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Sheena Bora Trial: Heat and Forgery

Last updated on: May 30, 2018 11:00 IST

Then came the electrifying climax of Tuesday's hearing.
Pasbola showed Sharma copies of cheques that had been deposited at the bank with Indrani's signature on them.
He accused Sharma of forging Indrani's signature and collecting the money for herself.
In the back Indrani stood up in the accused box and very pointedly nodded her head up and down and mouthed, "She did!".

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

There is something about the word forgery that presses Kajal Sharma's buttons.

Sudeep Ratnamberdutt Pasbola knows it very well.

The lawyer doesn't hesitate to use the word as often as possible, as he continued with his cross examination of Indrani Mukerjea's former assistant in the Sheena Bora murder trial, taking place at CBI Special Courtroom 51, Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda.

Every time he referred to the Sheena Bora signatures, that Sharma ostensibly practiced and copied, allegedly at Indrani's behest, onto the resignation letter sent into Sheena's office, Mumbai Metro One and on the cancellation of the leave and license document for Sheena's flat, he always said the signature "you forged."

Sometimes Kajal corrected him, when she answered, and replaced "forged" for "copied."

It was a mind game that perhaps the canny Pasbola was playing. Maybe he was trying to keep her on edge.

Tuesday, May 29, established once again, if you believed Sharma, that ye wicked Forgery and Sharma had never met. Nor shall the twain meet, while Sharma remained in complete denial.

Copying a signature is not considered forgery, she declared on Tuesday. Copying a signature on another paper that is not "stamp paper" and not related to property is not wrong or unlawful, she said she always believed. That bald and rather original statement produced a round of laughs.

That forgery means, as per the Oxford English Dictionary, 'the action of forging a copy or imitation of a document, signature, banknote, or work of art', was a definition Sharma had never encountered in her life.

She further suggested that leave and license rental documents didn't have anything to do with property.

 

Given Tuesday's 33 degrees heat and 71 per cent humidity, Pasbola didn't need to look around for any new mind games.

The brutal summer heat was doing the mind bending or bheja fry, all by itself.

As everyone in the courtroom watched the clock, miserably mopped their brows with handkerchiefs and looked beseechingly up at the ancient fans above them, that gave just a maddeningly delicate whisper of breeze in the sultry, stuffy room, where most of the windows were closed because of the court renovation, the only wish prevailing was: When would the hearing finish??

Let that unkind person, excuse me, who recently tweeted, asking why judges needed a summer break, come and sample an average Indian courtroom in the height of summer!

Sharma, wearing a long red and gold kurta and red salwar, had placed a white handkerchief in the little shelf in front of the witness stand, and used it liberally too.

The hearing was the first hearing after this courtroom's two-week summer break.

The room, in the interim, had undergone a few mild, not very uplifting, changes.

It was much dustier.

One wonders how courtrooms get cleaned. How does the endless empire of bundles and boxes of papers get dusted?

Courtroom 51 is undoubtedly immensely more dusty than what it was when I entered it first in February 2017.

Over the break, four more trunks have been added to the room, one of them labelled in black marker PNB, containing with papers evidently relating to the Nirav Modi scam case, apparently to cases pertaining to his jeweller uncle Mehul Choksi's role.

Shiny steel, these trunks are, excitingly, the newest items added to the room probably in the last ten years, apart from the calendars. Given their cleanliness and the state of the room's lumpy, rickety, downward-sloping chairs, they offer the prospect of more comfy seating.

Two of the trunks had been parked on top of older trunks, smack in front of the accused box at the back.

On Tuesday Indrani, wearing a beige and maroon handloom printed sleeveless kurta and a maroon salwar, sat in the middle, between husband Peter Mukerjea and former husband Sanjeev Khanna.

Sanjeev, looking smart in a black T-shirt and jeans, who was in the corner, was all but obliterated from the room, given he was behind the imposing column of three trunks.

Though she filed papers to divorce Peter, Indrani and Peter spoke off and on amicably together, during the hearing. She remains, puzzlingly, closest to these two men, it would seem, who would not be in the accused box but for her.

As puzzling is Kajal Sharma.

An engaging and confusing battle of wits played out in Courtroom 51 on Tuesday between Pasbola and Sharma.

The opponents were well matched.

Pasbola fumed and raged at Sharma. He roared too, frustrated and exasperated.

But it didn't get him many of the answers he needed. Or get them any sooner either!

