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Indrani is still the boss

Last updated on: September 05, 2017 07:30 IST

Indrani is clearly in charge in her little corner.
She is speaking rapidly to a not-very-tall, pot-bellied, balding man, whom she repeatedly, decisively, asks, "Have you understood?"
The tone is that of a boss talking to an employee.
The words "cheque" and "two lakhs" float by.
Savera R Someshwar reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Rai and Pasbola

There are many things you learn when you sit in Courtroom 51 of the Mumbai City Civil and Sessions Court, presided by the honourable Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale.

You learn, for instance, that there are so many different ways of saying 'Maloom nahi' and 'Yaad nahi'.

You learn that there can be moments of humour even in a case as heart chilling as that of a mother accused of cold-bloodedly planning and then executing her daughter's murder.

You learn that, even amidst that light banter, the legal sabres remain sharply honed, ready to take advantage of the slightest error.

 

You learn of the loyalty of a sister and a brother, whose lives are probably timed to the next date in a court case that has their siblings in the enclosure reserved for the accused, in a case that will probably go on for a long time.

That last mentioned, you learn, as soon as you walk towards Courtroom 51, past Room 97 A to which four plates of Chinese fried rice, Manchurian gravy and a couple of accompaniments have been delivered by a wobbly-handed waiter who has balanced them from the ground floor, through the lift, to the third.

Past Courtroom 49, presided by Additional Sessions Judge J S Sharma, that is at present populated by five people -- two lawyers having lunch, a black robed lawyer speaking to a colleague/client and a lady in a salwar-kameez, sitting with her head bent.

Past Courtroom 50, presided by Additional Sessions Judge T S Tarare, which, for the moment, houses just a court official and two lawyers.

Then, on a long bench facing the stairs, sit Accused No 4 Peter Mukerjea in the Sheena Bora Murder Case and his sister, Shangon Das Gupta.

Between them are two small cardboard carry boxes, now empty of their burgers, gaily orange-and-white striped tissue papers and steel tumblers of hot chai or coffee that have come up from the court canteen on the ground floor.

On the other side of the courtroom, next to a metal gate sit Accused No 1 and 2, Indrani Mukerjea and her rather lonely looking ex-husband, Sanjeev Khanna.

Both are dressed in a pale shade of orange.

Peppered around all three accused are male and female policemen, some hanging on desultorily to their rifles, waiting until it is time to escort charges to the courtroom and later, the police van.

Indrani is clearly in charge in her little corner. She is speaking rapidly to a not-very-tall, pot-bellied, balding man, whom she repeatedly, decisively, asks, "Have you understood?"

The tone is that of a boss talking to an employee. The words "cheque" and "two lakhs" float by.

A canteen employee approaches her. His payment is due. "At 5.30 pm," Indrani tells him. Clearly, he will have to wait until after the day's hearing.

Her voice lowers as she continues to issue what appear to be instructions.

Her eyes dart around constantly, settling speculatively on every new face that lingers near her.

Khanna sits quietly, cradling a thick, spiral-bound copy on his lap.

Suddenly, movement stirs the thick afternoon air.

Indrani wants to use the washroom, but there seems to be some confusion.

"Zyacha aahe ka washroom? (Do you want to go to the washroom?)," a policewoman asks her, a trifle impatiently.

"Haan, jaana hai (Yes, I do)," says Indrani who seems torn between the washroom visit and the instructions.

By the time she is back, Sanjeev Khanna's advocate, Shreyansh Mithare, is chatting with his client who looks a little less lonely.

At 2.45 pm, CBI Advocates Kavita Patil and Bharat Badami -- who are prosecuting the case -- are in their chairs.

A fresh cup of tea appears for Peter, dressed in his customary white and khaki, and there is a smile on his face as he chats with his sister.

A courtroom sweeper appears with a bright pink dustpan and a bright green handled broom. He sweeps around Indrani’s feet in a gesture that seems strangely symbolic.

At 2.50 pm, the policemen begin wearing their blue topis, in preparation to entering the courtroom.

Indrani has been asked to go in at least three times, but she is still talking to her male visitor.

Peter, on the other hand, now wants to visit the washroom. His escorts are in two minds. Apparently, the men's washroom seems to be in another, longer, direction.

