Indrani is easily the most striking woman arriving in the court complex from jail on trial days.
For those who don't know who she is, there is absurd puzzlement written large on faces when they bump into her.
When she reaches or leaves the premises, one notices heads swivelling in jaw-dropping curiosity, as did a pair of transsexual undertrials who crossed her path at the last hearing of 2018, who were, not surprisingly, a less unusual sight than Indrani.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
Thursday, January 3, marked the fourth birthday Indrani celebrated in jail as an undertrial.
This year she also happened to be in court for her birthday.
An appearance in court coinciding with her birthday was, perhaps, as a now longstanding inmate of Byculla jail, central Mumbai, a small pleasure she looked forward to.
Especially since the witness in Thursday's hearing at Courtroom 51, Mumbai city civil and sessions court, south Mumbai, happened to be a friend of hers. He told CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale it was Indrani's birthday and wanted a chance to wish her personally in the courtroom but was not given permission to do so.
Indrani was well-turned out for her birthday.
She looked exotically Assamese, her large eyes thickly accentuated with kohl, long hair swirling about her, blow dried (Do they have hair dryers in jail?).
Dressed in a gauzy cream kurta with a panel of dark yellow, gold-looking embroidery, a cream salwar and a gold bindi, the former HR consultant made an attractive picture.
Indrani is easily the most striking woman arriving in the court complex from jail on trial days. The most incongruous too.
For those who don't know who she is, there is absurd puzzlement written large on faces when they bump into her -- like she is a hothouse orchid who accidentally strayed into these often dreary surroundings.
When she reaches or leaves the Kala Ghoda premises one habitually notices heads abruptly swivelling in jaw-dropping curiosity, as did the gaze of a pair of alluring transsexual undertrials who crossed her path at the last hearing of 2018, who were, not surprisingly, a less unusual sight than Indrani.
Pritul Sanghavi, a man of about 51, who runs a management and recruitment firm named Anakin Management Consultants, took the witness box on Thursday in the Sheena Bora murder case.
A friend of both Peter Mukerjea and Indrani, Sanghavi once worked for INX Services many years earlier.
A tall man, of hefty build, Sanghavi offered up a short testimony. He didn't have much to say and merely answered the questions put to him in the briefest manner feasible.
It would seem he might have been reluctant to testify in this case, given that CBI Special Prosecutor Bharat B Badami had told the judge on different dates, when the case got adjourned, that he had been unavailable.
Sanghavi, wearing a maroon bush shirt, jeans and trainers, his hands, which sported gold and silver rings and a black watch, clasped in front of him, spoke in a clear voice. A half-smile sometimes played on his heavy-jowled face.
His droopy, headlight eyes were watchful and occasionally settled for long, pensive moments on whoever he was talking to or others in the courtroom.
Sanghavi's family, it transpired, were Indrani's landlords. In 2001, through a real estate broker, Sanghavi and his father rented out some prime office space near Imperial Plaza, on Linking Road, Bandra, north west Mumbai, to Indrani for Rs 65,000 per month for a year.
Pritul Sanghavi told the court he had done his MBA in the US and on his return to India joined "his family business in plastics." But in 2001 he joined INX as a manager for a salary of Rs 32,000 a month. He stayed on with INX, moving to INX Media Pvt Limited in 2007 and only left the Mukerjea-run establishment in 2009 when Indrani told him they were moving to England.
Backtracking a bit, Badami asked him: "In November 2002, what happened?"
Sanghavi: "I attended the wedding of Indrani and Peter."
Badami: "Whether they are present in court today?"
Sanghavi agreed and pointed them out.
Badami enquired further about his social interactions with the Mukerjeas over the years at their home at Marlow, Worli, south central Mumbai.
Sanghavi said he had been a fixture at the birthday parties and New Year dinners the couple hosted and that yes he had -- he confirmed heavily in a reluctant, tired voice -- he said met Sheena on these occasions.
He clarified: "I was (first) introduced to Sheena in (Indrani's) office at INX."
