‘On Day 157 of the murder trial in CBI Special Courtroom 51, one was finally face to face with Sheena Bora’s skull. Or rather the skull said to be Sheena’s, that was found near tiny Gagode Khurd, Raigad district, some 90 km from Mumbai.
‘It was not a moment to forget.
‘In this now much more loud and showy world, where every moment announces itself with fanfare and a clash of cymbals nearly, you expected more drama on The Day Sheena’s Skull Was Unveiled Before The Court. And not for her to softly slip into Courtroom 51, in this almost secret, blink-or-you-will-miss-it, soundless manner.’
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports on the Sheena Bora Trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com.
It was quite small.
Much, much smaller than one expected.
It measured a little bigger than an unhusked coconut, when it came out of a sealed light green envelope.
The young woman court clerk, a grim, slightly quizzical smile on her face, drew a circle in the air to signal to the defence lawyers that it was the next exhibit.
When it emerged, it was neither off-white nor a dark cream. But a haunting, mottled dark yellow brown.
The defence lawyers looked a little green, showing no inclination to examine it.
It had been placed on the little wooden shelf in front of the witness box and was angled such that it looked out balefully at the courtroom and also towards the judge.
Its grimacing mandible (lower jaw) was placed next to it on its right, along with two loose teeth.
On Day 157 of the murder trial in CBI Special Courtroom 51, one was finally face to face with Sheena Bora’s skull. Or rather the skull said to be Sheena’s, that was found near tiny Gagode Khurd, Raigad district, some 90 km from Mumbai.
It was not a moment to forget.
After two and a half years of pursuing this trial and the mystique of Sheena Bora, a lovely-looking 25-year-old Mumbai Metro One employee, who went missing over seven years ago, what remained of her was in front of you -- the skull naturally being the essence of someone’s mortal being/remains.
It was also a moment, The Big Moment, that creeped up on this trial too unexpectedly, too soon and too quietly on a tranquil Saturday morning in the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai, before CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale, in a courtroom that was not even a quarter full, and missing the top lawyers on this case as well as the media. Just a handful of people viewed the skull.
In this now much more loud and showy world, where every moment announces itself with fanfare and a clash of cymbals nearly, you expected more drama on The Day Sheena’s Skull Was Unveiled Before The Court. And not for her to softly slip into Courtroom 51, in this almost secret, blink-or-you-will-miss-it, soundless manner.
It was a bewildering, unbelievable moment too. Nothing about the skull suggested it could be of the once winsome-looking Sheena.
This wizened, mildly ugly cranium, sitting on the witness box shelf, may just as well have belonged to some decrepit, long-deceased Raigad ragi farmer.
Never having seen a skull before -- apart from what one sees in museums and a sample, long ago, owned by the doctor sister – one was taken aback by just how small it was.
Could a petite young woman’s skull be so small that it fits in a one foot by one foot packet?
This skull, which was roughly about five inches in diameter, seemed, based on guesswork, smaller than the average projections for the size of a female skull, which according to an online encyclopedia, should measure closer to 5.5 to six inches or more.
But Prosecution Witness No 58, Dr Shailesh Chintaman Mohite, before whom the skull sat, was a top Mumbai expert in forensic medicine and demonstrated, both Friday and Saturday, to the room that he quite obviously knew what he was doing.
Dr Mohite, who was wearing Saturday a sporty long-sleeved, black shirt and grey trousers, seemed to have no quarrel with the size of the skull.
He told the court: “(The) skull belongs to a female. Our impression is (the) age more than 21 years, less than 25 years.”
About the lower jaw or mandible, while holding it up for all to see, he had this to say: “… (On) the report of examination of the mandible, I have to say, in view of the above findings, the mandible belongs to a female. Regarding impression of age from mandible, I have mentioned in view of the above findings, the age is more than 17 years.”
He said both the skull and the mandible had been numbered.
Shortly after the skull was uncovered to the court, Indrani wearing a navy blue kurta matched with a white chunni and white bottoms, standing in the accused box at the rear, next to a seated Sanjeev Khanna, raised her hand to either get her lawyer’s or the judge’s attention. She had something to say.
Gunjan Mangla, her lawyer, didn’t initially acknowledge Indrani’s signal. Maybe she knew what it was about because she had been handling Indrani for five years and knew the impetuousness and whims of her client.
Indrani exited the accused box and swiftly padded her way to the front to whisper something into Mangla’s ear.
Mangla looked mildly disconcerted, perhaps not sure if she should table Indrani’s request.
Hesitatingly, reluctantly Mangla got up to tell the judge: "She wants to see the skull."
The judge, his glasses off, looked up, blinking, surprised, at Mangla and Indrani.
Momentarily, an odd baffled expression -- slightly irritated, possibly curious – crossed Judge Jagdale’s face.
Then blandly, now a polite, firm expression fixed in place, the judge told Indrani: "You can see from there (where you are)." He was indicating she could look at the cranium from where she was then standing.
The defence lawyers all exchanged glances amongst themselves.
None of the Big Boys were there Saturday to see Sheena’s skull being displayed. Not Sudeep Ratnamberdutt Pasbola. Nor Shrikant Shivade. Or Niranjan Mundargi.
Instead Accused No 1, 2 and 4 were represented by the next rank, a young lawyer team of Mangla (who had shed her weekday black suit for a pretty beaded white kurta), Amit Ghag, Sushmita Sherigar, Shalaka Hathode, Harsh Mann, Waqar Khan and Viral Babar.
Why did Indrani want to see the skull?
Because as mother she knew its shape or some irregularity? Of her eldest daughter’s head? In private moments Indrani has apparently mumbled how she cannot believe her first-born is gone.
