'Indrani said she had some things to discuss with Peter, which he digested with minor surprise.'
'He looked mildly dismayed. And refused to sit down next to her, in spite of her welcome.'
'In spite of months of wariness from Peter's side, the ice was broken.'
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
The first complete hearing of the Sheena Bora murder case at long last took place on Tuesday, July 4, a humid monsoon day, at the sessions court, Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai, 133 days after the trial began.
Scheduled to be the last matter of the afternoon, the proceedings, which attracted hordes of journalists, lawyers and bystanders, began close onto 3 pm, and went on till past 5 pm in Judge J C Jagdale's Courtroom 51.
Since neither journalists nor apparently police escorts bringing the accused in from the jails, know the exact case line up, till they actually show up in court and look at the day's schedule, hanging on the bulletin board, outside each courtroom, our day in court began much earlier -- at the usual time, a little after the court opened at 10.30 am.
"The hearing will not begin before 2.45 pm," I was informed by someone helpfully, since State vs Indrani Mukerjea/Bora/Das/Pori and vs Pratim Mukerjea and vs Sanjeev Khanna was the last entry on the day's list.
As I muddled over how to re-arrange my day, realising there would just about be nothing to cover till afternoon, the guards surprisingly brought in Indrani Mukerjea.
Maybe she was here early, I inferred, to say something further to Judge Jagdale in the Byculla Jail mysterious death of prisoner Manjula Shetye, of which she was a partial witness.
But shortly after that, Sanjeev Khanna, in a green bush shirt and dark slacks, showed and a bit later Peter Mukerjea.
Sanjeev explained that at every court hearing day, they needed to be ready and down waiting for the prison van at the usual time, because neither are they or their handlers aware of the hearing schedule.
As a result of Indrani's recent testimony in court of what she saw on the day of fellow prisoner Shetye's death, her security is still extra. Five policewomen. And strict, but barriers were melting.
She was spirited to the corridor section, just outside the courtroom that has a grill and the grill was pulled across to prevent her from chatting too long with the improperly inquisitive media, as she is wont, given her belief that she voices, "the pen is mightier than the sword." Sanjeev was taken in there too.
Peter usually sits aloofly on the other side, away from Indrani, with whom he has not uttered a single word, apart from shaking his head occasionally in court, since I started to come to this trial in February.
For some reason Peter's police escort directed him to the area where Indrani was sitting.
Peter came warily around the corner and asked, "Is she there?"
As soon as he set eyes on her, the first since she was allegedly beaten up in jail, he quickly retreated, hoping valiantly to park somewhere else. The policemen insisted he had to sit there too.
Reluctantly, he approached the benches. Indrani, who was speaking to her lawyer, immediately vacated some space.
She said she had some things to discuss with Peter, which he digested with minor surprise.
He looked mildly dismayed. And refused to sit down next to her, in spite of her welcome.
The lawyer offered to sit between them as buffer. But he declined.
He said he would talk to Indrani standing, since he had already been sitting for long in the police bus from Arthur Road.
Husband and wife (they are still married) began to discuss some urgent financial affairs relating to issuing cheques that didn't bounce and so on.
In spite of months of wariness from Peter's side, the ice was broken.
Immediately, the senior-most of Peter's police escort, an officer with a beret on his head and a few stars on his epaulets pounced.
He said they could not talk and had to take the judge's permission for that.
They remonstrated mildly with him. He seemed to acquiesce and their discussion continued for another 15 minutes.
The officer went into speak to the judge.
When he came out, he peremptorily summoned "Peetaar!" to the lifts and took him away.
They descended three floors and Peter was taken outside to the police shed where prison buses arrive and the police roster is located.
There the former television mogul was kept till hearing time.
Peter's sister and brother and their families have been away for the last month. Like last time, Peter's friend showed up with his lunch and started looking for Peter all over the court.
Finally, someone explained to him where Peter was. It is not clear if Peter finally connected with his lunch. Or what Sanjeev got to eat.
Indrani, wearing a fetching vermillion and beige kurta and salwar, and a red bindi, was fasting she said for Ekadashi.
In a packed courtroom, proceedings began from where they came to an abrupt halt in February.
That is with the testimony of the witness Ganesh Dalvi, a constable from the Khar police station who had run into a Shyamvar Rai armed with an unlicensed pistol one evening in 2015. Rai was the Mukerjeas' driver who has turned approver in the case.
Dalvi, a young policeman with a schoolboy face, addressed the court in low-pitched Marathi, in spite of Judge Jagdale's requests to speak up.
Immediately began some sorting out of what he could say and what was admissible as evidence.
After some back and forth between Peter's lawyer Shrikant Shivade, CBI Prosecutor Kavita Patil and the judge it was established that Dalvi would not talk -- as per the Bombay high court directive -- about what Rai said to him, but just about physical events he was involved in, where Rai was present too.
Subsequently what was not pertinent or admissible would be expunged from the records. Shivade, soft spoken, firm, was not entirely happy, but agreed.
The witness then recounted how Rai retraced the route of that fatal day with the police team.
