'After Indrani's arrest, did you go to the police and say I did this kind of forgery?'
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
Kajal Sharma, Indrani Mukerjea's former personal assistant, has evidently never seen Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, about a forger and confidence trickster.
Or read, in the three newspapers that came to her Thane home, about how a Bollywood film-maker was charged for using the letterhead of the Mumbai city police commissioner for a fun promotional invite for his film in March 2012, just two months before Sharma sat down to forge Sheena Bora's signature for her resignation letter to Mumbai Metro One, at Indrani Mukherjea's behest.
Sharma, who has an MCom degree and specialised further in computers, forcefully told the court, with an uncertain, apologetic smile, Thursday, April 26, at the Sheena Bora murder trial, that only after she was questioned by the police about the letters she sent for Indrani in Sheena's name did she discover it was forgery: "Uske baad hi yeh word forgery patta chala (It was only after this that I came to know this word forgery)."
Her statement prompted a wave of astonishment to swiftly radiate about the courtroom. Indrani's trial lawyer Sudeep Pasbola looked flabbergasted.
Another lawyer murmured sarcastically, "Such a good soul."
Thursday was Sharma's third day on the witness stand and her second facing Pasbola's sometimes ferocious cross examination in CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's Courtroom 51 at the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai.
She is not a shrinking violet. Rather Sharma, it appears, is a feisty character.
Thursday was no picnic, but Sharma weathered it, not getting markedly cowed down by the lawyer's questions.
Pasbola -- in full-on steamroller mode -- often attempted to -- purposefully, it seemed -- misinterpret what she was saying.
She would let him have his way, as he thundered on about the ridiculousness of a statement and then, like a mother dealing with an petulant child, firmly correct him saying she never said that. And indeed she hadn't.
"She is very smart," was the assessment of one lawyer.
Pasbola -- wearing his customary snowy-white shirt, neck tie, sharp black suit and three pens, two of them gold-coloured, you have learnt, over the last year-and-a-half -- always makes shrewd use of the lawyerly tool of over-emoting. He looks much angrier than he really is and more outraged than is actually possible.
There is usually a surfeit of emotions keeping everyone company in Courtroom 51, when Pasbola is going hammer-and-tongs at a witness.
But did his technique work with Sharma?
To be fair, not entirely.
At times Sharma -- wearing a flowing beige flowered kurta with red trim and dark leggings, a tikka -- looked a bit peaked, worn out and probably felt small at points.
She soldiered on, holding her ground quite a bit better than the previous occupants of the box, more often than not sounding quite convincing in whatever she said, although predictably numerous "Yaad nahins (Don't remembers)" surfaced strategically in her testimony.
Her husband, on Thursday, in office wear -- white shirt, beige trousers, a vermillion tilak and thick-rimmed black spectacles -- often leaned forward in his chair listening to her, his eyes hardly leaving her face, as long as she was in the witness box. How much leave would he and she need to take for this case?
Thursday was also the day when none of those standing in Courtroom 51 would have liked to have traded places with Sharma.
As she recounted how she had been called to the police station in Khar, north west Mumbai, on August 27, 2015, shortly after Indrani was arrested, you realise how terrifying it must have been for this young woman, who inadvertently and foolishly became an accessory to the alleged murder.
You wonder too how much she must have cursed, and was likely still cursing, herself, and her luck, for having set eyes on Indrani, regardless of whatever career gains could possibly have accrued to her.
Pasbola spent nearly two hours on Thursday systematically and doggedly fleshing out the testimony Sharma gave the court on Monday and the previous Wednesday, meticulously filling in the little details, as he attempted to understand the nitty-gritty of how Sharma ran the INX Media office, while it was in a garage and later when it was in a small shop space in Thane, outside Mumbai, and then again back in a garage.
And how she managed Indrani's affairs, given that the secretary was situated nearly 7,360 km away from her boss.
On questioning, Sharma said she took her last salary for July from Indrani in August 2015. But did not take it after that. "Jis din se Indrani arrest hui us din se mein ne salary nahin liya (From the day Indrani was arrested I didn't take my salary)."
When Sharma, who came back from Hong Kong and began to work for Indrani again in 2011, returned to INX Media, the office was located in Lower Parel, central Mumbai.
Shortly after that it was disbanded and moved to the Mukerjeas' garage at Marlow, south central Mumbai.
From there, after objections from the building society, it shifted to a shop space in Vasant Vihar, Thane.
Once again, in May 2015, Sharma was instructed to wrap up the office and its contents were moved back to the Marlow garage.
Pasbola asked where Sharma was working for INX Media from post May 2015.
Sharma: "Indrani ke saath (With Indrani)."
