'I have strong reasons to believe that Accused number 4 (A4) Pratim Mukerjea with the assistance of other persons, including Accused no 3 (A3) turned approver Shyamwar Pinturam Rai may have conspired and abducted my daughter Sheena in 2012 and made her untraceable and subsequently destroyed evidence.'
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
It was quite an ordinary thumb.
The thumb didn't seem to be either muscular or brawny, from where I was standing, though it had spent a lot of time on steering wheels, gear sticks, cellphone key pads and even done some farming.
It belonged to a pair of equally average hands, which now spend most of their time obediently hanging down straight, or holding the railing of the witness box, while in Courtroom 51 of the city civil and sessions court at Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai.
That didn't stop former driver Shyamvar Pinturam Rai's Right Thumb from stealing a bit of the spotlight in court on Wednesday, November 15, at the Sheena Bora murder trial.
There was a five-minute discussion -- that Indrani Mukerjea's counsel Sudeep Pasbola termed a 'major contradiction' -- on how the erstwhile Mukerjea driver's thumb came into focus for the first time in this Special CBI courtroom, when Rai spoke about his right thumb being "chabaya gaya (chewed on)" by victim Sheena Bora while he was helping Indrani and her former husband Sanjeev Khanna to allegedly kill Sheena on April 24, 2012.
There had been no mention of Rai's injured thumb -- for which he hadn't sought medical attention, Pasbola had earlier ascertained -- in the statement he made before the lady magistrate on November 6, 2015 at the killa court, near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus.
Instead in that statement -- informally referred to as the 164 (recording of statements before a magistrate under Section 164 of the CrPC) -- Rai spoke of his hand being bitten and not any of his 'fingers', Pasbola emphasised on Wednesday, pointing out how odd that was.
Strange, according to the lawyer, because why had the thumb injury not been mentioned before?
The Right Thumb was not the only thing missing in the 164. It was just part of a pattern, whose configuration seemed to be getting clearer and clearer, as the lawyer, continuing the process of examining the omissions and contradictions, spent about an hour-and-a-half comparing the statement Rai made before the sessions court with the statement he made before the magistrate two years earlier.
With time -- in this case five years -- as memory fades, generally a tale recounted over and over again gets thinner and thinner and gradually shorn of its details.
But not so with Rai's account of the murder, as successive court appearances have shown.
His detailing, of how Sheena Bora's murder was planned, executed and covered up, has gotten increasingly elaborate and finely embroidered -- like a tapestry gaining more and more gloriously coloured threads after it was first woven -- between the time he was cooling his heels at Thane jail, after getting his statement recorded at the killa court, and his arrival in this Special CBI court, hardly a few months ago.
Five years had turned Rai from a dry, boring, narrator of the facts of a crime, inexplicably, into a colourful raconteur.
Last Friday, November 10, while examining the omissions/contradictions by this witness, the court pored over and compared Rai's very first statement to the Khar police station, north west Mumbai -- his 161 (confession before an officer under Section 161 of the Criminal Procedure Code), after his arrest in August 2015, with what he told this court.
About 60 percent was new material that was spoken about for the first time while giving his testimony before Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale.
On Wednesday Rai fared a little better.
Still, Pasbola rooted out a series of much more fleshy passages from Rai's Courtroom 51 account that the driver neglected to inform the magistrate about earlier.
That the new information was fairly large was plain to see. The bright yellow portions expanded and spread, as the battery of lawyers, with photocopies of both of Rai's statements before them, underlined the fresh material with yellow highlighter.
For instance, when it came to hiring the Chevrolet, the murder vehicle, from "Faizal Bhai" who had a car hire agency in Worli, Rai told the CBI court: "I went to Faizal Bhai's place and hired a car with a number starting with MH-01, with dark glasses."
The dark glass of the car and additional information on its license plate number had not made it to the magistrate statement.
Indrani's declaration to Rai that she would like to kill Mekhail and Sheena -- her children from her first marriage -- within two days was a new addition too.
Also, when Rai and Indrani travelled to Lonvala for a recce, to locate a place for Sheena's body, the version before Judge Jagdale mentioned Indrani and Rai having tea. No mention of tea came up earlier.
