'At any point did you find out why Sheena had not disclosed her true relationship with Indrani?'
Rahul: 'Sheena had told me as her grandparents were dependent on Indrani financially (and if she told the truth) her grandparents would suffer.'
'She had slapped Sheena the night before which she was very not happy about.'
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora Murder Trial.
Post Peter Mukerjea's arrest in November 2015, his younger son Rahul Mukerjea had only fuzzy, unsure, recollections of being present, soon after, at the Esplanade court, near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, for his father's first remand hearing before Magistrate Shrimati Rajshree Vijay Adone.
Advocate Niranjan Mundargi, who represents Accused No 2 Sanjeev Khanna, dexterously milked that while he was cross-examining Rahul in the Sheena Bora murder trial in Courtroom No 51, at the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, south Mumbai, on Thursday, November 24, 2022.
After establishing Rahul's poor memory relating to what happened to even his father during that difficult time, Mundargi deftly lead the cross towards where he really wanted to go -- to questions about Rahul's acquaintance with both Sanjeev and Vidhie Mukerjea (Indrani and Sanjeev's daughter and Peter's adopted daughter) and, crucially, how much knowledge he might have inadvertently, unconsciously or consciously picked up about Sanjeev from the news on television of Indrani and Sanjeev's arrest on August 25, 2015.
The reasons? This knowledge might have been why Rahul allegedly mistakenly identified Sanjeev as a suspect in his partner Sheena's alleged murder. But that was a little more uphill task than Mundargi may have imagined and didn't produce the smooth or quick results that perhaps the advocate hoped for.
Rahul just would not commit to having rushed to turn on the television set or scouring the Internet to see the details of the breaking news on August 25 of Sheena's supposed murder, even if "it was about your love" as Mundargi artfully reminded him.
He insisted that any information he picked up from the no-doubt-breathless television bulletins on the case were from the background noise of others consuming the news -- as he put it "whatever was on the news I got to know" -- and he had not actively gone searching for the specifics that day or later.
Rahul reiterated, at numerous instances, that he had been then in Dehradun at his mother's home in the Badripur locality, where even today he mostly stays, and had already been summoned by the police to Mumbai and he hadn't had time to glance at the news, let alone process it.
It wasn't too evident why Rahul had not gone looking for more details of what had happened to Sheena, this being the first 'news' of her since she went missing three years earlier. Either he had and didn't remember, or he deliberately didn't want to remember this before the court.
Or the news was too shattering for him to deal with and he had closed his ears to whatever he didn't want to hear. He said a few times that the news was "so shocking." And that he tried hard to "never think of those times because it's very painful."
There was plenty more that Rahul could not remember, Mundargi discovered to his mounting frustration and he with difficulty kept his signature courtroom good humour intact, even if he sometimes, maybe as an outlet for his exasperation, tugged at his white lawyer collar frequently.
Like Rahul didn't recall talking to his father for one hour on the day Indrani was arrested, or which days he had been questioned by the police, or exactly who had called from the Mumbai police summoning him on August 26, when and which officer came with him back to Dehradun from Mumbai to pick up Sheena's effects on August 28 and spent the day with him there and travelling to and fro.
Mundargi spent around 15 minutes endeavouring to understand what Rahul knew about Sanjeev and stepsister Vidhie, who was close to 20 years younger than Sheena and who he had first met her when she was four or five at Indrani's wedding with his father in Mumbai.
It was not a lot -- enough to fill a postage stamp.
He knew of Vidhie, but had not talked "a great deal" to her as she was "much younger" and was "not really in touch with her" or "particularly close" to Vidhie although their relationship was "cordial."
That might not have been so abnormal given that Rahul comes across as shy and fairly reserved, maybe more so after Sheena's disappearance and the weird cards life has handed him.
Yes, he was aware Vidhie had a biological father -- "she would have, everyone has a biological father, there isn't anyone on earth who doesn't have a biological father" -- that was not Peter.
Rahul did not remember that there was some talk of sending her away to Sanjeev in Kolkata, though he had sent a text about these goings on to Sheena, to the effect that Vidhie was in trouble with Indrani and 'She is to be sent back to her biological father. Khabar from Nariman Point'.
When asked, Rahul said he had never checked with the Mukerjeas' driver Shyamvar Rai or mentioned to anyone, between 2012 and 2015, about three people, as opposed to two, being present the day he had gone to drop Sheena at Amarsons, the department store in Bandra, north west Mumbai, because he hadn't thought the day was important, then, from any other standpoint other than it was the day Sheena disappeared -- he did not know in 2012 till 2015 that it was the day she had been allegedly murdered too.