Without any mention of Sheena Bora's name, he described how the police took Rai and panchas (witnesses for the police) in a police Sumo to the spot where the journey began at the National College, Bandra, northwest Mumbai, near a shop called Jockey Exclusive (that was where Sheena Bora was allegedly picked up from by Indrani, Sanjeev and Rai).
Rai, Dalvi, the other policemen then drove from there all the way to Pen, in Raigad.
Dalvi enumerated each area they travelled through.
When they reached Pen, Rai took the police to a spot near the village of Gagode Budruk where the land descended in a 'slope' 70 feet and 'pointed to a stone' and said that was where the body was burned after being doused with petrol.
From there Dalvi and his colleagues took Rai to the Pen thana.
They checked with PSI (police sub-inspector) Saral if there had been entries, since that day, of odd happenings in the area.
There were two entries and one related to sending a sample of human parts found for analysis to a professor of anatomy at the J J Hospital, south Mumbai.
Attested photocopies of those entries were taken from Pen and the police with Rai returned to Mumbai, arriving at 1.30 am.
The next day at 11 am Rai was taken to his home in a chawl near Datta Mandir, Vakola, northwest Mumbai, where his wife Sharda Shyamvar Rai was informed about the situation.
Rai's Aadhaar card, driver's license were impounded.
His driver's license had the address listed as INX Media, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Worli, south Mumbai.
He also had a picture of Sheena Bora which he showed the policemen. He was then taken back to the Khar police station and a panchanama was made out and he was taken into custody.
Dalvi spoke about it being his "conclusion" that Rai, Sanjeev Khanna and Indrani Mukerjea had killed Sheena.
That statement brought on a little storm from the defence for its lack of appropriateness.
Sudeep Pasbola, the lawyer for Indrani, and Shivade, were on their feet in a trice, expressing shock that a "conclusion which was an opinion" and not substantiated was being put on record.
Dalvi's testimony was not a long one.
What he could have said perhaps in about 15 minutes went on for nearly two hours.
His retelling was fractured by objections by the defence. But the pace is also undermined by his saying it in Marathi and the judge translating it in English and dictating it painstakingly to the court stenographer.
The process was made much more tedious by what you cannot hear.
For journalists like me standing all the way in the front, next to the court policeman, only about 50 percent of the conversation was audible and difficult to follow or take notes of.
At the back, in the accused pen, it is not at all capable of being heard.
Before the proceedings began Peter requested a place in the middle benches so he could hear better.
Judge Jagdale refused the request in a pleasant but resolute manner. The judge said the advocates would hear what needed to be heard for Peter.
"I will ask the witness to speak loudly," the judge said.
Indrani, Sanjeev and Peter shuffled in their perches on the narrow bench in the enclosure, Indrani making observations to them both, from time to time and even tapping Peter on the knee to get his attention at one point.
At certain junctures, especially when his lawyer raised objections to the testimony, Peter, dressed in his standard white and khaki with a charcoal tikka on his forehead, stood up and hung onto the railing, craned forward.
He seemed to have lost further weight, someone pointed that out, and looked stressed and drained, mopping his face with a handkerchief at intervals.
No doubt the courtroom was stuffy, with upwards of 60 people in it. None of Peter or Sanjeev's relatives were present.
When Dalvi's testimony finished up -- the defence said they would not cross examine him now and reserved the right to do so later -- Patil went again over a few bits and pieces with him.
Gunjan Mangla, Indrani's lawyer, got up to say she had not been given a copy of Indrani's medical report after she was allegedly roughed up in the Byculla jail after Manjula Shetye's death.
There was the issue of Sheena Bora's phone records that Indrani's lawyers had requested, that needed to be sorted and an Airtel nodal officer was present in court for that.
As the hands on the court clock began to inch upto 5, the police escorts started getting visibly restive, possibly because their shifts were coming to an end.
They came over to the enclosure and suggested the three accused get moving, even as the proceedings were still on.
Peter and Indrani then approached the judge going to the witness box in front, and said they needed 15 minutes to speak to each other.
They then went back into the accused enclosure -- Sanjeev had been taken down to the bus -- and began to chat in an amicable manner, again sorting financial matters.
It was a throwback to the pictures one had seen all over the newspapers of the couple together in much better days -- she was discussing issues with her signature animation and vigour.
Peter listening dutifully, his face mostly dead pan but gentle.
The cops again became twitchy, eyeing the clock.
Less than 15 minutes later they herded Peter and Indrani out, after Peter in a stately manner thanked the judge, bowing.
Indrani met her lawyer outside for a few minutes.
Peter had a paper cup of Café Coffee Day chai/coffee, brought by a friend and spoke to his advocates.
Then they were rounded up and taken back to the prison vans, Indrani behind Peter, while the constable escorting Peter ticked him off angrily all the way from the building to the van for his unpunctuality.
Peter disappeared into the distance, shoulders hunched, Indrani traipsing behind him, exchanging a file before departing, but not goodbyes.
EARLIER IN THE TRIAL...