocking, you do have that sense of (as a friend of mine once put it) the purse snapping shut. I usually get far more material, including transcribed recordings, than I need. I think that’s the only way to get quotes like that.
We drove to the nearest police station, a few miles away, and a young constable, Jahangir Khan, was sent out to speak to us. He was carrying a rifle whose butt was held together with wire — he reckoned it dated to “the time of Hitler” — and he said he could tell that I was American because my nose shook when I talked, a national characteristic he had observed while watching James Bond films. None of your other reporting (that I found) includes this colorful commentary on you, the reporter, reporting.…Was this something you’d long wanted to give voice to, and on the occasion of filing your final piece, did? I had been listening to “S-Town,” and reading the George Orwell essay “Shooting an Elephant.” Both of those are works of very self-conscious reportage, and it is impossible to be a foreign correspondent in India without thinking about colonial.
After a while, the constable indicated that he had no more time to discuss the case. As he left, he turned back to me.
“This is the trick that foreign countries like yours are playing,” he said. “You will write something. People will read what you write, and say, ‘This country will progress only after 100 years.’” One understands at this juncture that this is also the purpose of the article—to consider the value of the reporting itself and how it functions/serves. Did you expect to tackle this as you drafted the piece or did it creep in? This was a remarkable conversation because he was lying brazenly and I could not believe he would persist. I had to cut it for length, but we tormented this poor man for a long time, making him repeat his lie in 75 different ways. And then – I just loved what he said, because in countries like India and Russia, countries very proud of their sovereignty and prickly about American hegemony, people ask you this question all the time: Who are you to judge our whole culture? The readers just never hear these conversations. It helped, by the way, that I was recording everything, and afterwards I transcribed everything. I heard a lot of things on the recording that I had missed.
Friday: Visiting the Killer
I had a degree of sympathy for the constable on his last point.
Over the past decade, in Russia and then India, I have been asked versions of this question hundreds of times: Who are you to come here and tell us what is wrong with our system? And it’s true, the whole enterprise of foreign correspondence has a whiff of colonialism. During the years I have worked abroad, Americans’ interest in promoting their values in the world has receded, slowly and then precipitously. I doubted the regional hegemons filling the vacuum would do better, but still, I wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing.
I worried, as the constable suggested, that I wrote too much about violence. In India, in particular, where millions of people move out of extreme poverty every year, there is a great deal to be hopeful about — the transformation that comes with mobile phone and internet access, or with young women cashing their first paychecks, or even something like installing a family’s first air-conditioner. These are deeply reported narratives that help readers feel, as well as know, what individual lives are like, and how abstract concepts like “poverty,” “access to new technologies, and “urbanization” manifest in nitty- gritty, intimate ways. Were these the pieces that got under your skin or were they the most germane or both? It is very hard to convey the everyday dramas of a country like India, where a vast part of the population is rising out of dire poverty, often as a result of slow, steady economic expansion and the globalization of labor. Our readers in the West mostly know the catastrophic aspect of this, the drying up of blue-collar jobs in the developed word and the worst side of Asian manufacturing, as in the awful collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh. But other aspects of globalization of labor are more difficult to report because they are more subtle. Garment factories are great engines of love marriage – the young men and women who work there are much more likely to reject arranged marriage and marry people they meet on the factory floor. I think this kind of social change tends to be underreported, in part because, as reporters, we are inevitably drawn to catastrophes, but also because it takes so much time to capture.
I wrote those stories, too, but the move from dire poverty to ordinary poverty is subtle and difficult to capture. Violence writes itself. This two-sentence paragraph is irreproachable. But I can’t resist the temptation to ask if there’s anything else you want to say about these anguishing truths? I sense that, an exploration of why “Violence writes itself” could (comparatively) be a 20-volume book. When I arrived in India, it was right after a terrible gang rape, and I spent a lot of time reporting on awful rapes. Stories about violent acts, by the way, always have a ready-made narrative structure: a victim and a perpetrator cross paths, and each life is changed. I have spent much of my career writing about disasters and crimes; those stories are somehow easy to read, there is a momentum driving the reader forward. What is far more difficult, to me, is writing about normal, non-catastrophic life in a way that feels like an actual story, with a beginning, middle and end.
But there was also this: I had spoken to two young women who lived in the courtyard where Mukesh killed his wife. The next day, they crouched on the ground and used their hands to mop up the blood. They then covered the whole courtyard with a thin layer of cow dung, which hardens into something like plaster.
