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And Indrani snorted in laughter...

By VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL
November 20, 2022 10:46 IST
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When a trial for a murder is going on -- with no end in sight -- more than ten years after the crime took place, it will not feel like the murder happened yesterday.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel returns to cover the Sheena Bora Murder Trial.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Ten years, six months, three weeks, and two days.

That's how long ago Sheena Bora, 24, was murdered.

When a trial for a murder is going on -- with no end in sight -- more than ten years after the crime took place, it will not feel like the murder happened yesterday.

When justice is not fast-tracked, time numbs the pain. It dulls the horror of it. And kills the outrage.

The sadness also seeps away. Even if some sort of deep-rooted sorrow still floats about.

So, when all the participants, be they the main players, reporters, lawyer assistants or relatives, gather for a hearing -- the accused are there to fight for their lives and the prosecution is fighting for a life taken -- because of the time-lag, the sombreness of the moment is absent.

Wrongly so.

Instead, there are elements of it being a social occasion and an opportunity to catch up. Elements of it being a spectacle to cover. As well as elements of it being a match or a sport and about the adrenaline of trying to win.

And not about a death, a killing, a casual snuffing out of a whole young life.

All this obfuscates the path the case is on -- to get closer to the truth. And to, in death, make reparations to the person who was killed.

Sheena's partner Rahul Mukerjea's harsh words, in a moment of anger he could not control, brought all this home the other day.

He often reminds the courtroom, not in any demanding or challenging way, of the purpose of the proceedings with the quietly spoken words: "That's why we are here."

Like we have forgotten. And we have.

But on Friday, November 18 he was more explicit.

"To you guys it's a joke. To me it's personal. I have been here since June!" he said that bitterly to Indrani's defence lawyer Ranjeet Vishnupant Sangle, and, it seemed, to the room in general.

The sheer voluminousness of the trial, its maze-like complexity and the enormous time that has passed, constantly detracts from its purpose unfortunately.

It plods on, mercilessly, with no name or destination.

And so it has been for the past two days as the defence's cross examination of Rahul continues in Special CBI Judge Samarendra Prakashrao Naik-Nimbalkar's Courtroom 51 of the Mumbai city civil and sessions court at Kala Ghoda, in the shadow of the Rajabai clock tower, south Mumbai.

Advocate Sangle is exhaustive and scrupulously thorough -- sometimes too much so -- in the way he carries out his cross examination of Rahul, with Indrani, in always fetching costumes, often coming gaily tripping up from the accused box behind to add in a few more leads.

The pace is tedious at times. But it doesn't lack for meatiness. Sangle makes sure of that.

The lawyer, in a sharply-cut suit -- he apparently wears a newly-tailored suit for a new trial for luck, someone said -- has a thunderous voice and a theatrical courtroom presence. Courtroom 51 is his stage and his alone, given the prosecution's deliberately unflamboyant stance and the judge's more low-key but precise manner.

Sangle's every question to Rahul starts slightly chummily with a friendly "Now, Rahul... and then takes off like MiG-25 aircraft with a boom.

It's possible to follow Sangle's cross outside the courtroom, sitting even two doors away, which is where Rahul's mum, Shabnam Anand Singh sits patiently and tirelessly, day after day, there to support her son.

Vidhie Mukerjea, demure and neatly dressed, was also an occasional visitor, sitting just outside courtroom 51, tracking the happenings inside that involve all three of her parents.

 

I have been away from this courtroom for over 40 days, taking care of family commitments, and in the intervening period Rahul has learned the Art of Being a Witness for Ranjeet Sangle, probably with a lot of help from astute Special CBI Prosecutor Manoj Chaladan, who guides him after each session in an unobtrusive way.

Thoughtful, pensive "Ah, umm, I don't remember"s now pepper Rahul's answers, as he carefully wards off hostile lines of questioning that might get his back against the wall. He still can't resist adding a few extra explanations here and there in his understated, hitting-it-home style that is often mildly but perhaps unknowingly droll.

That makes the cross infinitely more interesting and exasperates the judge who patiently repeats his instructions to Rahul: "Just answer the question. If you keep adding (extra details) it will go on and on and never finish."

On Thursday, November 17, 2022, Sangle's cross examination moved in a deliberately zig-zag route, hopping across several topics randomly, barking up several trees at the same time, but there was an obvious rationale to the trajectory, even if it wasn't apparent to the bystander.

Like these three the lines of questioning that unfolded in succession:

Sangle: Rahul, is it correct to say that (via) media bytes you maintained your father is completely innocent?

Rahul: "Yes, I think so. I don't think he knew what was going on at the time."

Peter Mukerjea looked up to listen to this question and then rested his bowed head on the railing for the rest of the conversation.

Indrani, on the other hand, stood giving long non-Mona Lisa unenigmatic smiles. She was wearing a black dress with a swirly pattern, which was cinched by a belt at her no-more-than 27-inch waist and her hair was seductively styled in a pony.