At times his rough verbal handling of Sharma earned him CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's irritation.

Sharma was throughout the perfect picture of worried distress, attempting to answer Pasbola's questions, but always seemingly defeated and confused by them. Or shocked and outraged.

She occasionally bent her head looking down, as if the questioning was all getting too much for her.

Sometimes her indignation was so vast, her eyes innocently and enormously wide, she had the room in splits, including the riled Pasbola, who had planned to finish his cross examination of Sharma on Tuesday but could not because he muttered: "Jawab nahin deti hai. Nahin toh aaj hi khatam kiya (She doesn't give answers, otherwise I could have finished it today)."

For the bystander, watching Pasbola's chugging train of questions approach Sharma and she sidestep them neatly, as if they were bound elsewhere, was an adventure.

The Q and A was often so much at cross purposes it was, at times, unreal and humorous, if it wasn't so hot.

It took up to 5 to 10 minutes for Pasbola to get an answer to a single question, after he had rephrased it three times and repeated it once, after which Sharma wailed, "Bahut lamba question hai! (It is a very long question!)" and proceeded merrily to give an answer totally unrelated to the question, with a few extraneous asides thrown in, for good measure.

Pasbola would grit his teeth and announce to the judge that he had still not got an answer.

No surprise that halfway through the lawyer was like a pot put to boil, simmering at a temperature a few degrees above the already sizzling high room average.

A sample: When Pasbola was asking her about some cheques he produced the xeroxes of them, as an exhibit and questioned if she had ever been shown the originals by the CBI or by the police, Sharma first asked if by cheque xerox did he mean cheque photocopy.

Pasbola stumped and taken aback, irritatedly: "Why are you asking me questions?"

Sharma unperturbed smoothly: "Mujhe clarify karna tha (I wanted to clarify)."

She asked a few more queries about Pasbola's query, leading him to yell: "I don't need to tell you the ABCDE of it."

Once again he asked her if she had been ever shown the original of the cheque.

But she looked at him perplexed, "But original bank mein gaya? (But the original went to the bank?)"

Pasbola, exploding: "Aap se kya lena dena? Police ja ke le aa sakte hai bank se (What does that have to do with you? The police can go and get it from the bank)."

She finally answered saying she had not been shown the originals.

Tuesday, in spite of the wild, time-consuming detours, uncovered a few pertinent points.

Pasbola had Sharma identify, before the court, certain copies of e-mails from the agent Indrani dealt with, Mystic Travels, that showed that the secretary had booked tickets for Indrani's son from her first marriage/relationship, Mekhail Bora, although in earlier hearings she had claimed she had not.

She was asked how many times she had to practise Sheena Bora's signature before she got it perfect. She couldn't remember.

Nor could she remember for how long she practiced it. Or how many samples of her practising she sent Indrani, as requested, for her approval.

Sharma said she had torn up the sheets she practised on. She also deleted some of the mails she sent Indrani in this connection, though which exactly she had deleted she could not remember specifically.

Pasbola asked her if she didn't think what she was doing was wrong why did she delete mails and tear up papers.

Sharma: "Mujhe patta nahin tha ki galat kam kar rahi thi (I didn't know I was doing something wrong)."

A large laugh erupted from the back of the room when Sharma said that.

Indrani stood in the accused enclosure laughing heartily as if what Sharma said was the funniest thing she had heard in a long time.

Sharma: "I deleted a few mails as per Indrani's instructions."

Pasbola: "You deleted them because you didn't want to keep any evidence of your wrongdoing?"

Sharma, her voice rising agitatedly: "Hum ne galat kaam nahin kiya. Us waqt mujhe patta nahin tha ki galat kaam kar rahi hoon. I was not aware about Sheena Bora. Ki woh nahin hai. Mein blindly boss ke instruction follow kar rahi thi (I didn't do anything wrong. At that moment I didn't know I was doing anything wrong. I was not aware about Sheena Bora and that she was not around. I was blindly following my boss's instructions)."

Pasbola reasoned with her if that was the case, why did she express initial reluctance to the idea of copying Sheena Bora's signature to Indrani.

Wasn't her reluctance because she knew it was a wrong thing to do?

Sharma speaking and appealing to the judge: "Nahin maloom tha, Sir (I didn't know Sir). I didn't know something wrong was going on. Legal document nahin tha. Property papers nahin thi. Indrani and she were sisters. Kaun sapna mein sochega (Who would have in their dreams thought)..."