Pasbola irritated: "Kaha se kar rahi thi? (From where were you working?)"
Sharma: "I was never working for INX Media," perhaps indicating that she was solely in Indrani's employ.
Pasbola impatient: "Answer the question!"
Sharma: "Marlow mein bulati thi (She would call me to Marlow)."
Pasbola: "Roz jati thi? (You went daily)?"
Sharma: "Jab jab bulati thi. Jab Indrani instructions deti thi (I used to go to Marlow whenever Indrani gave me instructions to come)."
Arrangements seemed to have been fairly haphazard and primitive, right from the time INX Media shifted to Thane.
Sharma recalled to the court that there was just one computer that actually worked properly -- the laptop she used, given by the company.
Yet there were several other laptops and computers in the office that Sharma termed with a laugh and pulled a face as "bangar (junk)" when Pasbola was trying to understand from her how many pieces of equipment were inside the office and what the Khar police station, north west Mumbai, took over.
She further elaborated that every time one computer broke down parts would be taken from the other bangar PCs to repair it.
Amnesia reared its head, Thursday, in odd places for Sharma, causing Pasbola considerable vexation -- how lawyers must hate the word yaad nahin (don't remember).
She could not, for instance, recall whether the INX Media Thane office was at walking distance from her home, also in Vasant Vihar, Thane.
Nor could the former personal assistant remember the dates of when the office shifted across town, though her memory for dates earlier had been very precise -- Marlow to Thane and Thane to Marlow.
Or her Skype account and password and that of Mukerjeas' former driver Shyamvar Pinturam Rai's.
Or with certainty from which computer Rai would Skype Indrani?
Or whether she was often alone in the office at Thane given that two days a week Pradeep Waghmare (the INX peon cum Marlow flat sweeper) was over at the Mukerjeas' cleaning house and Rai kept his own hours and days or as Pasbola put it "Yeh jo doosra banda aata tha jaat tha, uska koi thikana nahin tha (That other dude (Rai) came and went at will and there were no guarantee about him)."
Since Sharma's connection with Sheena Bora's alleged murder happened through e-mail, Pasbola put a slew of questions to her about the e-mail addresses she dealt with.
Pasbola: "Madam yeh jo e-mail kartee thi (to Indrani), personal e-mail account se karti thi ya company? (When you e-mailed did you e-mail from a personal e-mail account or a company one?)"
Pasbola referred to her throughout the hearing constantly and politely as Madam and she addressed him and the judge respectfully as Sir.
Sharma: "Company group ka e-mail ID tha (It was a company group e-mail ID)."
Pasbola: "Iske alava aap ka personal e-mail ID tha? (Apart from this, did you have a personal e-mail ID?)"
Sharma: "Ha (Yes)."
Pasbola wanted to know whether at relevant times Sharma used her personal e-mail account between 2012 and 2015 for work and to communicate with Indrani.
Sharma was quick to point out: "Mein ne kaha tha resignation letter personal ID per aaya (I told you the resignation letter that she signed for Sheena came on my personal e-mail ID from Indrani)."
Pasbola laughed heartily, rocking in his spot. Possibly he thought he would have to coax this piece of information out of Sharma with more difficulty and she volunteered it quite easily.
Sharma was asked to mention all the e-mail IDs she had.
Special Public Prosecutor Bharat Badami suggested she write them down on a paper or else he said, gesturing to the journalists in the room: "Inse e-mail aane lagenge (You will get e-mails from Them)," stressing the "them."
It turned out that the INX group e-mail ID Sharma had was eventually shut down because the company was no longer paying for it. So Sharma set up a company e-mail on gmail.
A bout of quibbling broke out about what happened eventually to all three of these e-mail accounts.
There were three of them -- the original INX company one, the gmail company one and Sharma's personal gmail account.
Pasbola asked if she had deactivated them. She said she hadn't.
Pasbola: "Yeh Madam jo dono e-mail IDs the, aap ne Khar police station or CBI ke samne kholi thi? (Did you open these e-mail IDs at the Khar police station, or before the CBI?"
Sharma said she had.
Pasbola then enquired if she had to, could she open these e-mail boxes before the court on Thursday.
The question initially confused Sharma and her answer confused Pasbola.
She mumbled how could she open them given that there was no laptop or computer in sight for her to open them on.
Pasbola: "Court ke samne khol ke dikha sakti hai? Koi problem nahin? (Can you open them and show in front of the court? Do you have a problem doing that?)"
Sharma flustered and puzzled: "Kaha kholenge? (Where do I open them?)"
Pasbola asked: "There is nothing in it?!" suggesting its contents had been deleted.
Sharma: "No! Mein ne aise bolein hi nahin! (I never said that!)"
Pasbola: "Aap jaan buj ke jhoot bol rahin hai. Aap ko koi problem hai kholne mein? (You are deliberately telling a lie. Do you have a problem opening them?)"
Sharma: "Computer pe? (On a computer?)"
Pasbola: "Ha ji (Yes indeed)" adding where else did she imagine an e-mail box could be opened.
Sharma looked at Judge Jagdale and asked about the legalities of opening such a box.
Pasbola: "Password retrieve nahin kar sakti? (Can you retrieve the password?)"
Sharma: "Nahin (No)."
Pasbola: "(Year) 2015 mein password maloom tha? (Did you know the password in 2015?)"
Sharma: "Maloom tha (I knew)."
Pasbola: "Teeno accounts band kar diya? (You closed all three accounts?)"
Sharma: "Mein ne operate hi nahin kiya (I never operated them after that)."
Pasbola: "Aapne officially close nahin kiya? (You didn't officially close them?)"
The Q and A was at cross purposes with Sharma indicating that she not closed the accounts, but she had simply had not used them, but with Pasbola understanding that she had shut them.
She was asked if she had created another personal e-mail since.
Sharma asked the judge if she needed to answer that question.
Judge Jagdale kindly to Sharma: "You can refuse to answer. But if they ask you to give reasons for not answering you have to answer."
Pasbola snapped at Sharma: "Don't persist!"
Judge Jagdale to perhaps both of them: "Always contemplate what will be the consequences. She is a witness and she is answering."
Pasbola growled: "So far."
Badami butting in: "Forever."
Pasbola asked several questions to Sharma about who had access to the computers and laptops at the INX Media office.
Did Waghmare and Rai use them?
Did they ever use her computer?
Did they know how to use computers?
Did Waghmare also have a Skype account?
Did she remember the ID of her Skype account?
And its password? And Rai's?
Her reply about Rai and Waghmare's computer literacy: "Mostly nahin aata tha. Sikana padta tha (They mostly did not know. I had to teach them)."
Rai incidentally has a Facebook account, where in his DP the background was probably the INX office.
It seemed arrangements at the Thane office, that existed among shops and eateries in a shopping arcade, were all very casual and bizarrely vague.
In this small room Sharma kept the INX flag flying with sometimes a driver and a peon/sweeper for company and probably no other visitors.
There was no attendance register and nobody had to mark attendance.
Further there were very few office records or documentation, barring what arrived -- " instructions" -- on computer to Sharma via e-mail from Indrani.
The official e-mail box Sharma maintained and deleted stuff at will when it became full. Sharma said she would write down on Post Its -- "Post Its vagarah paper mein likhte the (We wrote it on Post Its and other miscellaneous paper)," which were later torn up.
Sharma agreed there were files where some receipts of payments were kept, especially those made for INX Media. But there was usually not a record of personal payments made on Indrani's behalf.
Pasbola wanted to know about the tickets she booked and how they were paid for and if there was a record of the tickets booked on her laptop.
Sharma agreed, "Mostly rahta tha (Mostly there were)." Mostly is a word Sharma leans on for safety during the cross examination.
Pasbola asked how the tickets were paid for and if there were receipts.
Sharma said there would have been receipts for the tickets paid by cheque.
"Yeh jo ticket book karte the pura family ke liye book karte the? (The tickets you booked were for the whole family?) Peter (Mukerjea), Indrani, Vidhie (daughter)..." after a pause with a mischievous smile, Pasbola added "Mekhail?"
Mekhail Bora is Indrani's son from her first marriage/relationship and Sheena's brother.
Sharma: "Mekhail toh yaad nahin, baki yes (About Mekhail I don't remember. The rest yes)."
Pasbola: "Sheena ke liye kabhi? (For Sheena sometimes?)"
Sharma clicked her tongue, indicating no.
The lawyer queried about the accounts Sharma kept.
She asked which accounts he was referring to.
Pasbola explosive: "Koi bhi account! (Whatever account!)"
Judge Jagdale interceding: "She is rightly asking you."
Special Public Prosecutor Kavita Patil piped in: "Mail is also an account. Be specific."
Pasbola to Patil: "Just because the court is asking, you don't have to add."
A back and forth continued on the accounts with Pasbola walking Sharma through what accounts he was asking about.
From time to time Sharma would insist on verbally wandering off and adding her own asides, unasked.
That had Pasbola frustrated, who rolling his eyes made a show of flopping down in his chair, waiting for Sharma's "kahani (story)" to end.
He asked her if she had ever shown details of the accounts/records she kept of company transactions vis-a-vis tickets, cars booked, payments made etc on her laptop to the police or the CBI.
Sharma: "CBI ke time laptop nahin tha, police...yaad nahin, Sir (When the CBI was interrogating me I didn't have the laptop because it had been surrendered to the police. About the rest I do not remember)."
Pasbola: "Did you give copies to the police?"
Sharma: "Police ko Reliance internet ka receipt diya (I gave the police the Reliance receipts for internet usage)."
Pasbola grumbling in a low tone: "Accounts puchha, internet service ki baat kar rahi hai (I ask her about accounts and she talks about internet) and to Sharma again: "Payments?"
Sharma: "Kuchh voucher police ko diya tha (I gave some vouchers to the police)."
These vouchers given to the police immediately perked Pasbola's interest, who wanted to know of what period they were, in whose name and how much were the amounts.
Sharma starting to realise that she might have proffered more information than was required, looked apprehensive and hastily backtracked a tad, saying she didn't remember the specifics but that "kuchh Shyam ke naam ke the (some were in Shyam's name)."
Pasbola: Kis officer ke paas diye the? (Which officer did you give them to?)?"
Sharma: "Inspector Dinesh Kadam ko" (To Inspector Dinesh Kadam at the Khar police station, who was in charge of the case)."
Parabola repeated slowly: "Dinesh Kadam ko? (to Dinesh Kadam?) Did he prepare a panchanama (recording of evidence with witnesses) for them?"
Sharma: "Ha (Yes)."
Pasbola triumphantly: "I am calling on the prosecution to produce these vouchers and panchnama. She has said (it exists) and she is a witness."
The judge asked Pasbola to finish his cross examination for the day first and then put in an application.
Pasbola: "Grateful sir."
Meanwhile, Sharma, in back pedal mode, said she was not sure what vouchers she had submitted and they may have only been the Reliance internet bills and she certainly didn't give them any file of the voucher receipts, that she had, because no asked for it, neither the police nor the CBI.
Pasbola trying another tack: "Jhoot baat tha, aise koiee voucher produce nahin kiya and na toh panchnama (You are making it up. There were no vouchers produced nor a panchanama)"
Sharma denied it. She then offered that the police had searched for documents in the Marlow garage and may have seized some papers.
Sharma did not remember.
Pasbola lost his cool, ticking her off: "Madam police aa ke papers lete hai, aur yeh aap ko yaad nahin! Kagaaz the? (The police come to take papers and you don't remember! Were they papers?)"
Pasbola: "Uske alava? (What else?)"
Sharma, retreating: "Yaad nahin."
Pasbola: "Aapko dikhaya tha ye kagaaz? (Did they show you the papers they were taking?)"
Sharma: "Yaad nahin."
Pasbola also had Sharma rewind to 2015, to August 25, when Indrani was arrested. He asked if Sharma considered going to the police to tell them about the documents she had forged the signature for in Sheena's name after she heard about her boss' arrest.
Pasbola: "Madam aapne kuch galat kaam kiya tha, dabav se kiya tha (You had done some wrong deeds under pressure). Did you go to the police and show those e-mails?"
Sharma shook her head and Pasbola muttered: "Very good."
But Sharma quickly added, in respect to the letters she forged: "Jis din police ne bulaya mein ne laptop khol ke bataya (But the day the police called me I showed them on the laptop)."
Pasbola pursued it: "But after Indrani's arrest, did you go to the police and say mein ne aise forgery kiya hai (I did this kind of forgery)?"
Sharma bypassing the question: "27th ko police ne bulaya (The police called me on the 27th)."
Pasbola, annoyed, once again specifically queried if she went there voluntarily to say she had been involved in some forgery at Indrani's request.
It was then Sharma volunteered that she did not know it was forgery.
That answer was the most interesting statement of Thursday's hearing.
The afternoon of May 3 was chosen for the next hearing.
Peter sought permission to eat his lunch with his sister and talk to his lawyers.
Sanjeev Khanna, Indrani's former husband and Accused 2, sat with his brother and nephew at the back of the court.
Indrani, wearing a melon-coloured sleeveless kurta and white chunni and salwar, came to the front and sat with her lawyers.
The accused are no longer allowed to sit in the hallways, either pre court or post the hearing.
By the end of each hearing Courtroom 51 is a sea of khaki as the police personnel stand about watching the accused.
On Thursday two policemen checked the bag Peter was carrying back to court. They went through each of the 5 or 6 pens he was carrying, opening and unscrewing them, as he sat on the court bench.
In front, CBI Special Prosecutor Bharat Badami, his face livid, told Indrani off: "That is strictly prohibited."
One of Indrani's lawyers was showing her some whatsapp messages.
Badami later complained to journalists outside the courtroom that Indrani feared for her life, but then is careless about her security and was actually looking at whatsapp messages.
- MUST READ: The Sheena Bora Murder Trial