A riveting read

Published Apr 10, 2019, 12:20 am IST
Updated Apr 10, 2019, 12:20 am IST
Occasionally, however, Bharara’s teachings come off like truisms.
Former US Attorney Preet Bharara
 Former US Attorney Preet Bharara

Filled with interesting anecdotes and well known truisms, former US Attorney Preet Bharara's debut book Doing Justice dishes out good advice while engaging the reader with compelling characters, fast paced action and exciting storytelling.

As US Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2009 to 2017, Preet Bharara came to be known as a ‘crusader prosecutor’, taking on some of the biggest banks in the world, making white collar criminals finally pay up for their “victimless” crimes, prosecuting domestic terrorists looking to recreate 9/11, and taking down crooked politicians from both sides of the aisle. Bharara’s intent with his debut book, however, is less lofty.


doing justice by Preet Bharara, Publisher: Bloomsbury India,  pp. 368,  Rs 499 doing justice by Preet Bharara, Publisher: Bloomsbury India, pp. 368, Rs 499

Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment and the Rule of Law dispenses grandfatherly advice such as: be meticulous, prep extensively beforehand and don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. But for novice prosecutors and other young people of their ilk that this book is aimed at, this is not bad advice at all.

In his foreword, he tells us that he has long wanted to create a guide to life’s “human dilemmas that would perplex prosecutors who are just starting out every day” To that end, he succeeds — Bharara presents his maxims in the most accessible fashion, making this a perfect reference for young career individuals. But these words of wisdom aren’t limited to the workplace. Bharara’s philosophy on the fairness of life itself seems to hinge on the decency and kindness of humans who uphold justice rather than institutions that have been set up to mete it out. In that, his advice extends to life and those seeking to address its many conundrums, much like a modern day Aesop’s Fables.

Occasionally, however, Bharara’s teachings come off like truisms. After all, lessons like “There is no shame in asking basic questions” are ones good Indian children have been taught by conscientious parents for decades now. There is something heartening, however, to know that a Harvard and Columbia alum also feels like a bit of a fool the first few days on the job, though the stakes are infinitely higher for Bharara than for your average techie on Sarjapur Road. This is counsel from someone who one might be more willing to actually listen to, unlike some good old umbilical whiplash triggered by another parental gyaan session.

The stark simplicity of advice like “Curiosity and query are among the most important pillars of sound leadership” or “Even the smartest people don’t know everything” may seem a bit obvious, but it is this very plainness that is likely to ensure a wider impact than something more complex could have had. One doesn’t need to be gunning to be the next maverick US attorney taking on widespread insider trading in order to start navigating one’s day to day life with some sense of a personal code. Bharara shares easily implementable recommendations like “If your dumb questions focus on the heart of the matter, it’s okay. They may betray ignorance, but also likely show the right focus” - that are useful to anyone who hasn’t had the benefit of serious mentorship in their lives.

“Doing Justice” could have easily been another tiresome tome law students abandon in favour of a handy Jhabvala. But it’s something erudite and charming listeners of Bharara’s popular NPR podcast would be familiar with. Bharara has a knack for communicating complexities in a fashion that is easily parsed, even by those who are not his natural audience. He is aided in this by his mastery of the art of telling a good anecdote.

Bharara entertains as he explains how to make a quick judgment call in high pressure situations, deal with the moral conflict of working with criminal collaborators who exchange information for immunity, and other life hacks. From swashbuckling Scorsesian gangsters running the mean streets of New York to charming Wall Street con men defrauding everyone at swish Page 3 parties, Bharara has a tale for every bit of tutelage he is disbursing. For Indians who gorged on Grisham in their teens, this will feel like coming home to a well thumbed copy - the characters are compelling, stakes satisfyingly expensive, and the action fast paced. And the best part is that unlike a Matthew McConaughey starrer, they come with all the delicious details of a true story.

Indians might remember Preet Bharara from a diplomatic kerfuffle his office found itself embroiled in when it filed charges against Devyani Khobragade, then a deputy consul general at the Consulate General for India at New York City. Khobragade had been accused by her domestic help of falsifying work permits and records and also stood accused of visa fraud. As part of the routine procedure upon arrest, Khobragade was subjected to a strip search and housed with the general population alongside “drug addicts”. This, in particular, drew the ire of Indians back home, resulting in multi-pronged outrage. The Government of India took away perks enjoyed by US diplomats on Indian soil such as concessions on food and beverage imports. News anchors and their panelists churned out hours of high-decibel hot takes. Protesters in New Delhi vandalised the ultimate example of American imperialism — a Domino’s pizza outlet.

Bharara addresses this charge of being a self-loathing South Asian with definitive scorn, pointing out that the victim his office had intervened to defend was also Indian. It is one of the few places in which Bharara does not hold back - it is clear that he finds this racial charge to be poorly conceived and evidence free.

“When presented with this absurd thesis, I would try to defuse it with a joke. On one occasion, I said, “Just FYI, everyone, I do not wake up every morning, rise from my bed, fling open the windows, shake my fist at the sky, and say, ‘Bring me the head of an Indian!’ At least most days I didn’t do that,” Bharara quips, undercutting his irritation at the charge by pointing out its absurdity.

He is less candid on other socio-political issues — the institutional racism of the justice system is only acknowledged in an aside about turnstile jumpers and Trump’s megalomaniacal reign is ignored but for a few references to Bharara’s refusal to toe the line and his consequent sacking. It is not that Bharara is beholden to comment on these larger issues, but society might need the perspective of a man who has managed to accomplish great things in an often too rigid system. It might just be the guide to life we need to take on increasingly troubled times.

— The writer also writes on culture as well.