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'You are aware Sheena is alive'

By VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL
November 29, 2022 18:22 IST
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I don't think Rahul Mukerjea once referred to Sheena as killed or murdered and always referred to it as her disappearance.

It felt like he still used the word 'disappear' because killed had a finality to it that he didn't want to face.

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora Murder Trial.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

There is still just one solitary 'fact' you think you can be certain of now 2,200 days after the Sheena Bora murder trial began.

That was also the only 'fact' you thought you could be certain of going into the trial on February 1, 2017.

The 'fact' that there was once upon a time a girl named Sheena. She was much adored by a boy name Rahul. And she disappeared in 2012, never to be seen or heard of again.

It was when Rahul Mukerjea, wearing a white printed shirt and jeans, with a palpable sense of relief, stepped off the witness stand on Friday November 25 for the last time, that you realised that this is still the only fact you could be certain of, after his deposition and cross as a star/key witness over many days.

 

From months before, the arrival of Rahul in the witness box one was eagerly anticipated because one felt he might provide some long-needed answers to the burning questions in this murder case.

And suddenly on Friday evening, as his deposition and cross-examination in Special CBI Judge Samarendra Prakashrao Naik-Nimbalkar's Courtroom No 51, Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai, wound down, one realised, starkly, that that was not to be.

But it was not for lack of trying. Bravely. Either on the part of the prosecution and its witness. Or the defence.

The reason, as is often the situation, for this endless lack of clarity can probably be laid squarely on the door of the various investigators.

Whatever be the causes, from where one is standing in the courtroom, there is a sense of being back to square one or never having left square one in a game of hopscotch.

It's not like it's even a zero-sum game because has one side benefitted to loss of the other? Perhaps not.

During his many days in the box, it seemed fairly simple to read the easy-going-ish, friendly and boyish Rahul, who looked much younger than his 39 years.

Barring some very, very strange episodes of memory loss and rather bizarre incidents of memory acquired or, to put it better, memory unnaturally present, and, in spite of his privileged background, he was a person any of us would relate to.

Somebody who had loved someone dearly and lost her and you simply could not ignore the upsurge of empathy for his loss.

He didn't have a great recollection for dates, details, but he did have an efficient enough memory to help push the prosecution's collection of facts along.

It was easy to see that for him the uppermost thing on his mind was to get justice for Sheena and he was therefore very loyal to the prosecution's efforts in motoring along that path, whatever it took.

As the Bard so rightly said, 'The course of true love never did run smooth'.

That line beat a rhythm in your head while you absorbed the considerable pathos in the Rahul-Sheena tale of unachieved togetherness, that was the constant backdrop against which Rahul was deposing in court.

Even a cynic without tear ducts, could not have not been moved to hear in court about the obstacles Rahul and Sheena, a couple like any other, faced while trying to find mutual happiness.

The aftermath of the Wednesday, November 23, 2022 altercation in court -- where Indrani Mukerjea's lawyer Ranjeet Vishnupant Sangle camouflaged his startling accusations in a series of cross-examinations questions he put to Rahul -- was considerably more bonhomie on Thursday, the last day of Sangle's cross. There were smiles all around and a lot more understanding.

Sangle had wanted a few more days for the cross-examination, especially since he was missing some case documents, but Judge Naik-Nimbalkar was unyielding requesting Sangle to keep to his promised deadline.

Hence, the pace was significantly faster Thursday as Sangle rushed to cover quite a bit of ground before his time was up by lunch, after which Sanjeev Khanna's lawyer Niranjan Mundragi and Peter Mukerjea's lawyer Manjula Rao would have their chance to cross-examine Rahul.

For about 15 minutes, for reasons we will eventually get to know, Sangle highlighted the two versions of transcripts that existed of texts from Rahul's cell phone that he had turned in to the Khar police station, northwest Mumbai, who began the investigation, one from the police and one from when the phone was sent for forensic examination to the Forensic Science Laboratory (perhaps in Mumbai).

The versions would necessarily be different, if one understood the science of it correctly, because the forensic examination would also pull up deleted messages.

