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Sheena Bora Trial: The Elusive Mr Rai

December 12, 2017 10:38 IST

In the 25 odd days that he has appeared before CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale, you have experienced the entire range of emotions just observing him.
Everything from pity to irritation. To bafflement. And shock.
You have scoured his face, gazed into his eyes, watched his expressions and body language, searching vigilantly for motives.
And come away no wiser.
Who is Shyamvar Rai? Does anybody know?
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

The show will soon be over for Shyamvar Pinturam Rai in Courtroom 51 at the city civil and sessions court, south Mumbai.

The erstwhile Mukerjeas' driver and approver in this case, has another two, maximum three days of appearances for cross-examination by the defence and then he will once again be cooling his heels in the Thane jail, north of Mumbai, as the Sheena Bora murder trial moves ahead examining other witnesses.


As you peer anew Monday, December 11 into Rai's inscrutable face -- framed by neatly combed and parted, perhaps dyed, dark brown hair, his age indeterminable -- you realise he is probably the most puzzling man you might have come across.

Indrani Mukerjea, Accused 1, might take second prize.

In the 25 odd days that he has appeared before CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale, in that wooden three foot by three foot witness box, sometimes sitting on a very basic stool, you have experienced the entire range of emotions just observing him.

Everything from pity to irritation. To bafflement. And shock.

You have scoured his face, minutely, gazed into his eyes, watched his expressions and body language, searching vigilantly for motives. And understanding. Looking for both honesty and dishonesty. And come away no wiser.

Who is Shyamvar Rai? Does anybody know?

As Niranjan Mundargi -- Accused No 2 Sanjeev Khanna's trial lawyer -- started up his second day of cross questioning, Rai's responses treaded the usual, much travelled, split personality route.

Either they could be suspiciously precise. Or they lost all their exactness.

Monday, December 11, was proving, at critical junctures, to be that rather-too-precise a day for lawyers to conquer at points.

"Ten to 15 minutes," Rai, who was wearing grey and khaki, insisted stubbornly.

Several times over, Mundargi, who has a neat, scientific method to his questioning and a winning manner, ventured to meticulously re-check with the former driver if he had got his time estimates of distances down right.

The lawyer was careful to preface all his questions with mildly exaggerated assurances about his belief in the depth of Rai's driving and navigation knowledge.

But nope, Rai was adamant that it took just 10 to 15 minutes to get from Worli in south central Mumbai to Linking Road, Bandra, north west Mumbai, a distance of about 11 km, even after traffic hour had begun.

Mundargi: "Doesn't it take 30 to 40 minutes to go from Worli via the Sea Link to Linking Road?"

Judge Jagdale intervening: "Kitee vasta? (What time?, in Marathi)"

Mundargi: "5.30."

Judge Jagdale: "Am? pm?"

Mundargi: "Pm."

Rai, sticking to his guns: "Sea Link se jayenge toh 10, 15 minute lagega (If you go by the Bandra-Worli Sea Link it takes 10, 15 minutes)," he repeated.

This answer was vital because the driver had asserted in his initial testimony to the court in August that Sanjeev had joined Indrani on the day of Sheena's murder at Bandra.

Sanjeev, it was known to this court, had checked into his hotel in Worli before apparently catching a cab to Bandra. It would, eventually, no doubt, be Mundargi's effort to show that Rai's timing for Sanjeev's appearance in Bandra could not be feasible unless "he is Spiderman" as one lawyer commented, given he was checking into the Worli hotel and depositing his luggage in his room less than 15 minutes before.

The incorrect correlation of timings might be the subject of the next hearing on Wednesday, December 13.

The court learned a good deal about the topography and the layout of the roads around Vakola, where Rai lived in north west Mumbai; around Bandra's Linking Road, which was near the scene of the alleged crime; and around Worli, where Indrani lived with Peter Mukerjea, Accused No 4 at the Marlow building.

And Rai heard, for the first time, the term peak hour.

Mundargi: "Aap peak hour samjhte hai? (Do you know what peak hour is?)"

Rai: "Nahin. Hindi mein kya bolte hai? (No. How do you say it in Hindi?)"

By common consensus among the lawyers the word traffic ki bheed baar was chosen and used henceforth.

Mundargi then went into a long explanation, checking at the same time if Rai was aware, of how traffic moved in Mumbai and the time taken each way during peak hours.

