After 800 days, is it a little clearer that Accused No 1 through 4 are responsible for her death?
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Panch witnesses, for better or for worse, have taken over the Sheena Bora murder trial at the CBI Special Courtroom 51, Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai, ever since the blistering Summer of 2019 began.
Well, because they are unavoidable and critical part of the trial narrative. More on that later.
While not slowing the pace of the trial, they have, at best, bit parts in this real-life court drama, which has had a longer run time and a larger, more diverse and sometimes very talented cast of characters than one could have ever imagined.
As a result, for the past month this parade of non-material witnesses has leached quite some of the colour from the trial and it now proceeds in a listless, weary fashion, even as the humidity and rocketing mercury -- 40 degrees C a few days ago -- is leaching everyone's spirits and sapping the collective energy of the courtroom.
The return of each fresh season of Mumbai's stickily unbearable heat reminds one, rather too uncomfortably, of how long one has stood in this courtroom in the same spot, pinned like an insect or dull-looking mounted butterfly, to the right of the judge, under the same creakingly inadequate fan, in front of a green almirah No 20, near the bank of windows, that looks out onto Elphinstone College.
Of these windows, only one panel of one window is open.
The nine-and-a-half windows, that have been shut for two years, have added to the mild and slightly frightening suffocation one feels, attending each court date week in and week out, where the tempo is maintained, but not much really goes on at all.
The closed windows are also a bit of a metaphor for the staleness that unfortunately, at the moment, haunts a case that has been unwinding since 2015.
Panchas, who require hardly 15 to 20 minutes for their testimonies and subsequent cross-examination to offer elaborately nothing of great import, have added to the slightly surreal nature of the proceedings one is witnessing.
There is an increasing sense of disembodiment, a greater and greater distance from the here and the now, as if everything that is not quite believable is happening far away at the end of the universe.
One wonders how much, much, much more acute and alarming is the feeling of being swamped by this strange uncontrollable metaphysical state for the various accused-but-not-yet-proven guilty, including those in this trial, that traipse into this court.
Trials and courts are about finding the Truth.
As one listens, painfully, to dull testimony upon dull testimony, one wonders just what about the Truth is this trial edging towards.
Are we any closer to knowing Who Killed Sheena Bora?
After 800 days, is it a little clearer that Accused No 1 through 4 are responsible for her death?
Is she dead?
Two-and-a-half years and 40 witnesses later, am I am any closer to feeling with any certainty that she is dead?
Where has the noble, much-beloved Sir Truth vanished to?
He is certainly not a sweating spectator in this musty, sweltering courtroom, you feel.
He probably got dead bored and wandered off somewhere to take a long cutting chai and nashta break, maybe under the giant trees outside the court, where they serve piping hot samosas and wadas, fresh and fragrant out of the burning oil of giant roadside kadhais to hordes of accused relatives.
Or maybe he is slumbering, poleaxed by the heat, in the back row of Courtroom 51, a white handkerchief draped over his face, in one of the saggy, lumpy chairs under a rasping fan.
On the other hand, like so much in India, the drab, lethargic environs of the court are infinitely brightened up by the warm human bonds.
Court date after court date of faithfully arriving at this address has brought friendships and connections with all the other players in this long, long one-act production.
We, who now belong to this cast, of lawyers, peons, clerks, accused relatives, the accused, prosecutors, police personnel, journalists, all know each other rather well and even what is happening in each other's personal lives.
Someone lost his mother. Another had an operation to the knees. Another to the heart. He lost a brother. They got married. She had a baby...
Strangely -- and it cannot be one's imagination -- there exists a kind of friendliness almost bordering on inexplicable affection, only India can produce, amongst the Weird and Wonderful Sisterhood and Brotherhood of Courtroom 51.
So far, the panchas in this trial have ranged from rickshaw drivers and electricians to businessmen and realtors.
Before we proceed, it is prudent to once again define the role of a panch witness. In a criminal case panchas are required for crime spot panchanamas, seizure panchanamas, inquest panchanamas and memorandum (statement) panchanamas.
'It is to be noted that the panchas are to be two or more independent and respectable persons i.e. persons who are not of disrepute. If there is no eyewitnesses to an offence and the case is totally based on circumstantial evidence, then such a panchanama is of immense value'.
April 8, 2019 saw autorickshaw driver Vijay Shewale, 55, a resident of Santa Cruz, north west Mumbai, take the stand.
A simple, upright man was Shewale. A typical, earthy, practical Mumbaikar at that.
Sporting glasses and scraggly grey hair in an ugly bowl-cut and turned out in grey striped pants, a pinkish shirt and chappals, of spindly, medium physique, Shewale spoke in Marathi.
He happened to be having chai at a stall near the Khar police station, north west Mumbai when a police constable approached him one day in September, 2015 and asked him to come back the station to testify.
Not worried, he said categorically, that his auto might get towed away, he followed the cop to the station.
At the police station were a couple of policemen named, he remembered, Gaekwad and Mokashi and a bunch of items that had been seized in a murder case apparently from man named Ajay Madon of Kolkata belonging to a Sanjeev Khanna or Rajeev Khanna, Shewale was not entirely certain "One Khanna had been arrested."