New wives occupy the lowest rung in the family hierarchy, which means that when food is scarce young women do not eat, even if they are pregnant. Caste rules forbid them to sit on chairs or cots if higher-ranking people are present, which is pretty much all the time, so I interviewed them the way I always did: me sitting on a cot, them crouched at my feet, looking up at me from the ground. Mentioning where, exactly, the interviewee is sitting in relation to the reporter–even this adds poignancy to this story, emphasizes the consequences of caste. As well, it “rhymes” with the boy who is crouched by grandmother at the end of this piece. I am so glad this graph is here, but might an editor concerned about word count/column inches have threatened to slash it? Was there anything in your piece you needed to defend? I think the cuts were mainly for length. My various editors on this piece made spot edits but did not ask for structural changes. I expected deeper cuts. There was one line I still regret not fighting for, a silly little aside about hoping that someone would offer me a cup of tea. But for this one, my editors let me break a lot of rules, beginning with the use of the first person. I think that is because it was my last story. I cannot think of a better explanation.
When I asked about Geeta’s killing, the older daughter-in-law answered quietly, because her answer did not line up with the village consensus.
“It was wrong,” she said. “What happens now if my husband beats me?”
We found Mukesh on his terrace with his new wife, slicing okra. My heart was racing as we climbed the stairs, but it needn’t have: When we asked him whether he had killed his wife, he told us in detail how he had done it. The new wife said she believed Geeta had deserved to be killed and Mukesh should not worry himself about it.
The new wife was excited because she was cooking on a gas stove, the one Geeta had signed up for before her death. At first it frightened her, but Mukesh had helped her light it, she said, blushing. She was enjoying wearing Geeta’s jewelry and using her makeup. This detail kills me. But how did you know that she was wearing Geeta’s jewelry and make-up? She told us. Much credit here goes to my colleague Suhasini Raj, who was translating, and who understood much better than I that for Mukesh and his wife, this was not even a secret so we did not need to be coy about it.
She seemed grouchy about one thing, which was that her in-laws had told her she would have to answer to a new name after the wedding. Her name was now Geeta. !!!!!!!!! Mukesh told us this, and his new wife made a face as if she had eaten a lemon. Later I spoke to her about it; she was not happy.
Saturday: Back to the Constable
In my line of work, there are few things as gratifying as catching someone in a lie. We returned to the constable the next day, with a recording of Mukesh’s confession saved in my phone.
The constable seemed a little uneasy. He said he didn’t want to talk to us in the station, and invited us across the road to a tea stall. But the tea stall was occupied by a half-dozen khaki-clad police officers on break, mussing one another’s hair and smoking beedis, so he took us to a cubbyhole tractor repair shop, where we sat facing each other — him sitting on a lawn chair, me on a rope cot. Again: caste and stature conveyed by seating arrangements. Do you jot these logistics down on a notepad, or are they reliably memorable? I was nervous, because I was so intent on him confessing. I already had a sense that I would write the piece as a series of interviews. So yes, it felt dramatic, the culmination of everything we had done. I had given up on persuading him to confess when he hitched a ride home with us and suddenly just blurted out the truth.
It was very hot, and bullock carts kept squeaking past on the main road. As we told him what we had discovered on the previous day, the constable kept mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. Then, after a minute or two, he spoke.
“When you get information of any kind,” he said, “you go and investigate. There are two sides to every story. We have to assume that both sides are telling the truth. Mukesh told us she fell down the stairs. We also spoke to the girl’s family. What the mother gave us in writing was that her daughter fell down the stairs.”
For the next 45 minutes, I asked him the same question in many different ways. Is this tenacity part of your character? Or the result of being a veteran reporter? Was there ever a time when you would not have persisted? On the contrary, I almost always feel that I have given up too easily. As she translated, Suhasini tried to make my questions seem less angry, but this was not easy, since I was sitting three feet away from him, leaning forward and staring into his eyes.
If you had asked me at that moment, I would have had difficulty explaining why the truth mattered, since no one I had spoken to seemed interested in reopening the case. But I kept asking him and he kept lying until we were both exhausted.
At one point there was a sort of ripple in the surface of the conversation. We were sitting quietly, having run out of ways to restate our positions. He was gazing at the back wall of the shop, and, completely out of the blue, he said something about Mahatma Gandhi.
“People hang Gandhi’s portrait on their walls here,” he said, “but they do not follow Gandhi’s rules.” I asked him whether he liked being a policeman, and he shook his head briefly. No.
Then he asked us for a ride home. I wondered whether he might just be interested in riding in an air-conditioned van — people here were so poor, he might not get another chance — but as soon as we began to drive, he began to speak, staring not at us but at the road ahead.
“I will tell you, this was a murder,” he said. What did you feel at this moment he says that? My eyes popped out of my head. I just took notes as fast as I could. He was sitting in the front seat, looking at the road, not at me. It was a strange moment.
He said that Mukesh’s family had bribed the senior officers in the police station, but that it could not have happened without a vigorous effort by the village chief, Jahiruddin Mewati, to persuade Geeta’s widowed mother, a day laborer from a village 30 miles away, to withdraw murder charges.