Finally, a decision is made. He is escorted in the same direction Indrani went earlier -- probably towards the washroom that was closer.

By 3 pm, everyone -- the battery of lawyers, their assistants, the accused and the judge -- are in place.

Shyamvar Pinturam Rai, Accused No 3 turned approver, is brought in.

The fan whirring over Sudeep Pasbola, Indrani's lawyer and Rai's cross-examiner, is switched off.

Pasbola begins probing Rai about the Buddha brothers -- Sohail, a policeman with 22 years of service under his belt, and apparently an associate of former Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria, before he joined Peter at Star TV as vice president, internal security, and Sameer, who worked for INX Media.

Pasbola nudges his memory, "Crime branch officer?"

Rai's memory is stuck at "Mujhe maloom nahi (I don't know)" for Sohail, but does remember Sameer, "an officer at INX."

(A Mumbai Mirror report (external link) dated February 18, 2016, says he was employed by Sameer at Indrani's request and was in their employ when he was arrested for the possession of an illegal weapon. It was this arrest that began unravelling the skein surrounding Sheena Bora's murder.)

But the star of Monday's cross-examination -- in absentia -- is Indrani's son Mekhail and the conversations he and Rai had between January 2012 and May 2012.

It's like watching a game of badminton.

Pasbola serves a few mobile phone numbers and asks if they belong to Mekhail.

Rai returns the serves with either silence or "maloom nahi."

Pasbola lobs back the questions, sometimes with raised brows, sometimes a shrug, sometimes a "maloom nahi, toh bolo na" even as Rai gives his answer, which is mostly -- as anyone can predict by now -- a "maloom nahi."

Or his other safe serve, "Yaad nahi (I can't remember)."

Or he repeats Pasbola's questions.

Pasbola feigns irritation, but he is a patient man.

Rai lets the clock tick by, looking straight at the cupboards lining the wall, the ceiling or the judge.

Sometimes, the judge repeats Pasbola's questions.

There are long pauses before he answers.

At one point, it actually looks like one of the three court staff members facing the lawyers is grabbing a quick nap.

Pasbola again rattles off a number. "8800638235. Ek sau gyarah baar (11 times)," he tells Rai, "you've spoken to Mekhail on this number in a span of four months."

"Kya baat ho rahi thi? (What were you talking about?)" Pasbola asks.

"Maloom nahi."

Another number.

"8486093147."

Rai remembers this one -- "Confident? You haven't forgotten?" asks Pasbola before telling him there have been "sataees (27) calls" between Rai and Mekhail in the January 2012 to May 2012 period on this number.

Pasbola wants to know the "tareek (dates)" and "mahina (months)" of these calls, but Rai does not know the "time, din, mahina. Yaad nahi."

As the thrust and feint continues at the front of the courtroom, dynamics are at play at the back of the courtroom, in the enclosure for the accused.

Peter prefers to stand, arms resting on the barrier, mouth pulled down into a frown.

Indrani, whom he completely ignores, is coquettish when she attempts to speak to him, once even putting a note before him, which he drops on the bench behind him without looking at her.

With Sanjeev Khanna -- whose brother she summons to pass messages to Pasbola's assistant until Badami issues a warning -- her behaviour is merely friendly.

Pasbola, meanwhile, flits around topics.

Does Rai remember picking up Indrani from the airport on April 3?

"Yes."

What time?

"Yaad nahi."

Does he remember speaking to Mekhail the same day from Indrani's flat?

Does he remember telling Mekhail, "Bhaiyya, bahut paisa hai, aaja mazaa karenge (Brother, I have a lot money today, we will have fun)."

Yes, but he just did what "Madam told him to do."

So, then, Pasbola wants to know why were they calling each other so often between January 4, 2012, and May 21, 2012?

What were they talking about in calls that lasted anywhere between 200 seconds to 400 seconds?

"Yaad nahi."

"Nahi yaad? Lambi-lambi baatein hoti thi yaar! (Don't remember! You guys were chatting for so long)," Pasbola smiles, incredulous. And shifts the topic to Goa.

Rai can't remember if he had taken his mobile phone or not, but Pasbola gets him to admit he had not given his phone to anyone else between April 3 and 6, 2012, the days he was in Goa.

"On April 5, Mekhail called you many times."

"Yaad nahi."

