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V Sudarshan’s book, Dead End, is as much a story of the everyday reality of Indian life – miscarriage of justice – as it is about those such as K Ragothaman doing their best to ensure justice is done.

Dead End: The Minister, The CBI, And The Murder That Wasn’t, published by Hachette, reconstructs the story of a lawyer from Kerala who goes to Bengaluru in the late 1980s to get medical admission for his brother and get the grades of a student, who is training to be a teacher, re-evaluated. As fate would have it, he decides to provide legal service for the man who runs the medical college and the teacher training institution. The man’s adversary is R L Jalappa, then Minister of Cooperation and later Home Minister in Ramakrishna Hegde’s government. Jalappa wants to set up a medical college in the same place and uses his powers to ensure he gets one and his rival loses his. The lawyer, Rashid, becomes the fall guy and is murdered.

In the book, for every thug ubiquitous across the Indian establishment, there are also men and women of honour who believe in values and do their best, professionally. For every dodgy judge, there is one who rings in faith in the judiciary. For every policeman actively committing crime, there are those doggedly pursuing perpetrators and, hence, truth and justice. For every bureaucrat cozying up to powerful people and carrying out their dirty work, there are those who use the same bureaucratic ruses to put justice back on the rails.

But the good guys lose in Dead End. The system wins as the bad guys get their way as is often the case in India.

Our movies and, sometimes, our books hype the positive almost as an antidote to the overwhelming injustice and lack of norms in Indian society. But Indian reality is more Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron than All The President’s Men.

Sudarshan’s book is journalistic reportage through and through. The cast of characters is real. The incidents happened in real life. They made headlines not too long ago. The sequences are stereotypically Indian. The politician who doesn’t baulk from ordering murder and viciously misuses his powers to cover up is there in Jalappa. Dead End has him personally supervising the disposal of the body.

But the good guys lose in Dead End. The system wins as the bad guys get their way as is often the case in India

The short-tempered stickler Shivappa valiantly argues the CBI’s case against Jalappa, his executioners and conniving officials and policemen. As judge in Madras High Court, later he was among those who stood up to Jayalalithaa and contributed to her legal downfall.

The hero of Dead End is the CBI’s K Ragothaman, familiar to people in Tamil Nadu as the man who threw a searchingly honest light on the prosecution’s role in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. He cracks the case that had gone cold and has the smarts and persistence to bring it to trial. Despite the odds, he obtains a conviction of some of the accused, barring Jalappa, in the trial court although after a long delayed appeal, the accused are set free. The perpetrators mock Raghothaman in the end.

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Ragothaman is an old school government official. Scrupulously honest, he is from a by-gone generation that considered government employment as diligent service. We still see such people. This writer knows a scrupulously honest retired police officer who travels on share autos and whose modest apartment in a Chennai suburb bought using his retirement benefits is the only thing to show for many decades of senior positions.

In Dead End, Ragothaman lives in a bare apartment in Chennai that has an Indian toilet. Among the few perks of central government service is his daughter’s education in the central government-run Kendriya Vidyalaya. Raghothaman retires and fades away. The pandemic consumes him but he leaves a legacy.

Unmindful of the acquittals in court, Sudarshan doesn’t mince his words. In Dead End, Jalappa and the rest are the guilty perpetrators and cover-up artistes even if courts thought otherwise. He doesn’t hide behind journalistic language such as “alleged” and tells the story as it was told to him by reliable sources such as Ragothaman. The corrupt and the criminal are exactly that in the book.

Unmindful of the acquittals in court, Sudarshan doesn’t mince his words. In Dead End, Jalappa and the rest are the guilty perpetrators and cover-up artistes even if courts thought otherwise

The conclusive tone of the language spares none. Perhaps the only grey area is the judiciary. Judges’ complicity is shown, not told. Their motives are indicated, not explicitly described, sometimes through others such as Shivappa who browbeats a hostile judge into recusing himself from the case.

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Indian journalism is often lacking in the human touch. It’s largely about events, policy and issues. People, what they eat, and how they live are for fiction writers. Barring Caravan magazine that brought in an editor from The New Yorker to provide training in narrative journalism, only a few journalistic stories and books provide the enriching details.

Filled with startling details, more sordid and diabolic than what fiction often comes up with, Dead End is a page turner. The culinary habits of victims, criminals and the policemen are brought out vividly. Like Clemenza’s meatballs, Shivappa has his ragimudde, Ragothaman has his chicken curry, and the victims elaborately discuss a bun fried like a poori and stuffed with potato filling. Food, perverted sex, seedy politicians, as well as honest cops and lawyers provide context to heinous crime.

Indian reality can assault the senses. Dead End does too, though it tells a moral tale.

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