Pasbola: "Lonvala mein Indrani Madam ne chai mangayi aur hum aur Indrani Madam chai piya (In Lonavla Indrani Madam ordered tea and me and Indrani Madam drank tea). The emphasis is on having tea. It doesn't sound important. But we never know what will turn on tea! Let's have it (as an omission on the record)." He repeated in an ironic tone: "Myself and Indrani had tea!"
What crept into the version before Judge Jagdale, that was not in any statements earlier, was that crucial insert about Indrani talking to her husband (and accused no 4) Peter Mukerjea after her recces referencing Sheena and Mekhail, saying she had found a good place for their bodies.
Missing too were tiny but very pertinent details, like the spot where Sheena's remains were buried was marked by a hill. There was no talk of a hill earlier.
Or the exact position of Sheena and Indrani in the Chevrolet, when they set out for the Bandra, north west Mumbai, lane, where Sheena was killed.
Or how Sanjeev suggested killing only one of them (between Sheena and Mekhail) that fateful evening, because disposing two bodies would be tough.
Or wearing the specially purchased shoes to take the body to the place in Pen, in Raigad district, where it was burned.
Or how Indrani asked Rai to find another job after the crime.
CBI Special Prosecutors Kavita Patil and Bharat Badami didn't take Pasbola on in a big way during this process.
Occasionally they would grumble that the lawyer was nitpicking. "It is not specifically mentioned" was an oft-repeated complaint from them, while defending the absence of more exact facts.
Pasbola would retort: "Word to word kuch bhi nahin ha (There is nothing that is word to word)!"
The comparing of accounts is a slow process, where there has to be a line-by-line verification and agreement between Pasbola, Judge Jagdale, Rai and the CBI.
Initially, like last week, each segment containing previously unrecorded material was presented to Rai.
And then Pasbola and Rai would go through the routine of "Koiee karan tha nahin batana ka (Was there any reason to not have told the magistrate)?" or "Aise nahin likhne ka karan bata sakte hai (Do you know the reason for it not being written)?"
And Rai, also like last week, had nothing more informative to say other than to aver doggedly, "Bataya hoga (I must have told them)." Though he didn't look particularly dumbstruck about the absent statements.
In the process, each painted a different picture to the court. Pasbola built the profile of a former Mukerjea employee who with each telling of his story, almost Rashomon style, offered a new and enlarged version and, in the end, quite a different narration.
Rai, who always prefers to lean on pathos -- be it his sad yaad nahins or now his newer bewildered bataya hogas -- constructed the scene of poor bechara (unfortunate) man painstakingly telling a magistrate a long and important tale that, for reasons unknown, was not recorded properly.
After one too many tiresome bataya hogas from Rai, Pasbola and Judge Jagdale continued the time-consuming process without referring to Rai anymore.
Before signing Rai out of the process, given his frustrating lack of answers, Pasbola asked the judge if they should still keep checking the reason for each omission with Rai.
Judge Jagdale said with a perplexed smile: "Every time..." and he raised his hand, using it to indicate the kind of shrug of an answer Rai preferred.
Pasbola replied: "Yes every time. Not asking him again."
On Wednesday the process of noting all the omissions and contradictions in Rai's statement to the magistrate was completed.
On November 17, the next hearing in this trial, perhaps the statement to the CBI will be examined. The examination of the remaining call data records was once again postponed when the Airtel nodal officer showed up in court on Wednesday requesting another week of extra time to submit its call data records.
If Rai's Right Thumb garnered attention on Wednesday, the lion's share of the spotlight was predictably stolen by Indrani, when towards the end of the hearing, she made some fresh accusations, introducing high drama into the courtroom and maybe a new slant to the case.
The hearing had begun nearly an hour late.
The accused were all in court before time. The lawyers arrived a tad late, with Pasbola, who held up the show on Wednesday, because he was coming from dealing with a case in the high court, making it only closer to 4 pm.
As the judge, the lawyers, the accused, the approver, the journalists, the CBI and the policemen waited for Pasbola, the activity in the hallways outside Courtroom 51 became livelier by the minute.
Chatting, snacking, long consultations with lawyers, gupshup with relatives ensued. Peter tucked into a three or four-part tiffin brought by his sister Shangon Das Gupta.
One of the canteen boys was wandering about with a giant, plastic-reinforced burlap sack, emblazoned with Red Chilli Rice on it, shoving the used plates he collected into it.