This Sanjeev/Rajeev Khanna was not present at the police station. Nor Madon.
His confusion over which Khanna, he had identified the possessions of, elicited a broad smile from CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale, his bushy moustache doing a humorous wobble, as remarked something witty about Khannas and Bollywood.
At the back of the court Accused No 2 Sanjeev Khanna, a past partner of Indrani Mukerjea and the father of her child Vidhie Mukerjea (who had been adopted by Peter) watched the Q and A carefully given this panch related to him and his role in the case.
Shewale told the court, ticking off the list of items with his fingers in the air, as if he knew the list by heart, that apart from a cell phone, a dongle, a passport a "chota (small)" and "bada (big)" laptop, which he pronounced unintelligibly as "loptope", had been taken from Khanna by the police.
What exactly was a chota loptope emerged somewhat later -- Shewale was calling the hard disc a small laptop. All of this was sealed, labelled and Shewale signed.
Sanjeev's lawyer Niranjan Mundargi took over the witness to ask him a string of questions to test his general memory and if it was as good as his memory of events at the Khar police station.
Did he remember when he first started driving his auto?
When did he purchase his last auto? Did he have his license with him?
The distance from his home to Khar police station?
Shewale's memory wasn't 100 per cent perfect.
But it was pretty adequate. And he had no quarrel with any of Mundargi's questions.
He had been driving an auto for a living for the past seven or eight years and the rick he was driving at the moment had been purchased in November 2017.
Shewale's crusty, no-nonsense manner lent his testimony authenticity and staved off any lack of credibility Mundargi was attempting to build around Shewale through the cross-examination.
When Mundargi suggested, as he wrapped up his 'cross', that Shewale was incorrectly testifying, the autorickshaw driver gave the lawyer a long, unyielding, look.
Sternly pointing at him, he then waggled his outstretched palm hand from side to side, as if to distance himself firmly from any hanky-panky, wild accusations Mundargi was making.
On April 12 and then April 16, Sumesh Sunil Kashmiri, 30, confidently took the stand.
A cable television operator working with a Bandra agency, north west Mumbai, he had been present when Mukerjea house/office help Pradeep Waghmare handed over, in 2015, a suitcase, boarding pass and a ticket to tghe Khar police station.
The Khar police station had began the Sheena Bora murder investigation before the CBI took it over.
If nothing else, this procession of variegated panchas offers little cross-sections and vignettes of people's lives and brief insights into how India lives, that like everything in court, is both instructive and edifying.
A cheerful, easy-going bearded and mustachioed man of adequate height and build, with a roundish face, Kashmiri spoke in Hindi and said he could not write or read Marathi, but could converse a little in Marathi.
He was wearing on Tuesday a coffee-coloured T-shirt, khaki pants, black shoes and had several black threads on his right hand and two silver rings and a gold ring on both hands.
Like Shewale, he happened to be -- which was it this time, was it strolling or loitering or wandering? -- on August 29, 2015, near the Khar police station when a constable in "civil dress" named Pednekar spied him and asked him to come in to help with the request,"Aapko sahib ne bulaya (Sir has summoned you)."
He was certain it was a cop although he never checked Pednekar's credentials before going ahead to volunteer his services.
Inside the police station were two other "policewalle", one of whom was the now legendary but elusive Inspector Kadam who one has heard about consistently over two years (When will he testify?) and "doh aur log (two more people)."
The doh aur log turned out to be Pradeep Waghmare and another panch named Lawrence Chettiar, who testified with Kashmiri.
Waghmare, Kashmiri recalled, was there to deposit "saman (goods)" and "Uske baad Pradeep Waghmare ne ek bara sa bag nikalah. Uska baad bag ko khola. Black aur thigh colour (whatever colour that is!) ka tha. Handle tha. Chain (After that Pradeep Waghmare too out a large bag. The bag was opened. It was of black and thigh colour. Handle. Chain)."
CBI Special Prosecutor Kavita Patil mildly puzzled: "Thigh? Chain? Zipper?"
The bag was opened up and it was empty inside, said Kashmiri. It was duly wrapped and sewn with white cloth and labels stuck on it and Kashmiri and Chettiar had to sign.
The ticket and boarding pass, that Waghmare said had been given to him by Indrani's secretary Kajal Sharma (to fly to Kolkata in 2014 to pick up from someone some medicine for Indrani that was never ultimately delivered to him), received similar treatment and the panchnama that had been drawn up was verbally translated for Kashmiri's benefit.
Only one last step was left before Patil would turn Kashmiri over to the defence for cross questioning.
To produce the fateful suitcase, that has already had its day in court twice. Once in 2017 and once in 2018.
Grey and black, non-descript, measuring about two feet by 1.5 feet and of 6-inch thickness, this bag was a twin of the suitcase that Indrani, Sanjeev and Mukerjea driver Shyamvar Pinturam Rai had allegedly used to store Sheena's body in the garage in 2012 at the Mukerjeas's residence at Marlow, Worli, south central Mumbai on the night of the murder and was later burned.
The spare suitcase had been gifted to Waghmare.