He tries again and asks about the numerous calls between April 3 and 11, 2012, but Rai does not budge from "yaad nahi."

Pasbola returns to Rai's Goa trip... did he go by bus or train?

"Yaad nahi."

Did he go to the Villa Pardiso, owned by the Mukerjeas?

Yes, but he does not know the name of the bungalow, but he knows where it is.

Prosecutors Kavita Patil and Bharat Badami are quick to underline, "He is not saying he knows the name of the bungalow."

Pasbola wants specifics. Why did he go when Madam was not there?

"To get the windows fixed before the rains."

Was anyone there at home?

"The society boy came with the key..."

"Was anyone at home? Did you take the key?"

By now, Pasbola and Rai are speaking over each other... Pasbola, flinging Rai's "maloom nahis" and "yaad nahis" back at him and Rai satisfying himself with an occasional glare and repeating some of Pasbola's simplest questions as if they were far too confusing for him.

At which point, Judge Jagdale -- who has been patiently translating the flurry of questions and "maloom nahis" and the occasional answers for the court stenographer -- smiles soothingly and suggests to Pasbola. "When you have put a question, he has the right to answer."

Pasbola shifts the focus to Rai's visit to Delhi, from April 11 to 16.

Rai says he went by train, via Nagpur, and returned by flight, a statement Pasbola lets go then but pounces on later.

"Where did you stay?" Pasbola asks Rai, who is dressed head to toe in light grey.

"Jagah ka naam maloom nahi (Don't know the name of the place)."

Pasbola won't let go. "Whose place was it?"

"An employee at the Delhi office."

"Was it a house, hotel, office?"

"House."

Pasbola then wants to know if Mekhail called Rai when he was in Delhi.

"He met me."

Pasbola repeats his question.

"Shayad, but he met me."

How many times did he call between April 11 and 16?

Rai is dogged. "We met in Delhi."

Did they stay together?

"I don't know if he stayed in Delhi, but we met."

Then Pasbola wants to know why Mekhail only called Rai on April 12 to 16. The reason, he says, because they were staying together.

Rai looks at the wall ahead, stoic, silent.

Pasbola shift the conversation to when Rai and Mekhail first met.

Rai has no details to offer, except that he met Mekhail when the latter visited Indrani after Rai was hired as the driver.

How many times did they meet?

"Nahi maloom. Main wahan kaam karta tha (Don't know, I was just working there)" Rai underlines the impression that he was just a lowly underling.

"Madam said he was her brother. She must have given him my number because I was the driver."

Did he call after going back?

Rai had admitted, after repeated questioning and Judge Jagdale's intervention, that Mekhail would stay for "thoda time," but this question elicited yet another "yaad nahi."

Were they friends, Pasbola wanted to know.

"Driver hoon unka. Baat karta tha. Dosti ka kya hai? (I am their driver, I used to speak, how could we be friends?)," he shrugged as if Pasbola did not know the economic and social divide that would prevent a mere driver from being friends with Madam's brother.

Why did they chat then, almost every day, Pasbola wanted to know. Why did they meet in Delhi?

"Usko bataya tha nahi uske khilaaf saazish ki jaa rahi hai? (I did not tell him about the plot against him)."

"Indrani Madam ka plan."

"Why didn't you tell him?"

Patil and Badami object. "He is not being allowed to answer."

Pasbola asks Rai again.

"Why should I?" Rai says. "Hum dost nahi the (We weren't friends). We were no one to each other."

Didn't you feel you should warn him, Pasbola asks again.

"It was Indrani Madam's instructions..."

As Pasbola makes to repeat. Badami and Patil object, "He must be allowed to answer."

As Rai looks at Judge Jagdale, Indrani's lawyer turns to his fellow lawyers, "He is saying the same thing... Indrani... Indrani..."

Pasbola is firing questions rapidly.

"Did you tell anyone this is her instruction?"

"Have you volunteered this information to anyone?"

Judge Jagdale, patiently, "He's answering."

Patil is not happy. "This has come under cross examination. How can I expect it? There is no question of telling this to anyone. How can this be ancitpated?"

"Madam," says Pasbola. "Shanti rakho. First he has to answer if he has stated or not stated. The objection is secondary."

Pasbola moves on to the purchases made by Shyamvar Rai, supposedly sedatives that were to be used to drug Mekhail.