At one point a posse of policemen came down from the 4th floor, one of them holding a pair of handcuffs, escorting a man with a mop of unruly curls, in a brown shirt, blue jeans and blue sports shoes, who seemed to be on the right side of 50.
The man's face broke into a huge, endearing smile and rather abruptly he bounded across to Peter and in Marathi seemed to be asking if Peter needed anything by way of refreshments.
His movements were a bit sudden and for a moment the cops froze, with one of them raising his trusty if decrepit self-loading rifle in readiness, to protect Peter.
But then the man and Peter hugged and everyone relaxed.
They both had a long conversation. The canteen man came over to Peter's friend/acquaintance to ask "Sahebji" what he needed. The man obviously wasn't anyone Peter knew from his Star or INX days, but someone Peter had crossed paths with in the new and unforeseen life he now leads in the Arthur Road jail.
It turned out he was once Peter's cell buddy at Barrack 12 at the Arthur Road jail, but had now been shifted to the Byculla jail -- Ramesh Kadam, a former Nationalist Congress Party MLA from Solapur district, imprisoned since 2015 and being tried for alleged misappropriation of Rs 132 crores (Rs 1.32 billion) from a state-run corporation.
Indrani, who appeared serious and preoccupied, on arrival from the Byculla jail, without waiting for the arrival of her lawyers, entered the courtroom to approach the judge, her police escort trailing her.
Wearing a pale pastel peach kurta, with a peach-coloured salwar and chunni, a diamond bindi, her hair loose, she quickly clambered up into the witness stand, holding a paper, looking like a child at the front of a classroom.
She told the slightly bemused Judge Jagdale that she wanted to submit an application requesting that the 2012 and the 2015 call data records of Peter, her husband, be also called for.
The judge immediately told her to approach him through her lawyers.
"Your honour, they are not here yet," explained Indrani.
Judge Jagdale, who had a slightly mystified look on his face as he looked at her, suggested she wait for them to arrive.
At the end of the hearing Indrani gave her neatly written application over to a perhaps startled Pasbola and counsel Gunjan Mangla and had it submitted.
Her application, while declaring war on her third husband, suggested a new and perhaps rather too unusual angle in this murder case: 'I have strong reasons to believe that Accused number 4 (A4) Pratim Mukerjea (Peter) with the assistance of other persons, including Accused no 3 (A3) turned approver Shyamwar Pinturam Rai may have conspired and abducted my daughter Sheena in 2012 and made her untraceable and subsequently destroyed evidence.'
'I also believe that A4 along with other persons may have manipulated circumstances to frame me and influenced witnesses, situations and information to lead to my arrest on 25/8/2015 for a hienous (sic) they may have committed, aided and abetted.'
'I am convinced that if we are able to obtain the CDR of A4's mobile number, we will be in a better position to ascertain if A4 and other persons were involved in the disappearance of my daughter Sheena and there will be more clarity if A4 and other persons have a role in framing me,'
'I offer my sincere gratitude to your honour for your kindness and endeavor to provide justice to my daughter, Sheena, who may have lost her life on account of greed, betrayal, jealousy, lust and ill-will of persons whom she dearly loved and trusted.'
The application was signed Indrani Pratim Mukerjea and stated her address as 'Flat 18 and 19, Marlow, 62B, Pochkhanawala Road, Worli, Mumbai - 400030 (at present lodged in Byculla Prison as Accused no 1 in Case no 117 of 2015).'
As Indrani first, and then Sanjeev Khanna made his way down the stairs to the prison bus waiting in the courtyard of the sessions court, one of Khanna's police escorts, a friendly young cop who had wished Khanna "Good luck, Sir" before the hearing began, asked him: "Case ka kya progress, Sir? (What progress on the case, Sir?)"
The rest of the policemen and Khanna replied wisely and resignedly, "Chal raha hai (It is going on)."
Upstairs the lawyers, both prosecution and defence, were deliberating over Indrani's curious application.
Said one: "Usko dubna hai. Saath mein unko leke, dubna hai (She will drown, but she wants to take him along and drown)."
Asked another, mock puzzled: "Is this a way of asking for divorce?"
Replied the first: "All husbands are unfortunate."