Sunday: The Headman Explains
So I found myself back in Jahiruddin’s yard, now armed with a file folder full of evidence that he had broken the law.
This was a change in the dynamic of our relationship. I put my phone on the table right in front of him, so he could see that I was recording. At one point, listening to us talk, his son tried to warn him that he was incriminating himself, but Jahiruddin didn’t care at all. He told us he was proud of burying the case.
This was not because he believed that Geeta deserved to die or that her husband deserved to escape punishment. It was something more practical. Mukesh’s extended family controlled 150 votes; Jahiruddin had won his last election by 91. A murder case would have been a blot on their caste, and by brokering the cover-up, he had performed a particularly valuable service to a key vote bank. It might help him win re-election someday.
“In India, there is no vote in the name of development,” he said. “In India, there is no vote in the name of doing something good. The vote is in the name of caste, family, community. And then 10 percent of people will say, ‘He did something good for me.’”
It had not been easy, he said. The police had demanded a large bribe from Mukesh’s family. The hardest part, he said, was persuading the victim’s mother to withdraw the charges.
The mother was a day laborer, a tiny, dark-skinned woman who worked on a construction site, carrying cement mix back and forth all day in a basket on her head. She had never been addressed by a policeman until the day of her daughter’s death, let alone a village chief. But she was angry when they saw the state of her daughter’s body. Mukesh had hit the girl so hard, her relatives said, that they could see her skull through the parted skin of her scalp.
Jahiruddin said he had worked on the mother for five hours before she relented.
“They were totally adamant — they said, ‘We will not allow this compromise to happen.’ They would not budge. They sent the girl’s body for post-mortem,” he said.
Sometimes it seemed that the European legal system, with its liberal emphasis on individual rights, had settled only lightly on a country fixated on the rights of groups. Political leaders have driven this deeper into the culture: Equality, in India, is equality among groups. Justice is group justice. The foreign correspondent must not only report what is happening/happened but also interpret the events and serve as a cultural translator. Did you ever yearn to rewrite any of your much earlier articles based on what you learned later about culture and context? I try not to look at my earlier articles because I always want to change something and it is always too late. Whatever triumphal feeling I got from interrogating the constable, it was gone. So was my amusement with the village chief. He noticed this, and turned to Suhasini.
“Please ask her what type of person she thinks I am,” he asked her. “I’m not greedy. I don’t have any kind of greed. It’s a service. Maybe you think I am greedy for votes from villagers.”
When I failed to adequately reassure him, he became animated. “failed to adequately reassure him”—seems downright British in its understatement and restraint, words that characterize the whole piece, and that, by deployment, paradoxically amplify the impact of every sentence. Are your understatement and restraint innate or learned? Yes, I had been reading too much Orwell! Now I am reading P.G. Wodehouse, so it will be even worse.
“You are here with some kind of greed,” he said. “You want some kind of news. But what am I getting from you? I gave up two hours of my time. What does that mean to you?”
On the way back to Delhi, we stopped by the town where the dead woman’s mother lived, but I no longer expected to find much interest in our investigation. The woman’s mother had accepted what the village chief told her, that dropping the murder case would be better for Geeta’s four children. That the consequences of provoking a conflict between related clans would have weighed heavily on her. It was all for the best, she said.
The silences between us extended uncomfortably, and I realized she was desperate for us to leave but did not dare to say it.
Beside her, with his knees drawn up to his chin, was a small boy of about 8, who had been listening to the whole conversation. It turned out to be Geeta’s son. He was silently glowering, and when I asked him what he thought about this whole situation, he said his father was a good-for-nothing.
“My father did not love my mother,” he said, his voice so quiet that I had to lean forward to hear him.
His grandmother looked at him dotingly. “Maybe when he grows up,” she said, “he will take revenge.” Do you have a favorite line/ moment/passage in “How to Get Away…”? I was glad that the little boy spoke up for his mother. And then, because of your article, there is the arrest: Does it feel as good or better than catching someone in a lie? I had mixed feelings about the arrest. It was, in a way, a wonderful surprise: In many countries, police would shrug off a report by a foreign newspaper reporter, and I was really gratified that they bothered to follow up. And I believe that people who beat their wives to death should be punished. I think it makes other women safer. On the other hand, virtually everyone I had spoken to – including his wife’s family — had agreed it was better to keep him out of jail, among other reasons because he was the sole caretaker for his children. I could understand why they thought that. His arrest will cause a great deal of churn in this place, and I worry that it will be difficult for me to go back and work there again. And it was very frustrating that the police were not investigating corruption within their own ranks and on the part of elected officials, which to my mind is a much more insidious problem, and much more risky to confront.