Kashmiri examined it.
The rest of the court peered at it too, blandly.
Fortunately the cat, nicknamed wickedly Sheena by the peons, who habituates/haunts this courtroom, did not come by to have a look or that would have been rather too fitting.
Even two years later, one's conclusions remain the same – the dusty suitcase, now something of a relic, looks inadequately small to have accommodated the body of a young woman, no matter how petite.
Indrani Mukerjea's lawyer Gunjan Mangla commenced her cross examination of Kashmiri on Tuesday. She began by delving around to discover who exactly Kashmiri was.
A few questions later it emerged that Kashmiri was an HSC Class 12 pass, who came from a family of four ("bhai, mummy, daddy"). His brother worked at a call centre. He had been working for the same cable firm for eight years.
His boss, he said, was a man named Atul Ghone. His fellow colleague at the cable agency was a Ravi Salve. Kashmiri said he was not acquainted with his fellow panch Chettiar.
Mangla: "Us samay aap Khar police station ke wahan kya kar rahein the? (What were you doing near Khar police station?)"
The relaxed, unruffled Kashmiri, the ideal panch, who didn't seem to have memorised his answers and listened to the questions attentively, was ready with a smooth, persuasive answer: "Khar police station ke bagal mein pet hospital hai. Boss ka pet le ke jaa rahein the (Next to Khar police station there is a pet hospital. I was taking Boss's pet there)."
Suspicious of Kashmiri's too convenient presence near the police station that day, Mangla, whose questioning pattern always has a neat, logical symmetry like a Euclidean geometry theorem, wondered what happened to the pet when he went into the police station.
Kashmiri said Salve had been with him and he took charge of the animal.
Mangla: "Kis tarah ka pet tha? (What kind of pet was it?)"
Kashmiri, holding the rails of the witness box, sometimes jiggling one leg, again had another glib, quick reply: "Golden Labrador female. Naam tha Julie (Name was Julie)."
He said he was at the police station for half an hour that day between "dhai aur teen baje (2.30 to 3 pm)." That was at least 1.5 hours less than what other panchas have said they spent with the Khar police. Shewale, for instance, had been at the station from 8 pm to 10.15 pm the day he had been a panch.
Mangla wondered too why he decided to enter the police station without checking the identity of Pednekar given he was in civvies.
Kashmiri said his proximity to the station made it feel unnecessary.
As the trial proceeds, it is fairly evident that a profusion of accommodating potential panchas hang about in dense clumps near the Khar police station and the police personnel there are perpetually standing about outside to scout for them.
Mysterious too is the fact that, when one went googling, Kashmiri's boss Ghone is acquainted with both Salve and Chettiar on social media. Now, that's too small a world.
It also seems to be too much of a coincidence that Kashmiri has a boss named Ghone and Ghone happens to be friends with Lawrence Chettiar and Ravi Salvi on social media but Kashmiri claimed he didn't know Chettiar and fortuitously happened to be picked up, very randomly, off the street to become a panch. If that's ultimately true, you could have knocked me down with a feather.
Calling both Kashmiri and the Khar police's bluff, Mangla accused him of never having been present when Waghmare handed over that suitcase and his ticket plus boarding pass and that he signed later.
Kashmiri, shaking his head sadly, told Mangla that was a lie, sticking to his Tale of Adventure with a Blonde named Julie in Khar in 2015.
A few minutes later, Kashmiri's stint in the box was over. In a tearing hurry to depart, he offered the judge a polite namaste and vanished back to the unknowable, odd Kingdom of Obliging Panchas.
The accused box behind remains relatively empty.
Peter is still recovering slowly at the Asian Heart Institute, north west Mumbai, from massive multiple bypass surgery. His recent and latest bail application seeking permission to convalesce at Asian Heart rather than at Sir J J Hospital, central Mumbai, was dismissed by the judge as not "Having merit".
Indrani had quite obviously beat the heat on Tuesday, sitting in the box in a deep purple sleeveless kurta with dramatic embroidery on its hem and purple leggings and black shoes. Sindhoor peeked out of her parting.
As the trial limps along, Indrani sheds age, looking almost like a school girl rather than a woman approaching 50. She keeps peeling off the kilos too. Rumour has it that she survives largely on fruit, a banana a day.
Diet was also a topic of conversation in Courtroom 51 on Tuesday too.
As Judge Jagdale signed requests for Sanjeev and Indrani to eat meals in court, before they departed for jail, he mused that all this time he had been signing requests for Peter's fast food meals and "his wife" later told him that he had always been "prohibited from eating that kind of food."
The judge was no doubt wondering if he needed to also become a diet policeman for the accused entering his courtroom.
Meanwhile, the same wife, soon to be ex, roundly told the cops, who had brought her not to hassle her, that she had taken permission to have a meal and talk to her lawyers and though she had no plans to eat food, she needed to speak to Mangla. She claims to eat reasonably well, but that stress has been responsible for her weight loss.
After sitting with Mangla for about 15 minutes, Indrani, who is affectionately dubbed Auntie in these corridors, by all alike, went back to jail, having eaten no fat or even anything lean, spritely in spite of the heat.