His memory of going for a police-organised test identification parade to ostensibly pick out Sanjeev were, at best, a bit sketchy. He did not remember where it occurred, if the police who accompanied him there in the police vehicle were in the police uniforms, who exactly was in the room, barring an officer at a desk at the top of the room.
Rahul said he was told to "just stand here for a few minutes and some people will be brought and I had to identify anyone I recognised."
Mundargi: "Rahul, I put it to you have not identified a person like the person standing outside the car (in front of Amarsons in Bandra) on 24.04.2012."
Rahul said Mundargi was wrong and that he had identified someone and that someone "is sitting behind (in this room)," his gaze going towards Sanjeev in the accused box.
While closing his cross of Rahul, Mundargi stated his suggestions, straight-forwardly without any additional masala, assuring him that this was part of the procedure, and said "Rahul, I put it to you, you had not seen any unknown third person standing outside the car near Amarsons on April 24, 2012... "not seen persons looking like Accused No 2 either outside the car near Amarsons nor did you identify the said person to be the same as Accused No 2 in the test identification parade." He added a few more suggestions ending with "Rahul I put it to you that you are deposing falsely against Accused No 2."
Rahul: "That's incorrect. I've seen him in both places." He some minutes afterwards said, "It's the same chap standing in yellow behind." Rahul and Sanjeev traded glances and there was no love lost.
The hearing was over for the day and the relatively full courtroom -- quite a few young lawyers had come to watch the action -- emptied out. One lawyer mumbled to another lawyer jokingly, "Do you remember me?" and wondered how Rahul would even find his way home.
On Friday November 25, Rahul was, as was to be expected, quite a bit at ease when Manjula Rao, senior advocate and Accused No 4, Peter's new legal counsel, conducted the cross.
Rao, who sports short grey hair and was attired in a white sari and a black vest, laid it out rather logically to Rahul, and her cross was a very lean, trim, to-the-point, two-hour affair, without even five words spare.
Of course, Rahul was rather responsive to her questions, which made her job much easier. But that didn't take away from Rao's skill.
Her cross had none of the more blatant archetypal pot-calling-the-kettle-black routine that characterises most such examinations, and though Rao was representing one of the accused, and technically on the other team, in a way her stint with Rahul was an opportunity to right some of the allegations flung at Rahul by Indrani via her lawyer.
When one of Indrani's lawyers Chaitanya Kulkarni had an objection to a more 'leading' questions of hers, Rao tartly remarked: "When you are painting a picture, others are there to fill in the colour," alluding to the version of facts Indrani's defence had allegedly constructed.
Peter looked hassle-free, perhaps happy with the way Rao was handling the proceedings. Indrani, though a little more subdued Friday, glowed in a pink sari and a bindi.
Rao's cross highlighted very clearly how the Mukerjea household operated, from naturally Peter's perspective. Indrani called the shots and for whatever reason Peter toed her line.
It also sought to put an ocean of distance between how Indrani operated and Peter's more dignified way of going about things, as per Rao and Rahul.
In likely the year 2008, in an arrangement organised by Indrani, which he confirmed, Rahul shared accommodation with a Karan Hukku in Bandra, because, he told the court, Indrani had not wanted him to continue to live with them at the Mukerjea home in Marlow, Worli, south central Mumbai.
Sheena was living in a paying guest accommodation with a certain Radhika Radia in Colaba then, when her romance with Rahul began budding and then blooming.
She decided to move to Bandra so she and Rahul could live together, which didn't please Indrani one bit. Why? It was not obvious and Rao had established earlier in the cross that Peter and Indrani had a live-in relationship before they were married.
Rao: "Did, to your knowledge, Sheena inform Indrani that she was shifting from Radia's home?
Rahul: "I don't know. She was an adult."
Rao scolded him in a motherly fashion: "You answer my question. We all know everyone is an adult!" and queried when Indrani had visited them with friend Pritul Sanghvi in tow.
Rahul: "After approximately two-three months. Sheena shifted in in December. They came in March. Indrani and Pritul (came to our home and) separated us."
Rao: "Will it be correct if I say your father also visited ahead of that to sound you out?"
Rahul: "Yes he came alone (and sounded me out that) Indrani was very angry and was on her way there" and Rahul recalled feeling "very upset" at the separation and he went with his father to Marlow.
