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Sheena Bora Trial: Enter Sheena's dad

Last updated on: December 16, 2018 00:22 IST

Badami asked Das if Indrani was in the room.
Das, whipping out his hand and pointing it at Indrani, announced: "Yes, she is right there."
Indrani, who was looking down, through most of the hearing, momentarily raised her eyes, just a fraction and glanced at him.
That was the first time either of them looked at each other.
Till then, and later, Das refused to look at her, as if he was not able to, either out of anger or revulsion.
It seemed mutual.
Indrani too pretended throughout like he did not exist.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustrations: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Witness No 25 arrived slightly late for the Friday, December 14, hearing in the Sheena Bora murder trial at the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, south Mumbai.

A fairly tall, thin man, he strode down the corridor, tailed by a police officer, passed the benches where the accused were sitting outside, looking neither left nor right, as he swiftly entered CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's Courtroom 51 and took a seat behind the witness box.

Witness 25 was to be Siddharth Das, Sheena Bora's biological father and Indrani Mukerjea's first partner.

Right till 2.45 pm he had not made an appearance, as many eyes waited for him.

As people streamed down the corridor, there was no telling which of them was Das.

He was last only partially sighted, in 2015, in photographs and on television with a baseball hat or helmet eccentrically jammed on his head and a handkerchief concealing most of his face, except his eyes.

The Das who showed up at Courtroom 51 was sporting a 1970s Amitabh Bachchan kind of fluffy, middle-parting hairstyle, a black moustache and a white-grey beard. His gimlet eyes were blood-shot and his face worn and slightly puffy. He had a lanky, loose-limbed gait. At 51, he looked older than his years.

Wearing a black shirt with brown stripes and brown-belted blue jeans and black, shiny shoes, silver rings on his right hand, he looked mildly like a yesteryear cowboy from a Hindi film.

Shortly after he arrived, the trio of accused -- Peter Mukerjea, Sanjeev Khanna and Indrani Mukerjea -- were called into the courtroom and into the accused box.

In that moment the quorum was complete.

All of Indrani's husbands and partners were in one room, within metres of each other, my colleague Dominic noted.

Each of them was rather different from the other -- quite a reflection of her change -- or could one say evolution? -- in taste over the years.

 

The secret labyrinth Indrani had constructed of her life, across three cities over three decades, was in the room on display for all to see, the youthful mistakes too, as well as all the victims, who had lucklessly or luckily become caught in that maze.

Could any of her ex-husbands/partners, in spite of the circumstances, appreciate the delicious irony of that moment?

You would think Sanjeev Khanna, always sitting bemused and philosophical, with a half a smile playing on his face in his corner of the accused box, might have.

And Peter, who stands surveying the room from the back, puzzling over circumstances as he carefully listens to witness testimonies might have caught it too.

Humour was not the only thing in attendance in Courtroom 51 on Friday.

By the end of the hearing one could feel deep sadness too.

Maybe Das, who hurriedly left the court after the hearing, quickly descending three floors, his shoes clicking, to get in a white CBI Sumo, with tears in his eyes, confirmed a journalist colleague, finally understood that sadness too.

Sadness for the fact that, once again, over a 2.5-hour hearing, it became so apparent how little Sheena Bora had mattered to anyone in this world. It was difficult not to be judgemental.

Apathy, grinning ghoulishly at his good fortune, was a guest in the front bench of the room too.

Maybe it was the pace of modern life we could blame.

But how could a young woman of 25 be missing for three whole years and no one, not even her family, have missed her or looked for her?

How?

You cannot wrap your head around that.

Her disappearance was noticed not by her mother.

Not her brother, as parts of Mekhail's earlier testimony have shown.

Not her grandparents, who brought her up and loved her, and passed on after her, who cannot be called by this court as witnesses.

Not her father too, as it grimly emerged on Friday.

Indrani has been accused for the alleged murder of her daughter.

The rest, it would seem, might be due, you thought, some portion of guilt for their indifference in never having bothered to realise that she was missing and pursuing her shocking disappearance to its logical end.

What kind of strange, callous family was this? That it was dysfunctional we knew. But that callous? That a missing member was never thought missing?

Had they missed Sheena so little, not worried they had not got a call from her or an e-mail or a Facebook post. Is human life so unprecious, you wondered.