Did her desire to see the skull arise from some hitherto publicly unexpressed sentimentality? Or moment of grief? Or flash of regret and remorse?
At the judge’s instructions, Indrani looked over at the skull from where she was poised, behind Mangla, an unreadable, strange look on her usually always expressive face and then quietly she retreated to the accused dock, passing Peter Mukerjea who was sitting in a chair at the rear.
Later she and Sanjeev spoke in the accused box and seemed to disagree on something. Had he told her that her request to the judge had not been wise?
Saturday was a day of exhibition of bones of the skeleton that had been recovered near the Raigad village -- probably only the second among many such days coming up.
How many days would Dr Mohite’s ‘testimony in chief’ take?
“It is the whole skeleton,” was CBI Special Prosecutor Ejaz Khan’s succinct reply.
The human body after all does have 206 bones, though quite a few may not have come back from Raigad. And the bones associated with strangulation at the neck will be the most critical.
Four envelopes of bones were opened up Saturday.
For someone, like me, who has never seen bones displayed in court in this manner it was a fascinating if macabre day.
But more intriguing still was Dr Mohite.
A Bombay boy, brought up likely in Kurla, a north east suburb of Mumbai, and earning his degree at Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas Medical College, attached to King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, south central Mumbai, this forensic man had a court style about him that was a delight to observe.
No one as precise or meticulous as Dr Mohite had yet taken the witness box in this trial.
In an obsessive compulsive but highly admirable manner, Dr Mohite would take each packet of bones into his hands.
He would first read out, without prompting or reminders, everything written on the packet, front and back, never missing a single detail, in an itemised way -- providing the exact article number of the bone, address, stamp, signature, whatever.
Then very carefully Dr Mohite would open the package and unsheathe the bones inside, unwrapping the packing.
The next few minutes he would spend fastidiously laying out the yellow-brown brittle bones, that sounded like a bunch of dominoes clattering, on the little shelf in front of the witness box.
Like he was someone painstakingly assembling Legos -- after all the human body is Lego-like in its construction with each piece fitting perfectly and compactly together -- Dr Mohite shuffled the bones about till they were exactly in the right order, sometimes counting the pieces aloud.
Finger bones were re-constructed to form a hand and toe digits similarly and so on.
The defence lawyers seemed to watch him in silent awe.
There was nothing sloppy or disorganised about the tidy Dr Mohite, who knew his craft well.
Dr Mohite vs Pasbola, Shivade & Mundargi will undoubtedly be a great match to watch, when the cross examination begins some moons from Saturday.
Once he had, each time, arranged the display, Dr Mohite would start dictating the finding for each packet of bones to Judge Jagdale and the court stenographer.
His dictation was a treat to hear too and he was a dream witness for the young man who is the present court steno.
Dr Mohite didn’t just spell the convoluted, tongue-twisting medical terms flawlessly, but he also spelled out half the words in each sentence -- words like gauze, piece, eroded, repetitive -- just to make sure the steno had it down right.
Like all court experts, I am told, he was reading from his 2015 medical report on the skeleton.
But it was more like Dr Mohite was patiently lecturing from it.
That was not surprising because the doctor must spend some portion of his work week lecturing students, being the professor of forensic medicine at Topiwalla National Medical College, south central Mumbai.
So, cheerfully, for an hour plus, with hardly a pause, never a mistake, Dr Mohite went through the system of opening each packet, arranging the bones and then dictating the findings on the bones.
Later, he explained he does these court appearances routinely. There was no exact frequency to his attendance in court in various cases “Might be two in a week and then not for a month,” he said.
Saturday saw Dr Mohite examine a packet of vertebrae (cervical ones that showed blackness indicating bleeding), then 25 bones of the hand and feet (metacarpals and tarsals), the humerus, the radius and ulna (all belonging to the arm), the scapulae (shoulder blades), clavicles (collar bones) and the skull.
There was an irregularity in relation to the humerus bones of the upper arm.
He told the court: “Left humerus impression, in view of above features, belongs to a female, aged more than 19 years.
“Right humerus bone: Upper around one-third part of the bone is missing and cut is irregular. with two pointed projecting tips. No evidence of haemorrhaging (bleeding) or blackening. Also no evidence of sawing, chiselling or gnawing at the cut ends. The findings were suggestive of unnatural manner of separation... Impression, in view of above findings, (it) belongs to female of age more than 19 years.”
The damage to the humerus seemed to have been caused in 2012 after the half-decomposed skeleton was recovered in May that year.
Dr Mohite concluded the Saturday session of bone examination once he was done with the tarsals.
September 13 -- since Dr Mohite would be away for a few days in between -- was chosen for the next date with the skeleton.
With 40,000 policemen being deployed for Ganesh Chaturthi bandobast, as per Sunday’s news reports, it is difficult to run Sheena Bora murder trial hearings during this festival period, given that the accused have a high requirement of police guards too.
After the proceedings Saturday, Peter and Indrani were headed to Syndicate Bank to once again sort their joint financial issues, that are becoming 'un-jointed'. Their divorce is tentatively re-scheduled for the first half of September, perhaps September 5, but the date needs to be confirmed with the family court, Bandra, north west Mumbai.
Before leaving an argument started up between Peter’s side and Indrani’s gang, with the lawyers frantically and quickly trying to sort it out, while the police escorts watched bemused.
It was not clear what it was exactly about. Something about a paper Indrani had not signed.
Finally Peter and she left, headed to Fort locality, nearby.
After The Mukerjea Whirlwind departed, Sanjeev sat peacefully having lunch with his photographer cousin, before returning to jail.