So Pasbola asked why she went ahead with the forgery.

Sharma said she was told that Sheena was in the US and had no access to the Internet. Pasbola wondered how she could have believed that a country like the US did not have Internet.

Judge Jagdale intervened: "It depends on each person's understanding."

Pasbola: "She is not a rural person!"

Sharma turned roundly on Pasbola and angrily started off like a little spitfire, "Pahela baat mein US gayi nahin hoon (Firstly, I have not been to the US)."

Pasbola first mildly bemused, burst out laughing.

Then she added that secondly it was about the employee-boss relationship.

Pasbola with exaggerated mock patience: "And? Aur kya? Chautha? Panchva? Bolti raho! (What else! Fourthly? Fifthly? Keep talking!)"

The cross-examination launched into the interpretation of the word forgery and what it meant with Sharma offering her Kajal Sharma's Dictionary of Unexpected Words version that it was forgery if it was on stamp paper only, that had the room quite amused.

Sharma, like she had said in an earlier hearing, insisted amazingly: "Forgery word patta nahin tha. Abhi bahut achcha se patta chal gaya! (I didn't know this word forgery earlier. Now I know it very well!). Now I won't sign on any kind of paper for anyone!"

The lawyer then proceeded to brutally tell Sharma, that all of her stories and accounts were false.

Sharma let out an offended squeak, that set the room off laughing again, and, severely vexed, questioned Pasbola on how he could be saying what he was.

Pasbola continued that there was never any letter that she had signed and sent to Mumbai Metro North nor leave and license documents to Sheena's landlord. And that she had concocted the whole tale from start to finish.

Then came the electrifying climax of Tuesday's hearing.

Pasbola showed Sharma copies of cheques that had been deposited at the bank with Indrani's signature on them.

He promptly accused Sharma, in a strong loud tone, of forging Indrani's signature and signing them and collecting the money for herself.

"Ye cheque par aapne signature forge karke paisa withdraw kiya. Indrani ki signature nahin hai (You forged Indrani's signature on these cheques and withdrew the money. Indrani did not sign them)."

Sharma looked dazed and suitably scandalised by such an accusation and appealing to the judge she denied it with a vehement: "Completely galat ha (wrong)."

She added that the bank was in constant touch with Indrani on the phone and e-mail and sent her statements and that was not possible that transactions could happen without her knowing.

Pasbola relentlessly went on in a ringing tone: "The CBI knew about this. Aap CBI ke dabbao mein thi. Bachane ke liye aap ne jhoot gavai diya (You were under pressure from the CBI. To save yourself you have given this false statement in court)."

Sharma's husband, sitting in the front row, who was wearing a dark T-shirt and jeans and holding her red handbag, had a blank expression on his face, his head bent, his fingers fiddling with the design of her purse.

In the back Indrani stood up in the accused box and very pointedly nodded her head up and down and mouthed, "She did!"

Sharma replied to Pasbola's accusations in an equally ringing voice: "Na CBI ke dabbao mein thi. Na police ke dabbao mein thi. Na media ke dabbao mein thi (I was neither under pressure from the CBI, nor from the police nor the media)."

The media part of her self-righteous retort elicited a few smiles from the bench of lawyers.

Sharma, whose time in the witness box will end most likely later this week, as you look into her often hurt and bewildered face, has been no less fascinating or theatrical a witness than those before her, her statements alternately baffling and convincing.

Witness boxes have the unexpected and uncanny capacity to show you much more about the complexities of human character than you ever knew existed.

Pasbola asked Sharma a few more questions about the bookings she made for Mekhail. Those questions too got mired in an argument between Pasbola and Sharma, as to who had sent message from the travel agency.

Tuesday's hearing spread across the day.

It was scheduled to start at 11 am. But by noon, the prison buses had not yet brought in the accused, with probably everyone on relaxed holiday schedule.

The hearing continued in the afternoon, after lunch, with Peter having lunch with his sister Shangon Das Gupta.

The sprawling, colourful behemoth that is the south Mumbai civil and sessions court was not bustling on Tuesday. Its usually vigorous corridors were quiet and empty, almost forlorn -- with even the canteen boys, who usually rushed about with meals and bottles of water, the population of over-reproducing court cats and its black dog missing -- as many of the courtrooms were on summer break.

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com