Sangle: "Is it correct to say you had written to the President of India as well as the prime minister that your father was innocent and charges cannot (be brought against him)?"

Rahul: "I don't remember. I wrote on Twitter and expressed that he is innocent and he has been (wrongly) booked."

Sangle: "You still think your father is innocent?"

Rahul: "Ya, I think so. Murder is not a solution that any family can do. That's my belief, that he wouldn't have gone along with something like this."

Sangle: "Do you still love your father?"

Rahul: "Of course!"

Sangle: "He is sponsoring a motorcycle café?"

Rahul, surprised (Laughs): "No, it might have been an idea we discussed."

Sangle: "Rahul, is it correct to say that you have shifted to Goa or plan to shift to Goa?"

Rahul emphatically: "No, it's not correct. (On plans to do so in the future) none at all!"

Sangle's question about him loving his father seemed to have parachuted in from nowhere, and there was no follow up. It was like a cliff hanger. You later realised it was just that what it was. Probably an answer Sangle wanted on the record. To establish the bond between father and son?

On Thursday too, two-three other interactions were noteworthy.

Sangle verified that Rahul's statements of August 28, 2015 to the Khar police station were recorded after the arrest of the three accused and he was aware who the accused were when he gave his statement.

Rahul agreed saying, "I had seen reports on the news." That answer seemed to please Indrani, who had a satisfied smile, so there is somewhere where that is leading eventually.

Rahul further confirmed that he knew that Accused No 2 Sanjeev Khanna was Indrani's ex-husband at the time, but said he did not remember if he had not mentioned Sanjeev Khanna by name in a statement to the CBI and before the magistrate in November 2015.

The word Doppleganger was for the first time introduced in this trial. The word was but naturally the source of a bit of spelling wrestling as the young court stenographer masterfully tried to get it down perfectly in the court record with the help of the judge and Sangle.

And why Doppelganger? Apparently on one day in 2011 or 2012 Rahul had been driving back to Andheri across the Bandra Sea Link and he thought he saw Indrani and Peter parked on the shoulder of the road on the opposite side in Bandra and messaged them asking if they had car trouble.

Peter messaged back that he was in Nariman Point and they were not in a car at Bandra Sea Link.

And Rahul replied saying, 'Seems like you guys have a pair of Doppelgangers'.

Sangle for some pertinent reason, which will emerge in the future no doubt, decided to focus on this:

Sangle: "Rahul, amongst some or many people can you identify your father?"

Rahul said he could and then Sangle went on to narrate the incident mentioned above and asked "Did you have reason to believe that your father lied to you?"

Rahul: "The fact that I saw him there. It was strange that he was in two places at one time."

Friday's cross saw a lot of focus on the various rounds of treatment Sheena went through at Artemis Hospital, Gurgaon, near Delhi, at her mother's behest and later at Mallya Hospital in Bengaluru, where she went with Rahul to see a doctor recommended by his mother, named Dr Susheela Suresh.

Since only bits and pieces of the narrative on Sheena's "sickness" were revealed through Sangle's cross of Rahul, it was not easy to piece together the whole picture. It seemed that after Sheena exhibited a few odd symptoms of disorientation from perhaps a heat stroke she was taken for treatment to Artemis.

For some reason Sangle asked Rahul if he knew what "female hysteria" was, but then didn't go on to elaborate or even imply that that was the condition Sheena was suffering from. Female hysteria is a diagnosis no longer used in modern psychiatry in most places.

At Delhi, a CT scan, with contrast was done, and Sheena was administered oleanz, as an injection apparently, although Rahul was under the impression that she had been taking it as a tablet as well.

The prescription Sangle produced in court, that he made Rahul study, showed it being administered as an injection, in an attempt to prove that she had not been taking oleanz tablets.

Oleanz contains olanzapine, an antipsychotic, and as per WebMD.com, it is 'used to treat certain mental/mood conditions (such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder). It may also be used in combination with other medication to treat depression. This medication can help to decrease hallucinations...'

The CT scan showed that Sheena had “an abnormal parenchyma/meningeal enhancement and endeavouring to show up Sheena and Rahul as being cavalier about how they handled her serious health issues, when they ditched the Delhi doctor's advice, Sangle passed the CT scan report to Rahul and asked him to read it.

Rahul looked at it and read it and then commented stony-faced: "It says no abnormal parenchyma/meningeal enhancement. And everything else is normal."

Sangle ignored that: "See what it says at the first tick mark."

Rahul: "You are changing the information in the document. I am not a legal expert, but isn't that against the law?"

Chaladan added: "Misleading..."

The CT scan report was then examined by the judge and then re-examined by Sangle and then he swiftly moved the cross ahead to more questions on oleanz.

In Bengaluru Sheena was prescribed phenergan, said Sangle.