At Badami's prodding, in a quiet tone, that the court waited to hear, he added that Sheena had been introduced to him as Indrani's sister.
Badami: "Mr Sanghavi, let us know what happened in 2008."
Sanghavi: "I was told by Indrani to accompany her and Peter to Khar Danda where Sheena and Rahul (Mukerjea, Peter's son from his first marriage who was in a relationship with Sheena) were staying since it is close to my house."
Recounting this incident at Badami's urging, Sanghavi said he had reached the building on foot. He could not recall the name or exact address.
He had not gone into the building and remained outside in the lane and did not meet either Rahul or Sheena on that day. He was aware they were in a "live in relationship."
At the back of the court both Peter and Indrani attentively hung onto every word Sanghavi sparingly used, in special anticipation.
Accused No 2, former husband Sanjeev Khanna, on the other hand had drifted off to some other space, his head bent over, either reading or snoozing.
The gratified, slightly smug expression on Indrani's face seemed to signify that what Sanghavi would say would exonerate her standpoint.
Indrani really doesn't need to come to the witness box to give a view. A great silent communicator she is able to radiate an opinion telegraphically, with a tiny upward twitch of her eyebrow or a deep smile or with a mischievous glint of her enormous eyes.
Her Marcel Marceau-class mime-work are routinely signposts of what is about to come -- the moment Indrani becomes alert during a hearing and is transmitting dialogue wordlessly from the back, one knows the testimony or cross examination is imminently about to heat up.
Not that she doesn't speak nineteen to the dozen, once out of the accused box with her lawyers, her ex-husband and, given an opportunity, Peter.
Badami: "Dono kyo gaye the udhar? (Why did both of them, Peter and Indrani, go there that day?)"
Sanghavi: "They wanted to separate them and make them understand."
Badami: "Separate kyon? (why?)"
Sanghavi, parting unwillingly with his words: "Basically, they were not happy."
Peter's lawyer Shrikant Shivade got up to object in a loud voice: "Not evidence."
A loud argument ensued.
For any newly-arrived bystander in an Indian courtroom the exaggerated, theatrical manner in which advocates quarrel is always slightly alarming. Even more confusing is when they are back to teasing and laughing together half a second later.
Badami shouted angrily: "Don't disturb me! Don't disturb me!"
Shivade regally said something to the effect that Badami's line of questioning was not unfolding in the appropriate legal way at all.
Badami retorted, his eyes blazing wide with anger: "Don't disturb me or I will disturb you like anything!"
Shivade: "His (the witness's) opinion should not go on record."
Judge Jagdale said it was already down on the court record: "He is giving you a long rope."
Sanghavi continued: "The next day I got a call from Indrani that she had explained to Sheena about the Rahul relationship... (That day) Indrani and Sheena went by one car. Rahul and Peter went by one car. Indrani went to her house. Peter patta nahin (don't know)."
Badami exhaled a long sigh of triumph, exceedingly satisfied to have gotten on record this portion of the testimony, which was crucial to him.
Shivade grumbled: "This is not legal."
Badami, his hackles rising again: "I will not allow you to cross examine like this", threatening to disrupt when Shivade began his examination of the witness.
Shivade menacingly: "Try!"
Sanghavi went on: "Peter was not happy. Because he wanted his son to settle with work first."
Quibbling started up over whether Sanghavi had said "and" or "because".
Judge Jagdale to Badami reasonably: "Natural for every father to want their son to settle."
With that, Sanghavi's testimony closed.
Shivade declined to cross examine Sanghavi on Thursday because Indrani's trial lawyer Sudeep Ratnamberdutt Pasbola was absent. He stressed that he was available on any day to conduct it once Pasbola was done.
The senior advocate, explaining to the judge why it was important to wait, said: "(This incident/dialogue) is heavily relied on by prosecution to oppose (Peter's) bail. Probably the only circumstance against (him)."
Monday, January 7, was chosen for Sanghavi's cross examination by the defence.
Sanghavi to the judge, as he left the witness box: "I would like to meet Indrani and Peter in court and wish her for her birthday."
Judge Jagdale, in a kindly tone: "You cannot meet them till after the cross examination."
Badami, in a conciliatory tone: "Monday birthday vaapas aata hai", implying that Monday was as good as Thursday to wish Indrani.
Gunjan Mangala, Indrani's lawyer, disputed that: "Saal mein ek baar aata hai (It only comes once a year)."
Peter's lawyers approached the bench to check when his bank locker could be accessed as part of the compliance procedure for the couple's divorce proceedings.
The judge looked towards Badami for his view. Badami expressed his doubts gravely indicating that it was some suspicious activity for which a CBI witness was most definitely needed.
Judge Jagdale: "You can keep a person present." The judge also reminded him that the locker had already been viewed by the CBI.
Badami said he would ask a certain Joshi from the CBI's Delhi office to come down.
The judge looked horrified: "Coming for this from Delhi?!" He laughed. "No question."
Badami: "(Just) Delhi-Mumbai," raising his hand in a gesture of casual enquiry, as if a trip between Bandra and Colaba was being discussed.
Judge Jagdale firmly: "Why the expense? Why should the State bear the expense? Unfair burden on the exchequer of the State and on every citizen!" One had to resist the urge to applaud.
He suggested Badami go as witness. Badami looked at him, shocked, as if he had been struck.
Raising his hands in the air in a fright, Badami said "No, no no!", adding he did not want to be involved in such business, like it was too messy and impure for him.
The prosecutor asked for a little more time and January 9 was chosen as the date when the lawyers would visit the Mukerjeas's locker at the ICICI bank's Worli branch.
Indrani, in her birthday finery, took the witness stand to inform the judge about who was handling her affairs. Initially, the judge seemed to not see her or hear her, as he dictated an order to his assistant.
When he finally saw her, he appeared distracted and slightly impatient, not concentrating on what she was saying.
Indrani in her convent school diction started off with a long explanation that went something like: "As you know your honour, I have no family..." She said she relied on her old friend and lawyer Radha to handle her matters.
Radha, who was a witness at her wedding more than 16 years ago, visited her every court hearing faithfully, carrying out her paperwork and coordinating with her younger daughter Vidhie and a year ago even brought her a pair of shoes for her birthday.
Judge Jagdale, who in the past has carefully heard requests from Peter and Sanjeev, cut her short and asked her to put this to him through her lawyers.
Indrani exited the box bowing deeply. For half a second, the judge and the prosecution exchanged long, loaded, glances.
The accused were given time with their lawyers, even as the police guards were getting restive and demanding permission from the judge to head back to jail.
Indrani and Peter sat together for a bit too discussing legal matters relating to their divorce, perhaps and Accused No 1 spent a few minutes with a couple, with British accents, who came to greet her on her birthday.
As one stood outside the courtroom near the stairwell watching the witness depart on the third day into 2019 and the first court date in the Sheena Bora murder trial in the new year, it brought on a moment of reverie.
One casts one's mind back to the 70 odd hearings that have sometimes flitted and sometimes dragged past over the last two years and to the memories of trips to court.
The most vivid few snapshots parade before your mind's eye:
- Of the women. Sometimes a mother and daughter, sometimes a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, usually traditionally dressed, ghunghat or burqa, bangles etc standing in the courtyard of the sessions court building, patiently waiting for many hours, excitement, hope and anticipation engraved on their faces, for either a husband or a son to arrive from jail.
- Of the crowded first floor, where the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act cases are tried, where dirt poor families live out crucial moments of their lives.
- Of gangsters, politicians, bankers, pundits, terrorists, police officers, army officers, one spied walking, along with petty criminals, week after week, from the prison trucks to the courts.
- Of Indrani, whose moods have traversed every colour of the rainbow, who you have observed at nearly every hearing over 600 plus days and don't know any better.
Is she guilty? Is she not? Who is she? Did she do it?
Will 2019 bring better answers?
Is Sheena Bora dead?
- MUST READ: The Sheena Bora Murder Trial