To drive that point home, Sangle made Rahul compare transcripts in the case of one set of messages, which were I-am-sorry messages. "After Sheena disappeared, I thought I should send across an apology (to Indrani, Peter and Vidhie as requested by Peter for the nasty messages Sheena had sent from his phone)", although he clarified to the court that he didn't really owe one.

Rahul had been composing an e-mail to his father, with this apology, on his phone via three parts, because in those days, unlike WhatsApp, texts had word limits and necessarily broke into parts when the limit had been reached. But all three parts of the message were not in both transcripts.

After that Rahul was quizzed by Sangle on how Sheena had been pushing Rahul to take a job. Sangle: "Rahul, is it correct to say that Sheena had been insisting you get a job?"

Rahul thought about it and said: "She hadn't been insisting. I had been looking for work as an actor and a model. She wanted me to proceed in my chosen field of work and would say better get started."

Sangle read out message where an angry Sheena is berating Rahul for not having a job.

Rahul, recalling contemplatively the day when Sheena sent the message: "She was in a bad mood that day."

Taking the witness stand in this trial was probably one of the toughest thing Rahul has done in his relatively sheltered life -- a life that totally lost its shape or contours and probably its security, after Sheena disappeared, in a way we will never ever understand.

At the same time, one got a sense that the trial and talking about Sheena -- like it is when someone is taken from you -- brought him closer to her and there were often moments of soft reverie that moved across his face.

Through his testimony in court, I don't think he once referred to her as killed or murdered and always referred to it as her disappearance, something the defence would have pounced on already.

It felt like he still used the word 'disappear' because killed had a finality to it that he didn't want to face and maybe yet could not believe with every/any fibre of his being.

Does some hope still linger within him?

The other expression one very occasionally caught on his face was his distaste for Indrani. But most of the time he didn't look at her and seemed to studiously avoid glancing her way.

With Rahul in the witness box, the quorum of the complexly-structured Mukerjeas-Khannas-ex-Khannas-Singhs clan in the court building, though not complete, was substantial and one noticed there was not much trucking between many of them, not even hellos.

There was a discussion about the Mukerjea driver, Shyamvar Pinturam Rai's interactions with Rahul on the phone and a particular message to Rai from Rahul that began with 'Hello Boss'.

Sangle: "I put it to you that you referred to the driver as boss."

Rahul smiled: "I don't remember. I refer to a lot of people as 'boss' in conversation."

Sangle laughed.

Rai was often bringing something from Marlow to Rahul, in the days, if one got it right, after Sheena went missing, and texts were about that: "I had to collect something from my father and sometimes they would send lunch to me from home."

But Sangle critically pointed out that since there was no reply from Rai to that message and since it was not addressed to Shyam specifically by name there was no way of knowing if the person who received this message at the other end was Shyam, given that everyone was often swapping phones.

Then came: "Rahul, I put it to you that as per your allegation of reaching Amarsons (Bandra, north west Mumbai, on April 24, 2012, the day Sheena allegedly disappeared), you could not have seen persons looking like Indrani, Sanjeev, Shyamvar Rai or the silver Chevrolet or the black Opel Astra because the mobile tower locations of all the three persons alleged by you showed them in three different locations."

Rahul shrugged: "I don't know (about tower locations), but I saw them when I dropped (Sheena) there."

Sangle reminded him, adroitly, at that point, how once before he had been mistaken in identifying Indrani and Peter Mukerjea (as per the November 18 court proceedings) on the Bandra Sea Link one day, when they were actually "doppelgangers."

Rahul adamant: "That's not correct. I had seen them having an argument in the car (that day)."

After the standard legal procedure of nailing down the various contradictions, between the statements Rahul gave to the Khar police, the CBI, before the magistrate in the Esplanade court and in Courtroom 51, was through, Sangle put forth a curious assortment of what they legally term 'suggestions' in quick succession, as the clock was ticking past the lunch break hour:

"Rahul, I put it to you, that you are absolutely not aware if Sheena is alive or dead."

"Rahul, I put it to you, that you are fully aware of the whereabouts of Sheena and she is alive today."

"Rahul, I put it to you, that at least till the end of September 2012 you were regularly in touch with Sheena."

Rahul: "Finished? That's incorrect. I wish I was."