How odd.

Das, who testified from the witness box in an edgy, restless way, brought into sharp focus the oddness of it all.

His testimony, in English, began convincingly enough.

In spite of the strange, paranoid interviews he gave the media three years ago, Das did not come across in any way odd. He had a casual manner and it would seem a sort of devil-may-care attitude.

Over 15 minutes he summarised the way his life had unfolded, for better or worse, over the past 32 years.

As a young man, who hailed from Karimganj, a southern district in Assam on the India-Bangladesh border, he had moved some 250 km away to study at Shillong's St Edmond's College (which he pronounced as Admund and it went down in the court records as such).

There in 1986 he met a probably quite pretty 17 or 18 year old woman, with a winsome smile, from Lady Keane College, who called herself Indrani -- Das clarified "Indrani Bora alias Pori."

They, he said, struck up a friendship that later he very matter-of-factly added "developed into intimacy" that resulted February 11, 1987 in Sheena's birth. An ill-starred, fateful intimacy, it would seem, that damaged several lives, which was finally the reason we all were in the courtroom on Friday.

Indrani and Das moved into her parents's home in Guwahati, where Das started up a bakery and ran a retail space to sell the products of the bakery, with financial assistance from Upendra and Durga Rani Bora. Mekhail was born in September 1988.

Das was standing in the witness box as he recounted this tale, rearranging his position from time to time, alternately crossing a hand to his other arm or holding the box's railing with both hands.

The shuffling began to bother CBI Special Prosecutor Bharat B Badami who was conducting the examination in chief: "Can you stand here?" and he requested Das not to move about and keep changing his stance.

Judge Jagdale protested: "Let him be comfortable."

His story continued.

In 1989 Indrani, after giving birth to two children, disappeared.

Das recalled, still baffled perhaps at the memory: "One day suddenly she left."

Badami: "Did she inform anybody?"

Das: "No she didn't inform."

Badami, raising his hand in a gesture of enquiry: "What about kids?"

Das: "With her parents."

Badami: "That time you were also staying there."

Das agreed: "Yes I was also staying there."

He continued: "I searched for her for a week," and then he added, with an indifferent shrug, "I left for my native place in Assam."

He later said that he never tried to get in touch with Indrani again: "She left me and the kids and I was not interested."

After Das left Guwahati for Karimganj, he eventually moved to Lohit district in Arunachal Pradesh, where he worked as a primary school teacher for five years before moving to Kolkata in 1997 to work for a private firm and marry through "love cum arranged marriage" a girl he knew from school named Babli and started a new life.

Contacts with his old life remained scattered, tenuous. Occasional.

What he told the court about those connections was quite different from what he had not so reluctantly revealed to numerous Hindi, Bengali and English television channels, including Arnab Goswami then of Times Now in 2015, when he said contact with Sheena had been restricted to one call around the time of her matriculation.

Das declared to Courtroom 51 that he had never bothered to track Indrani down ever again or know anything of her life after she left.

But he did speak to Sheena in 2010 when he obtained her mobile number from somewhere and met her in Guwahati that year when she came come to renew her passport. "I wanted to meet her on the roadside, but she forcefully took me into her grandparents's place."

He subsequently spoke to her in both 2011 and 2012.

In 2011, Sheena, he remembered, called him to tell him she was engaged. She put Rahul, her fiancé and Peter Mukerjea's son from his first marriage, on the phone.

"In 2011 she called about her engagement to Rahul and asked for my blessings. Yes, of course, I blessed her. She gave the phone to Rahul and I spoke to him."

In 2012, Das said he spoke to Sheena for the last time when he wished her on her birthday in February that year. He had not ever had much contact with Mekhail because he said with a grimace that they didn't get along.

In 2015 he learned on television that Sheena was dead and Indrani had been arrested.

Badami asked Das if Indrani was in the room.

Das, whipping out his hand and pointing it at Indrani, announced: "Yes, she is right there."

Indrani, who was looking down, through most of the hearing, engaged in writing notes, momentarily raised her eyes, just a fraction and glanced at him.

That was the first time either of them looked at each other. Till then, and later, Das refused to look at her, as if he was not able to, either out of anger or revulsion.

It seemed mutual. Indrani too pretended throughout like he did not exist although she was in the room to hear his testimony.