Rai inserted, pointedly and knowingly, each time, that the amount of bheed bhar depended on the time of day.

And any question to him about the time taken to go anywhere was begun, with the somber preamble, from him, that it depended on when the person was planning to travel.

Mundargi, whom Rai seems to react mildly better to, explored all the landmarks and access points to and from his home in Mosambi Tabela near Datta Mandir, which is not far from the Santa Cruz East suburban railway station.

He walked Rai past the shops, banks, idli joints, nullahs and small bridges of the area where the driver once lived (and where his wife Sharada apparently still lives, supporting herself and their children Ashish and Shraddha, doing domestic work -- washing dishes and floors -- in nearby flats and occasionally visiting her ex-driver husband in court away from the public eye).

Rai was a reluctant, unenthusiastic companion to Mundargi's eager-beaver sightseeing of Vakola, and beyond, for the benefit of the court.

He professed to not know if there were any banks in the gully (lane) just beyond his home (though he has two bank accounts).

He vaguely knew there was a building that could house a South Indian food "hotel" near the station closest to his living quarters.

Of course, the former driver had never seen any police vans posted in strategically places in his neighbourhood.

Questions about where nullahs led had Rai commenting with unwitting humour: "Ganda nullah toh hai! Kahan se nikalta hai nahin maloom (Yes, it is a ditch of dirty water! But where it emerges from I don't know)."

Or when asked about the location of the nearest mangroves: 'Keechar mein kabhi gaye nahin (I have never been in the muck)."

And when it came to crossing from the east to the west of his locality, he acknowledged it involved crossing the railway tracks but said there were many ways to cross the "pattri."

Rai lapsed quietly into the philosophical, alleviating the discussion from the mundane, almost like he was providing an alternate message: "Insaan jaise jaane chahte hai ja sakte. Pattri ke neeche. Uska marjee hai jahan se jaana (A human being can go whatever way he likes to. He can go below the tracks. It is his wish how wants to go)."

From Vakola, Mundargi attempted to metaphorically, before the judge, walk hand in hand with the mistrustful Rai probably towards Khar.

Rai was having nothing of it.

Disdainfully he denied knowing many of the finer details of the pathways from his home towards the western suburbs of the city, as if he was more in the habit of using a helicopter to get around.

Mundargi persisted in his persuasive, sweet-talking tone, pointing out the landscape along the way.

The advocate's objective and ploy in taking Rai for a tour of his home turf was pretty evident although he never really underlined his purpose.

If Rai had indeed spent "do se chaar ghante ke beech mein (somewhere between 2 and 4 hours)", as he told the court earlier, walking, in August 2015, from his home to Khar to dispose of the country-made pistol and cartridges, that he declared were allegedly foisted on him by Indrani, then any of these routes were the ones he could have gone by.

Further, it took the sight of a police constable in faraway Khar, north west Mumbai, for Rai to take off running -- the dash that led to his arrest on the evening of August 21 -- but he never saw the Vakola police station detachments that Mundargi claimed were invariably posted closer to his home.

Nor did Rai think of dropping the katta into any of the nullahs or thickets of mangroves that existed a hop, skip and jump from his home, instead preferring the further and possibly more upmarket jhaar of Khar to rid himself of an unlicensed weapon.

During the Mundargi-conducted guided tour, especially tailored for Rai, of the National College area of Bandra -- from where Rai, Indrani, and alleged accomplice Sanjeev, picked up her late daughter Sheena Bora at around 6 on the evening she was allegedly murdered in April 2012 -- the lawyer pointed out to Rai all the hectic activity that goes on both sides of the road in that neighbourhood and the judge agreed.

Mundargi asked without giving reasons: "On the footpath next to National College aren't there many sandwich, juice stalls etc? And across the road from there aren't there many chappal ka dukaan (footwear stores)?" And from there onwards he said it was shops and shops. Everyone agreed.

Rai's relationship with Mekhail -- Sheena's brother and Indrani's son -- was once more called into question on Monday.

Mundargi: "Between January and May you and Mekhail made 203 calls. Aap bataa sakte hai ki kya baatein karte the? (Can you tell us what you spoke about?)"

Rai: "Yaad nahin (Don't remember)."

Then there was also the little matter of Rai receiving a call when he was parked outside National College on the day of the murder.