"Till December 2012 you were regularly depositing money in her bank account."

"Rahul, I put it to you, that you and Sheena conspired and forged a passport with the name Sheena Rahul Mukerjea and helped her to go out of the country... (adding later) took the help of (former police officer) Sohail Buddha."

"You have falsely implicated Indrani because of your personal vengeance."

Rahul, sort of irritated: "That's absolutely incorrect. She was arrested before I was even called. I couldn't care less about Indrani."

After lunch on November 24, 2022, it was advocate Niranjan Mundargi's turn to cross-examine Rahul.

Mundargi is the lawyer for Sanjeev, Accused No 2, Indrani's former husband and Vidhie Mukerjea's biological father.

Sanjeev, wearing a yellow shirt and slacks, stood through most of the cross-examination in the rear accused box, following it extremely closely, fully alert.

It was Rai and Rahul's depositions that had also put Sanjeev in the crime picture, when Rahul had said he had allegedly seen Sanjeev at Bandra that day with "persons looking like" Indrani and Rai.

Indrani, in a swirly-patterned black dress, took keen interest in this cross too.

Always a class act in the courtroom, Mundargi kicked off his cross-examination from a surprising doorway.

Through 12 to 15 questions, appealing to Rahul in a congenial manner, he attempted to have Rahul reconstruct his memories of the day/s after Peter was arrested and his emotions.

That period would have been an intensely disturbing and distressing for Rahul, and some of the worst days of his life, but his memories were scant, which is what Mundargi hoped to show.

Why his memories were so shadowy is debatable -- the brain often deals with trauma by sometimes choosing to bury one's memories of an event, especially a very personal one. Or Rahul just could not remember the happenings around the arrest seven years before, while oddly he could remember seeing Sanjeev 10 years earlier in Bandra.

Mundargi: "Rahul, were you present in court when your father was arrested and produced?"

Rahul: "I don't remember."

Mundargi: "Do you remember the dates your father was arrested?"

Rahul: "To the best of my memory, November 19 or 20, 2015."

Mundargi trying again: "When your father was produced in court, were you in court?... Did you not feel like going to the court?"

Rahul: "I don't know what I felt like. I was following the instructions of the police."

Mundargi: "When your father was arrested on November 19, did you stay that day in Marlow (the Mukerjea home in Worli, south central Mumbai)?"

Rahul said he had been allowed to stay at the CBI office in Colaba, south Mumbai, overnight with his father, who had been detained there, and the next day he went to Marlow

Mundargi tried yet again: "Is it true that the day your father was (produced, which was the first day of his remand) you were also present? (You must have been full) of love and anxiety for your father?"

Rahul: "Yes, very much so. Quite anxious." But he did not equivocally say he remembered being in court, but said he had probably been there.

Mundargi: "It was just six years back. You remember stuff that happened 10 years back."

He quizzed Rahul about his visits to see his father in the Arthur Road jail, central Mumbai, with Peter's brother Gautam and sister Shangon Das Gupta. And asked if he remembered any of his father's lawyers.

Rahul said, trying hard to revive his memory cells: "There was one gentleman Mr Mihir Gheewala."

Mundargi: "The name of the other lawyer -- do you remember?"

Rahul: "I can't remember."

It is worth checking up the name of the other lawyer because it might tell you a little more about Rahul's ability to recollect events and facts.

Mundargi: "When did you meet the lawyer (Gheewala) whose name you have mentioned?"

Rahul: "After my father's arrest."

Mundragi, laughing: "Obviously. Approximately when? What year was it?"

Rahul vaguely: "Late 2015. It could have been early 2016."

Mundargi checked if Rahul remembered who the judge was before whom Peter was produced and if the person "who was deciding the fate of your father" was a woman or man, how much time Rahul was in court for, if he stayed till the end and if he saw his father either being brought in or lead away, moments that would have been searing to the soul for the son of a much-loved dad.

Rahul could remember very little, if anything at all and repeated many times over that "There was a lot happening" during those fraught days after the unexpected and shocking arrest of his father and he was "under so many instructions from the police."

Mundargi persuasively: "Rahul you must remember, it was your father."

PART II: Coming soon

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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