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The Rediff Special/ M D Riti

'My mother was alive when she was buried'

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The overpowering stench of decay and deceit is what I still remember best about the Shakereh Khaleeli murder case. The unmistakable odour of death, exhumed from a secret grave in which an unsuspecting woman had been buried alive three years earlier. The soiled mattress on which she had fallen asleep for the last time, not knowing that it would be dragged into a coffin. The anguish on the face of a beloved daughter as she pointed to the pit in which her mother had breathed her last.

"I am sure my mother was alive when she was buried, and she might have regained consciousness before she died," Shakereh's daughter Sabah told me, four years ago, standing beside what had once been her mother's grave. "The bones of one of her hands was curled around the mattress when they dug her up."

The stained mattress lay just outside the dead woman's bedroom wall, in the courtyard where she had been buried. A huge tiger-skin adorned the wall just above the brass cot in the bedroom, like a bizarre reminder of the love story of the socialite and her swami.

For months, the disappearance of Shakereh, former wife of Akbar A Khaleeli, then the Indian high commissioner to Australia, was the subject of gossip for her old friends in Bangalore. The missing woman's daughters, although estranged from her, had complained repeatedly to the police that their mother had vanished. High profile police officer Kempaiah, the man who had tracked down Sivarasan, had even questioned the swami a couple of times, reportedly using the rough methods that he was known for, but with no results.

Three years later, as pressure from Shakereh's first husband and family built up, the police decided to try a different approach. Sources now say that constable Mahadeva of the crime branch took a manservant who had been working for Swami Shraddhananda out for a drink, and the man boasted about having blackmailed the swami successfully for three years for helping him to eliminate his rich wife.

Why was the affluent, sophisticated grand-daughter of a former dewan of Mysore so mesmerised by a crude, uneducated errand boy turned godman? Why did she forsake the dignified diplomat, whom she had once defied convention to marry, for the man who allegedly killed her?

Even as the trial of Swami Shraddhananda alias Murli Manohar Mishra from Madhya Pradesh, for allegedly murdering his wife Shakereh on April 28, 1991, finally get under way in Bangalore, her family still seeks answers to these puzzling questions.

I first met Shakereh's daughters in the office of the then police commissioner P Kodandaramiah (now a politician who served a term as MP) in April 1994, a couple of days after their mother's body had been dug out. Shakereh's elderly mother Taj Namazi had identified the skeleton as her daughter by the jewellery on it. Her cook Josephine, who was in police custody by then as a possible accomplice, had recognised the old night-gown clothing the bones as something her former employer wore.

As soon as Kodandaramiah introduced me to two of Shakereh's daughters -- Zebandeh, who was married and living in Bangalore, and Sabah, who was a successful model in Bombay -- I quickly told them that I would like to talk about the tragedy that had overtaken them. (There were two more daughters, Rehaneh, married and living in Madras and the youngest Esmath, who still lived with her father in Australia.) They were polite but reluctant, and agreed to discuss the possibility again in a couple of days, after they had investigated my journalistic credentials.

I called on them twice more in their grandmother's house on Ali Askar Road before Sabah, who had obviously been elected spokeswoman, agreed to meet me in the house where her mother had lived -- and died -- with Shraddhananda on Richmond Road.

The huge bungalow with its spacious gardens looked so derelict and broken down from outside that I wondered how Shraddhananda could possibly have lived there right until the previous week. After passing the lone police sentry outside, I walked through what looked like a gate into some unkempt garden area -- and was immediately struck by the foul odour permeating the atmosphere. The policemen directed me into what appeared to be the front door of the house.

As soon as I crossed the threshold, it was overwhelmingly obvious that I was in what must have once been a gracious house. Huge photographs of Sir Mirza Ismail, the former dewan of Mysore, adorned the tables and walls. (The family is also related to former Pakistan president Iskander Mirza.) Delightful antique furniture jostled for space with elegant modern sofas. Shakereh's brother, Zebandeh, Rehaneh and Sabah were all walking around inside the spacious rooms of the house that her mother Taj had given their mother in 1981.

Incidentally, Taj had filed at least 10 cases against Shakereh over various pieces of property after her marriage to the swami. Friends of the Khaleeli family alleges that Shraddhananda had earned over Rs 100 million through selling various bits of her property. Akbar and Shakereh were the children of two sisters, Shah and Taj, both daughters of Sir Ismail. Although marriage between cousins whose mothers are sisters is normally forbidden, the two had fallen in love. Their marriage seems to have been happy enough and Shakereh usually followed Akbar on his diplomatic missions abroad.

The police team that investigated Shraddhananda said he was from Sagar in Madhya Pradesh. He dropped out when he reached high school and moved to Delhi, where he worked with a royal family in Uttar Pradesh as an errand boy. Later, he evolved into a fixer who could help deal with tax and property matters. Somewhere along the way, he also transformed himself into a godman wearing white robes. It was at this stage that the Khaleelis met him, with the UP royal family, in Delhi, in 1982. They invited him to Bangalore to help them resolve various property problems and disputes that they were embroiled in. He stayed with them in Bangalore for a while. Khaleeli went abroad again, but Shakereh stayed back.

Nobody knows exactly when, how or why Shakereh fell in love with Shraddhananda. "It must have been sexual attraction," said Kodandaramiah dismissively, more concerned with the crime than its antecedents. "Besides, we hear that she had always wanted a son, and Shraddhananda told her that he had special powers to help her conceive one."

But would a rich, jet-setting socialite really have married a short, pudgy, uncouth fixer just for his sexual prowess? However, she did appear to want a son, but more about that later.

Shakereh asked a shocked Akbar for a divorce in 1985. Soon after the decree was final, she married Shraddhananda, in April 1986. All her daughters were horrified by her decision, and unanimously decided to support their distraught father. Only Sabah tried to keep in touch with Shakereh, but says that she could never meet her mother alone without the godman. The middle-aged Shakereh also became pregnant and delivered a stillborn son.

After three or four years, the relationship between the swami and the socialite reportedly began to break down, and the couple was often heard quarrelling. It was at this point that Shakereh began trying to re-establish contact with her daughters. She met Sabah by chance in Delhi in 1991, and told her that she would like to spend more time with her. When Sabah, who was a successful model by then, returned to Bombay after a modelling assignment overseas, she found Shakereh waiting for her. The mother and daughter spent an enchanted month together, and Sabah promised to visit her mother in Bangalore. She also said that she would try for a rapprochement with the rest of the family.

Sabah visited the Richmond Road house just once after that during her mother's lifetime. Shakereh used to call her a couple of times a day in Bombay. Then, the calls stopped abruptly.

"When I called her to find out how she was, only Swamiji was there," said Sabah, walking angrily through her mother's exquisitely furnished dining room. "When I called, he said 'Jaan, your mother has gone to Surat to attend a wedding.' The next time I called, a few days later, he said she had gone to Hyderabad. And so it went on."

When Sabah started insisting that she must talk to her mother on the telephone, Shraddhananda told her that her mother was pregnant again. "He told me that my mother thought that talking to any of us might bring her bad luck (the implication being that Shakereh wanted a son this time) and so we could meet her after she had delivered her baby. I rushed to Bangalore to meet her anyway, but she was not here: he told me that she was in Roosevelt Hospital in New York. I used my contacts to find out that she was not there. When I confronted him with that information, he immediately acknowledged that he had deliberately misled me, at her behest."

Sabah says she visited Bangalore and stayed in the house three or four more times over the next year, but could not find out any more information about her mother.

"I bought my mother this saree, not realising that she was already dead by then," said Sabah bitterly, showing me a pale yellow chiffon saree embroidered with sequins lying on what had once been her mother's bed. Inside an open wardrobe, I could glimpse stacks of expensive-looking sarees, many with zari or embroidery. "Many of my mother's good silk sarees appear to be missing. I saw a lady wearing what looked like one of my mother's sarees at a wedding being performed by Swamiji in Bombay some months ago. By then, I had started going to places that I had heard he would be in, just to try and find out more."

Sabah says that she gave Shraddhananda two sarees and a birthday card for her mother in August 1992. "When I visited the house again some months later, one of the sarees ( the yellow chiffon) was hanging in her wardrobe, looking slightly soiled, and my card was on display. Swamiji said that he had given the package to my mother, who was in London, but had brought the card back with him because he had liked the sentiments in them so much. She had used one of the two sarees and sent it back, and was still wearing the other one."

We walked down a corridor leading from Shakereh's bedroom to another small room with a cot that Sabah described as Shraddhananda's dressing room. In the two alcoves of that room, there was a collection of Muslim sacred objects and Hindu gods. Both this room and Shakereh's bedroom are adjacent to two sides of the courtyard from the middle of which the police dug up the body. Near Shakereh's bedroom wall, which edges this area, there was a large patch that looked as if it had been broken and rebuilt.

The police case now says that Shraddhananda had got a rectangular pit, several feet deep, dug in the courtyard by casual labour, saying that it was for a tank. He had also had a long wooden box made, ostensibly to hold some furniture that he wished to export. The police allege that Shraddhananda drugged Shakereh with a heavy dose of sleeping tablets, made in England and purchased through a shop in Madras. After she went to sleep, he dragged the mattress on which she lay through a hole in the wall and pushed it into the long box, which had already been placed in the trench. The once-thin Shakereh had apparently become quite overweight and he could not possibly have carried her alone. He shovelled some mud over the box. The next day, he told the casual labourers that he had changed his mind about the tank and asked them to cover it up.

Half a dozen domestic workers and others have now been lined up by the police as accomplices in this crime. Did Shakereh wake up and find herself buried alive? Or did she die in her sleep, drugged by a fatal dose? Her body was too decomposed to find out. It probably does not matter now to anyone other than her daughters, who would probably still like to know whether their mother died in peace or agony.

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