Mundargi read out a number: "Kya ye baat sahi hai ki April 24 shaam ko 5.42 ko aap ko yeh number se call aaya? (Is it true to say that on the evening of April 24 2012 you got a call in the evening from this number at 5.42?)"

Rai: "Number yaad nahin (Don't remember the number)."

Mundargi: "April 24 at 5.42 and 17 seconds?"

Rai: "Aaya hoga yaad nahin (Must have come I don't remember)."

Mundargi then checked with Rai if he had called back the same number at 6.07 pm and 13 seconds.

Rai prevaricated and Mundargi said the number belonged to Indrani's secretary at INX Media, Kajal Sharma.

Rai: "Phone aaya hoga kahan par aaya hoga nahin maloom (The call must have come ,but where it came I don't remember)."

When this call came, Mundargi added, Sanjeev had not yet reached Bandra.

Frustrating for Mundargi was getting Rai to offer details of his trip to Delhi and then Mumbai and Kolkata on Indrani's behalf.

Rai said he stayed overnight in Delhi with a fellow company employee from INX, a peon named Sunil. But he could not describe the area, building or what kind of building or house or "jhopdi Sunil lived in.

Pathos, manufactured or real, reached its height in this courtroom with Mundargi's Monday questioning of Rai on the seriousness of various crimes and their matching punishment.

Since Rai could not comprehend what he was asking, Mundargi approached it from several sides, changing his tack.

He asked Rai why he had been so scared of being caught for a possession of a pistol.

Then he asked if he knew the difference in the quantum of punishment between murder and possession of an illegal weapon.

Rai: "Padha nahin hai sazaa ka kitab" {I have not read the book on law)."

Mundargi: "Maloom hai ki jab aadmi khoon kar deta hai to uska sazaa haath mein pistol rakhne ka sazaa se zyada hai? (Do you know that the sentence for murder is more than for possession of an illegal weapon?)"

Rai shaking his head and giving Mundargi a half smile: "Nahin (No)."

The lawyer then inquired of Rai if the police had done any, what he politely termed, "zabardasti (coercion)" with him and they had forced him to tell lies.

Mundargi: "Zabani de rahe ho. Police aur CBI ke kehene ke mutabeeq se bol rahe ho (You are on oath. Are you saying what the police and CBI told you to say?)

Rai: "Swayam (My own)."

CBI Special Prosecutor Bharat Badami admiringly: "Swayam! From the heart."

Judge Jagdale smiling: "Dramatic."

Badami: "He has said it from the aatma (soul)."

Defence lawyer Anup Mishra, also smiling: "We have to check whether he has a soul."

When Monday's session ended early, at Mundargi's request, because he needed time to do a little more research, although Judge Jagdale was willing to continue, it was determined that the next court date, Wednesday, would be Mundargi's last with Rai and then lawyer Shrikant Shivade would take over for two days, most likely on Peter's behalf.

The logic for such a short examination of Rai, by Sanjeev's lawyers Mundargi and Shreyansh Mithare, rested on the fact that Sanjeev, accusation-wise, was "sailing in the same boat as Indrani" and so her lawyer Sudeep Pasbola's "cross" of Rai had already covered 80 per cent of the bases.

Further, Sanjeev's role in the crime was limited to just two dates -- April 24 and April 25, 2012 -- and there were almost no eyewitnesses to question.

Rai was whisked off to the Thane jail as soon as the hearing ended.

Peter and Indrani, again in bright white, lingered talking with their lawyers.

Peter had lunch with his younger sister from Bengaluru, Shangon Das Gupta.

Sanjeev, who looked worried and haggard, was surrounded supportively by his brother and cousin and lawyers, working on what must go into Mundargi's final day of cross examination of Rai on Wednesday.

Indeed his brother had primed Mundargi several times during the hearing, running across the room to whisper suggestions in the lawyer's ear.

After the accused threesome departed, their battery of lawyers, assistants and interns hung around chatting, bantering and dissecting the day's session.

Conversation ensued on Rai's now famously peculiar pattern of memory loss.

Monday's proceedings, for instance, uncovered that he could remember details of some roads and not others he had travelled on daily, but yet he remembered that lipstick had been applied to Sheena's corpse.

He remembers ki lipstick lagaya! Selfie liya unke saath kya."

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel /