Indrani laughed loudly. She looked like the cat that got the cream, smiling gaily.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
The Sheena Bora murder trial has had its devastatingly sad moments through its continuing five-year run.
Instances of pathos, since it commenced in early 2017, that almost brought you to tears, right in the middle of Courtroom 51 of the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, at Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai.
Like when Sheena's father Siddharth Das, who had never bothered about his now dead daughter, left the courtroom crying after his stint in the witness box in end 2018.
Or the time Accused No 3 driver Shyamvar Rai's wife, Sharda came in May 2018, with her two little children, to plead with the judge for his freedom, since he has fulfilled his role as approver and they needed another income in the home.
Often, they are the sudden realisations of human frailties or how truly imperfect we are, that bring it on.
One such occasion came to pass on October 4, 2022, on a warm day before Dusshera, when Rahul Mukerjea, Sheena's partner, was in the witness box.
It was probably the saddest till date.
That occurence happened to be lawyer Ranjeet Vishnupant Sangle's high moment. It coincided with Rahul Mukerjea's low moment.
Sangle, Indrani Mukerjea's new trial lawyer, was out to demonstrate, since Monday, that Rahul Mukerjea wasn't the nice, earnest Brit lad he came across as in the witness box. And like everything about this murder, Rahul was evil too.
Sangle finally struck gold -- guided assiduously to the right documents by Indrani, who evidently has an elephantine memory -- with the 'leave and license' rental agreement drawn up when Rahul and Sheena had decided to live together and rent a flat from landlords Domnic and Melanie Machado at Lok Raunak Apartments, Marol, north west Mumbai.
In order to become lessees, Rahul and Sheena were required to produce details of employment and their marriage certificate. Both were duly submitted.
Like a hound on the scent of a fox, Sangle, rummaging, sniffing, hunting, finally uncovered that neither of the documents were genuine.
In a booming, self-righteous voice, full of anger, that could be heard down the street at the Jehangir Art Gallery, he shamed Rahul into admitting that both documents were "forged and fabricated."
Neither was he married to Sheena nor was he employed.
It was a moment of triumph for the seasoned Sangle.
And Indrani Mukerjea, standing behind in the wooden-slatted accused enclosure, in a white and pink bandhani sari teamed with a silver zari-trimmed blouse, a rudraksh mala around her neck and wearing a bindi, could barely conceal her elation. Sangle had, as a skilful defence lawyer, nailed Rahul good and proper.
Rahul, sat there, in the witness box, uncomfortably shifting on his stool, his head hanging, his face reflecting a bit of torment and anguish.
He finally said "Can I say something? The fact is we loved each other..."
Sangle cut him short and rudely bellowed: "I don't want to hear your love story here!" like it was some unclean, tattered, rag or soiled tissue no one could bear to look at.
Later, Rahul managed to put a word in edgewise: "We did it because we wanted to live together. We thought we were not harming anyone (with our actions)."
Certainly, Sangle was correct. Love did not make things right and Rahul had done a wrong deed, committed a petty crime of sorts.
Yet there wasn't a single person in the courtroom, who didn't realise why Rahul had done it and how difficult it is to rent places in Mumbai and just how helpless you are if you don't tick all the right boxes, be they religion, eating habits, marital status, pets, sex or income.
There was something unforgiving in the way Sangle curtly tossed Rahul's confession of Sheena and his love for each other in an imaginary bin in the middle of the courtroom in front of us.
The Love Story was, after all, the reason, by most accounts, Sheena had lost her life and therefore not at all irrelevant in Courtroom 51.
What can you say about a 24-year-old girl who was murdered because she wanted to love?
She was not a girl from a conservative community where often marrying or dating without consent can be a far greater sin. Nor were they of different religions.
This was a modern couple, from highly educated successful liberal families, who had been prevented from loving one another.
Rahul's words in a quiet, sad voice, about how they meant no harm, and Sangle's rough reply, both wounded and clutched at your heart and was deeply upsetting.
The differences between good and evil are ultimately a question of perspective.
Now for an explanation of how the sequence unfolded:
Court proceedings began late on Tuesday. Sangle was caught in a traffic jam. Meanwhile Courtroom 51 had been decorously sanctified for Dusshera. The entranceway of the secular courtroom was decked with flowers, broken coconuts and rangoli.
As I was breathlessly tripping up the stairs, tardy too, I could see Rahul athletically sprinting up the steps two at a time behind me, overtaking me, of course.
In a white shirt with blue dots, steel blue track-kind of slacks and blue canvas shoes he appeared fresh and cheerful. Unshaven, like yesterday, his ear gear prominent, Prosecution Witness 69 looked ready to take on Sangle in Day 2 of his cross-examination, more like Bout 2 in a vicious boxing match.
Sangle -- who a tired but buoyant Indrani announced to all in the corridor outside the courtroom, had kept her awake till 5.30 am with his queries over the phone, or WhatsApp, as he prepared for the cross -- arrived at noon, raring to go. Indrani and he spent a few minutes in the hallway finalising last details.
Sangle powered up the cross with a bit of a rewind, collecting more details about Rahul's Yamaha 'accident' with a pregnant woman that saw his bike confiscated by the police.
The lawyer investigated if Rahul eventually got his motorcycle back, if he remembered which police station he had collected it from and whether he subsequently had any further interactions with the 'pregnant lady'?
(Why is she unnamed? If she lost her baby would there not be medical records showing that? Why wasn't Sangle presenting those details that would help tarnish Rahul's reputation further? Maybe it will come out in due course.)
It took about seven questions for the temperature to rise in the courtroom. Some were:
Sangle: "After you got the bike back, what did you do?"
Rahul, po-faced: "I rode it."
An apoplectic Sangle exploded, berating Rahul for acting funny. He thundered: "I know you rode the bike! What did you do with the bike after that?"
Rahul: "I sold it."
Sangle changed the topic and asked a whole series of questions that lead up, inch by inch, to the climax of the proceedings. He checked if it was true that Rahul had not worked anywhere else after Prime Focus, the post-production company where he clocked six months in 2007 and if he had ever worked for INX Media now 9X Media.
Rahul answered in the negative to both.
A couple of queries followed about the estate agents, who coordinated the details of the flat rental in Marol and the date of the agreement.
Sangle's technique is flawless. He asked the questions, knowing full well Rahul would say he didn't remember and then presented the proof, incrementally stripping away Rahul's credibility.
There was a pause while the court clerks or sheshtidars shuffled papers and pulled out the actual 'leave and license' rental agreement.
It was offered to Rahul. And like a reprimanding teacher, showing a student his error-ridden exam paper, Sangle made him go through it, dissecting the document page by page.
Rapid fire: "Who is the second party on this document? Can you read what it says? Read the two names on page 9? Identify the signature at the bottom?"
In the back, Indrani's eyes were alight, as she watched the proceedings, well aware of what the tension-packed culmination of the day's cross would be.
Rahul's breezy confidence of yesterday was quickly evaporating. Eroding.
Again, he would have known this was coming. That dirty linen would be hung out for the world to see.
In a measured tone, while looking at the letter on the INX letterhead, that stated Rahul was working there, in the programming department, he said: "It appears to be my father's signature (at the bottom)."
Sangle: "The document says Rahul Mukerjea is an employee of INX Media. The contents of the document are incorrect?"
Rahul slowly, sheepish: "Ah yes."
Peter Mukerjea, who is sometimes lost in his own world in the rear of the courtroom, was alert watching the proceedings somewhat gloomily. It's hard to see your dear son be taken apart in this manner at the instigation of your ex-wife.
Sangle, the volume of his voice rising again, adrenaline pumping, as it might be for a tiger approaching his kill: "This is forgery and fabrication and you made this document."
Rahul strongly: "No, I didn't."
Sangle: "Then how did you come into possession of this document?" He fairly roared: "Who gave you this document, Rahul?"
Rahul answered in a low voice: "That would be Sheena who gave me this document."
Sangle irately: "A moment back you didn't remember who gave you this document?"
Rahul, quiet and firm: "I just remembered."
Sangle loudly, his voice ringing through the room and down the corridors: "The document is forged and fabricated?"
Rahul: "Ah that's correct."
A few questions later, Sangle: "The document was submitted solely for the purpose of getting the leave and license?"
Rahul: "As it was my father's company, we didn't think it would be an issue. It's very difficult to (rent a place to live), without the correct documents."
Sangle: "I put it to you that what you have just now stated under oath is false. INX media was not your father's company!"
Rahul: "I believe it was my father's company."
Sangle snubbingly: "Your belief is irrelevant!"
The advocate, changing tracks, verified whether when the 'leave and license' agreement was registered, it was done so at a government office. If so then Rahul and Sheena had submitting forged documents at a government office.
While Special CBI Judge Samarendra Prakashrao Naik-Nimbalkar was dictating Rahul's answer to the pretty new court stenographer, he changed the word 'government office' to 'sub registrar'.
Sangle, it seemed, requested that the term be changed back to "government office" for the sake of impact.
Special Public Prosecutor Manoj Chaladan, who hails from Kannur, Kerala, and is always a quiet but very serious presence in Courtroom 51, wondered why.
Sangle, drew up his shoulders, standing to full height, told Chaladan off: "I have been taking cross-examinations for 20 years. I know what I am doing!"
Chaladan almost inaudibly: "I have been taking for longer than that."
Sangle was chastised and contrite, declaring that Chaladan was then his "senior."
Sangle finally concentrated his attention on the marriage certificate Sheena and Rahul had submitted to get the rental flat, examining its origins and asking if they had indeed been married.
Rahul: "That's correct. We had intended to get married. We were engaged at the time. It's quite difficult to find a decent place to live as an unmarried couple in Bombay and that's why we did this. We were planning to get married. We were unofficially engaged. We had not had an official engagement ceremony yet."
Indrani laughed loudly. She looked like the cat that got the cream, smiling gaily.
Sangle: "So, you produced this (marriage certificate)?
Rahul: "Again, Sheena had given me that document."
Sangle silkily: "But you and Sheena, both of you, submitted it? When you submitted this document, you were fully aware that you were not married to Sheena Bora."
Rahul, quietly sighing to himself, said, in reply to the first question, that he did not remember.
He admitted heavily, with an "Ah yes" that he had not been legally married to Sheena when they gave in the certificate.
The marriage certificate that Sheena had given -- probably some nifty handiwork in photoshop -- had apparently all the right seals and letterheads and showed that Sheena and Rahul had got married in England in 2010 and their marriage was legalised by the registrar of marriages in the UK, even though they had never been to Britain together that year, Rahul disclosed.
Sangle: "You were aware that the marriage certificate was forged and fabricated?"
Rahul lamely: "I don't know."
Sangle losing his temper and again yelling: "You just can't answer the question with 'I don't know's! Is it true to say that in the year 2010 you and Sheena had never travelled to the UK?"
It was then that Rahul, his fingers fiddling with the side of his forehead, spoke about their love and that was when Sangle shut him up, declaring he didn't want to hear about their love story.
There was a moment of silence.
Rahul fighting back: "Surely you can't dictate my answers too!"
Judge Naik-Nimbalkar intervened, trying to calm waters: "Did you attend the office of registrar of marriages in the UK?"
Rahul hollowly: "No."
Sangle told the judge that he was unable to actually produce the much-discussed false marriage certificate in court for all to see. Mysteriously it had vanished from the court records, insinuating that the prosecution must have had something to do with the disappearance of such a vital piece of paper.
Sangle to Rahul: "Are you aware that making forgery and fabrication is an offence?"
Rahul, altering his position on the stool, straightening his back: "I was aware of that fact."
Sangle: "You do realise you have confessed to an offence under oath?"
Rahul: "Yes, I do."
He added, in a sincere tone, words to the effect: "At the time we rationalised (our actions) because we did it because we wanted to live together. We thought we were not harming anyone (with our actions)."
Sangle, ignoring Rahul's words, chose to stress on how, though they knew the documents were forged, he and Sheena went ahead and gave them to the Machados. His voice now many decibels louder, made his final accusation to Rahul, like the last victorious bar of a rousing piece of music: "And that was cheating the Machados!"
Rahul wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and made a grimace, sighing, as he considered Sangle's question, and then offered a tentative but defeated: "I suppose."
Hearing that answer, Sangle's face was the picture of contentment and satisfaction. Indrani's too.
Score for Bout 2 in purely legal terms: Rahul 0, Ranjeet 5.
Was it a victory? Or just a hollow victory born out of vindictiveness?
The proceedings were adjourned till Friday because 'compliance', a kind of verification, had to be done of the print outs of the various SMSes and communication that had taken place on the cellphones, of all the Mukerjeas and Sheena's.
Sangle and Indrani, who had donned a pair of stylish sunglasses, exited the court building and were met by television cameras, where Sangle, described in glowing terms the successes of the recently concluded round of cross-examination.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com