Audiences at literary festivals might largely be made up of uncomprehending school children who sit obediently through readings and author discussions, but there's no doubt that these events provide much food for thought. This, at least, was the case at the launch of Bina Ramani's book, Bird in a Banyan Tree, at the Taj Literature Festival in Agra earlier this week.
While the book talks about Ramani's life, her childhood, her marriage, her children and her family, its crux deals with what happened on 30 April 1999, when Jessica Lal was shot dead, and the impact that the incident had on her own life.
"It may have gone unnoticed if it had happened somewhere else. Tragically, it became a big issue because the incident happened in my restaurant," Ramani said. 14 years after the murder at her Tamarind Court Café, Ramani has written a book that she hopes will reveal her side of the story. Lal was shot dead by Manu Sharma, son of Venod Sharma, a Congress leader, when she refused to serve him a drink as the bar was closed.
The sensational case dragged on for seven years and Ramani, a familiar name in Delhi's social circles, was the star witness. The trial garnered unprecedented public attention with candle light vigils being held to demand justice after a lower court acquitted Sharma. "While writing the book, I kept avoiding the Jessica Lal chapters; I couldn't do it," Ramani said. "I had to relive everything to bring out the entire truth, and it was traumatic."
During the investigation, she spent almost a week in police custody before being sent to Tihar jail for three days. It was at Tihar that the idea of writing a tell-all memoir took seed. "My version never came out in print. It was a well-orchestrated plan between the ministers, cops, judges and many others who fed stories to the media," she said.
The memoir begins with Ramani in Tihar followed by a flashback to her life before the incident. The author believes she had to trace the trajectory of her life back to her childhood to understand how things went so wrong. "We were an upright and honest family that was also involved in charity work. What happened for me to land up in a jail?" she wondered.
As the case progressed, Ramani was accused of flouting rules by serving liquor without a license, forging restaurant ownership documents, and tampering with evidence by allegedly wiping blood from the murder site. Though the allegations were later quashed, it tarnished the reputation of her family and Ramani herself was viewed as a 'wishy-washy' witness. The image stuck and the Bollywood film No One Killed Jessica showed her in a similar light.
While many might consider this is an attempt by the author to project herself as a victim, Ramani, who believes, rather incredibly, that her fate was worse even than Jessica Lal's, says hers is a story worth telling. "I'm telling my story as an inspiration. It is about courage, a personal bumpy journey filled with remorse," said Ramani who thinks Sharma's kin still hold her responsible for his imprisonment and worries about the threat to her life.
"It's true we didn't have the liquor license and we paid for it. But the rest (the other allegations against her) was all cooked up," she said. "There wasn't any blood at the site. We couldn't even find the wound until we reached the hospital."
The Jessica Lal case was highly publicised and Ramani is critical of the way the media handled it. "The media built me, the media brought me down," she said, adding that she sees a parallel in how the Tarun Tejpal case is now being covered.
Though nothing can erase the events of that fateful night or bring a young woman back to life, Ramani clearly hopes the book will change the public perception of her.