According to Rahul: "She was given some multivitamins and she was told not to take the medicine she had been incorrectly prescribed in Delhi."

Sangle: "Do you have any medical history papers of Sheena's that showed the medicine she was prescribed in Delhi?"

Rahul: "(She was told by the doctor) 'Child, why are you taking these medicines? Don't."

Sangle irritated: "I can ask you about China and you can go to Japan."

Rahul puzzled: "I don't know what China and Japan has to do with it."

Sangle: "Please understand my questions and don't rush to bounce back."

Rahul: "I don't have any documents."

Sangle was at pains to demonstrate that phenergan was a drug Sheena should not have been on, because of its properties, its side effects and because it was a recreational drug.

Phenergan, as per WebMD is a promethazine, an antihistamine, 'used to prevent and treat nausea and vomiting related to certain conditions (such as before/after surgery, motion sickness). It is also used to treat allergy symptoms such as rash, itching, and runny nose. It may be used to help you feel sleepy/relaxed...'

Sangle was establishing before the court that the Delhi doctor had been on the right path while treating Sheena, in spite of her suspicions and her suspicions of Indrani for organising it, and Rahul was partly responsible in seeing to it that Sheena abandoned that treatment and started taking phenergan instead.

Rahul repeatedly said he was not aware of the actual medical details and had no medical training.

Sangle repeatedly said Rahul had used Google to help Sheena make wrong decisions on her treatment and added with triumphant sarcasm, "Were you trained agriculturally to grow marijuana in your bedroom?"

Indrani snorted in laughter from the back. Rahul protested: "I was only 17."

The latter part of cross on Friday dwelt on a trip Rahul and Sheena took to Guwahati and on the messages Sheena exchanged with her mother in 2011 or 2012.

On one occasion a massive spat erupted over sms and as per Rahul's version, when the battery on her phone ran out, she took Rahul's phone and continued the conversation.

Rahul: "I didn't send that message. Sheena was very angry at the time. Sheena had taken my phone that day."

The message apparently read: 'Brothel gurl buy some disinfectant, you need to wash yr mouth and ur black Punjabi daughter as well'.

Rahul could not remember if he had told the CBI that the message had come from his phone, but reiterated, "I haven't sent that message to Indrani."

As per the statements Indrani had replied to the message saying something to the effect that 'Tell your girlfriend not keep relentlessly calling and text messaging her throughout the night and day'.

Sangle asked if Sheena had been relentlessly calling.

Rahul: "It would not be correct to say that she had been relentlessly calling and messaging."

Sangle: "I put it to you that it was you who had sent the message to Indrani's phone!"

Rahul calmly: "No, that's incorrect."

Sangle: "I put it to you that you had sent those messages to create a rift between Indrani and Sheena and said it was sent by Sheena."

Rahul (Laughs): "That's incorrect."

Sangle: "There was a series of such filthy and abusive messages sent from your phone."

Rahul: "Yes there was a series of text messages sent from my phone and Sheena sent them."

Sangle said Rahul had signed off in the messages and reminded him that even Peter believed Rahul had sent them and he quoted an e-mail between Peter and Rahul.

Rahul refuted that and stated that he had not signed off by name and it was just that the messages were from his phone and he didn't believe his father thought he was the author of the messages.

Just prior to this courtroom exchange, Sangle asked Rahul if, after Sheena regained her health post whatever condition she had been suffering from, had he and Sheena visited her grandparents in Guwahati.

Rahul said they had and they had not gone earlier because Sheena was scared that Indrani would be looking for her in Guwahati.

Sangle laughed: "Sheena was never scared of going to Guwahati and was never scared of Indrani coming to look for her."

Rahul disagreed: "That's not what Sheena told me."

Sangle: "If Sheena was scared of going to Guwahati, did you file a police complaint in this regard?"

Rahul said they had not.

Sangle: "Apart from your word for it there is nothing to prove (that she had been scared to go to Guwahati)?"

Rahul: "Had Sheena been here she would have said so." He then lost his cool and told Sangle, "Maybe you should ask your client where she is!

Sangle, not at a loss for words, fought back with a smile: "Maybe you should dig your backyard in Dehra Dun!"

That was when Rahul said bitterly: "To you guys it's a joke. To me it's personal. I have been here since June!"

The proceedings then descended into a bit of confusion as the judge told off both the lawyer and witness for crossing the line, and then tried valiantly to bring the temperature down in the room.

Chaladan told the judge that maybe Rahul needed a break.

But Rahul, now calmer, offered, "We can carry on. I will compose myself."

The cross-examination went ahead more peacefully, winding up with the discussion on Sheena's messages and the fixing of a day-long hearing for Saturday.

It was an exhausted and relieved Rahul who left the courtroom on Friday, steeling himself to face several more hours on Saturday.

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VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL / Rediff.com
 
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