How much did he pay for the medicines? Did he get the bill? Did he get the prescription back?

Again, it requires multiple questions before Rai says he took the "chitti, the davai and the bill" and gave it to Indrani when she came to Mumbai on April 25.

Pasbola then wants to know about the time Rai picked up Indrani and drove her to the Grand Hyatt in Kalina, north west Mumbai, close to where Rai used to stay in Mosambi Tabela, Vakola.

First, Rai cannot remember.

Then he does, but "Madam hadn't told him anything about meeting Sheena."

Nor can he remember how long he waited for Indrani at the Hyatt.

Pasbola asks Rai about his trips to Kolkata, Indore and Bhopal. And then returns to the Delhi trip.

"Delhi jaane ke liye Nagpur chala jata hai (To go to Delhi you travel to Nagpur first)."

"Meri ichcha (My wish)," Rai says jauntily as Pasbola grins at his fellow defence lawyers, Shreyansh Mithare and Shrikant Shivade, and says, in an aside. "Seth ka paisa idhar kharcha karo (Spend the Seth's money)."

Judge Jagdale too wonders why Rai had to go to Nagpur if he was going to Delhi.

Pasbola says Rai flew to Nagpur. Rai says he took a "chalu (unreserved) ticket" to Delhi.

Did he tell the police that he flew to Nagpur in his statement dated 6-9-2016, asks Pasbola. The atmosphere suddenly changes.

"If what is there in the affidavit is not there in the statement, he can be asked to explain," whispers an assistant lawyer.

"Madam," Pasbola addresses Patil, as he reads out the relevant sentence on page 7 of Rai's statement, "I have not read Marathi as a subject so correct me if I am wrong."

There is a pause as everyone, including the judge, refers to the statement.

"Did you tell the police that you went by flight?" Judge Jagdale asks Rai.

"Yaad nahi."

Patil objects. "It is a matter of interpretation," she says with reference to the statement in Marathi.

Which, Pasbola says, could be interpreted to mean he did take a flight.

While Rai may have got confused with the statement he gave to the Khar police, which was prepared in Marathi, what about the statement made to the CBI, which was prepared in Hindi, asks Pasbola.

And he reads out the bit where Rai states he had travelled on a "sadhararn ticket" from Mumbai to Delhi "via Nagpur by train."

"Bataya hoga" shrugs Rai.

"CBI ko sahi bataya ke jooth? (Did you tell the CBI the truth or lies?)"

"Kya?

More than two hours have passed.

Pasbola, who has done most of the talking, wants to know if he should continue.

How much more time does he need, the judge asks.

"Three days," Pasbola says. And quickly corrects himself. "Three half days."

"Or three-and-a-half days?" Patil inquires, with a smile.

Judge Jagdale sets the next date for September 7; he has a judgment to write.

Badami is not too happy; he would like an earlier date. "Too many breaks," he says.

Rai is taken away. Accused No 1, 2 and 4 leave.

Peter huddles outside the courtroom with sister Shangon and his lawyer Shivade, who -- just before leaving the courtroom -- has requested Judge Jagdale to reconsider their request for access to the Khar police station case diary; Jagdale has refused once, Shivade and team approached the high court, who have referred the matter back to the civil court.

Pasbola's assistant confers with Indrani. She is upset with something Indrani has done, probably the number of times she has sent across messages during the court session, once resulting in Pasbola taking the court's permission so that his assistant could meet Indrani at the enclosure for the accused.

"Don't over think," she joins her hands and tells Indrani. "Don't anticipate."

The conversation continues in hushed tones.

Sanjeev spends a few minutes with his brother before climbing down the stairs with his escort.

Indrani won't budge. She wants Peter to leave first.

Peter won't budge. He wants Indrani to leave first.

Their respective escorts are getting antsy, but the Mukerjeas won't move.

Badami steps out of Courtoom 51 and glares at Indrani.

"Have you finished conferring with your lawyer? Then you please leave."

"Send him first," Indrani points at Peter.

An argument ensues.

"I know what you are up to. I'll take videography and prove it."

And before the weather, or the atmosphere gets any hotter, the police hustle their respective charges away.


EARLIER IN THE TRIAL

Savera R Someshwar / Rediff.com