Rao asked whether that day Indrani and Sheena came to Marlow afterwards.
Rahul couldn't recall that and said: "I don't think so..." and then precipitously memories of that day came fortuitously trickling, seeping back to him and a quiet smile played on his face as he remembered times past, "I seem to remember so. That's correct... Yes, that's correct."
It was almost as if he was no longer in the courtroom and had travelled back to the terrace at Marlow and was sitting with Sheena again.
On that day, or on the days immediately after that, Rahul had been egging Sheena to tell Peter, who she called Jijju (Rahul confirmed), that she was actually Indrani's daughter, but she would not, because "she was afraid of Indrani."
Rao: "Later, at any point did you find out why Sheena had not disclosed her true relationship with Indrani?"
Rahul: "Yes, I did. Sheena had told me that as her grandparents were dependent on Indrani financially (and if she told the truth) her grandparents would suffer. She had slapped Sheena the night before which she was very not happy about."
During that period too, Peter apparently had asked some questions to Sheena about her relation/connection with Indrani.
Rao: "Would it be correct, that after that Indrani warned Peter not to interfere in her family matters?"
Rahul: "That's correct. She said something to that effect."
Rao also questioned Rahul about the nasty messages Sheena had sent to her mother on Rahul's phone, because her phone's battery had died, that had come up for discussion in court just the day before.
Rao verified if after Rahul explained that he had not sent the message Peter was fine and Rahul continued, "my relations with my father were normal."
During the subsequent fall out between Rahul and Sheena with Indrani and Peter, in 2009, after those ugly messages, there had not been a breakdown in communication between Rahul and Peter.
Rao checked if Peter had still kept in touch via landline calls, the driver's phone, through relatives or by whatever means available, probably unbeknownst to Indrani, "to enquire about you and how you were" and subsequently to convey his blessings for Sheena and Rahul's engagement.
Rahul: "That's correct, yes... He sent a message on the driver's phone congratulating and wishing (us) the best." He added after a bit, "My father also wished me on my birthday (on December 8 of that year)."
Rahul recalled the circumstances of that call. Peter was back in Britain when he phoned Rahul for his birthday from his UK number.
While Peter and Rahul were speaking, Rahul received a "hurtful message" from Peter's other phone and asked Peter what was going on. "He said he was out for a walk. He had left the other phone in the house."
Rao also performed a little signature identification test in court to see if Rahul could actually recognise his father's signature. Rahul passed the test.
The exercise was carried out to prove to the court that Rahul possibly could have been right when he told Sheena, some time before she vanished, that certain documents willing a flat in Delhi to her, might show they had been signed by Peter but it was not his father's signature.
The lawyer utilised Rahul's cross to set the record straight, from Peter's point of view, on some of the financial reorganisation Peter had done post Indrani's arrest, which Indrani's lawyer Ranjeet Vishnupant Sangle had uncapped in court on November 23.
She asked if Rahul was in possession of the knowledge that his and elder brother Rabin's names had been added to a joint account that Indrani and Peter had at Syndicate Bank, Worli, and that while both Peter and Indrani were in jail, Indrani had arranged for Peter's name to be removed from that account or maybe another, without his consent. She also outlined what assets Vidhie had received or was to receive.
A stray question out of the blue: "Are you aware there is no legal document for adoption of Vidhie by Peter?" Rahul wasn't.
In conclusion, Rao put across a few last queries: "Is it true to say that, as per your knowledge, till Peter landed in India on April 26, 2012, he did not know (about Rahul's) dropping of Sheena on April 24, 2012 (to Amarsons, Bandra)?" and that she had not returned?"
Rahul corroborated Rao's assertion.
"Do you agree that Peter did his best to support you, your brother Rabin, Vidhie and to some extent, Sheena, as much as he could?"
Rahul said that was true.
"Is it true to say your father had no grievance with respect to your relationship with Sheena."
"Yes, that's correct. He said it was unconventional."
"And he wanted you to stand in your own two feet and maintain yourself."
Rao politely: "Thank you, Rahul."
Witness 69's long, agonising stretch in the box was done.
A worn out but now relaxed Rahul, his Sisyphean burden dispensed with, emerged from Courtroom 51, to unwind on a wooden bench with his mother Shabnam Anand Singh in the corridor outside.
Five or ten minutes later they descended the steps out of the sessions court. Along the way, at one point later, they bumped into Sangle, who is pushing for a re-examination after he gets certain missing documents.
Lawyer and star witness exchanged gracious goodbyes.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com