They had last seen each other in September 2015 when the Khar police, north west Mumbai, who was investigating the case, had brought her into the room in which they were questioning Das and confronted him with her.

With Das's identification of Indrani, his 'chief' came to a close.

There was a small five-minute break as the court waited for Indrani's defence layer Sudeep Ratnambardutt Pasbola to arrive.

Pasbola, after questioning Das about a slew of events -- including his trip to Mumbai accompanied by Khar police officers, for further interrogation and to give DNA if required (he was not asked to give it finally) as Sheena's father -- also began to ask when he learned that his daughter was missing.

The advocate, who had a bad throat and therefore an even gruffer voice as a result, sounded scarier than normal. The Q-and-A often became disjointed because Das said he had a hearing problem.

Pasbola: "Mr Das, when did you come to know that Miss Sheena Bora was missing?"

Das, raising his hand in a querying gesticulation: "I never knew that Sheena Bora was missing?"

Pasbola: "Do you want to say that no one informed you that Sheena Bora was missing?"

Das: "No."

Pasbola: "Did Rahul Mukerjea tell you?"

Das said he had only once spoken to Rahul, which was when Sheena called him to tell him they were engaged: "I didn't talk with him (after that)."

Pasbola: "You had any occasion to exchange sms-es with Mr Rahul Mukerjea in 2012?"

Das vaguely, as if attempting to stir his memory, then looking down at his hand, one finger circling his palm: "Once or twice, I am not sure."

Pasbola skirted about asking a few other questions.

Indrani began to wave from the back frantically trying to get Pasbola's attention.

Judge Jagdale with a smile of amusement: "Your client is anxious to speak to you. She is coming to you."

Indrani, attired in a fetching sleeveless red and pink kurta with a sash, came over to whisper something to Pasbola and Gunjan Mangla and then Pasbola stealthily moved in for the kill.

Pasbola, taking out a sheaf of papers that must have been Sheena's call record data and dramatically, using his fingers to count the messages announced: "On 19th June 2012, you had a long conversation, in terms of exchange of sms-es with Mr Rahul Mukerjea. A number of messages -- 26 messages between 7.20 and 7.23 between yourself and Mr Rahul Mukerjea."

By this time Das was exhibiting all the classic symptoms gestures of uneasiness. He scratched his ear. Rubbed his nose. Held onto the railing for balance. He scratched his beard. He looked down.

Somewhere in the middle he asked for a sip of water. Then he looked faraway, searching for some answer written on the untidy walls of the court.

He mumbled something to the effect: "I don't remember what was the number of messages exchanged."

He also said he had been in touch only on Sheena's phone (which had not been in Rahul's possession at the time).

Pasbola; "Mr Das, would it be correct to say that in all 64 messages were exchanged between you and Mr Rahul Mukerjea on June 19?"

Das uncomfortably: "Exact number I don't remember. But maybe I exchanged."

Pasbola: "Would it be correct to say that between May 6 2012 and April 20, 2013 some 700 messages were exchanged between you and Mr Rahul Mukerjea?"

Das: "Maybe."

Pasbola asked Das wasn't it true that on June 19, 2012, at 19.22, he agreed with Rahul of the need to file a "missing diary" in Mumbai for Sheena because she went missing in that city.

Das: "Maybe."

Pasbola ploughed on, in a loud ringing voice, in top lawyer form in spite of his throat -- his interrogation technique though nowhere near as authoritative as Arnab Goswami whose 2015 video was later played in the court -- reminding him that Rahul in further messages that evening had urged and implored him to file a missing person's report because he was Sheena's father.

After that, Das's answers waffled about saying not much at all, as Pasbola kept trying to pin him down as to why he felt no urgency to file a missing person's report when he discovered that his daughter had disappeared. Nor did he ever check with Rahul if the report had been filed by him.

Das said he could not remember if he ascertained if Rahul had filed that report and agreed, although he said he could not recall clearly, that he had not thought of filing a missing report himself.

A chunk of unnecessary time was spent in trying to introduce the interview Goswami conducted with Das into the courtroom.

It would not play. Then it could not be heard. Then it began buffering.

Judge Jagdale: "We have jammers (in place)."

Finally, a cell phone was loaned for the video to be played.

In the interim lively conversation ensued between the lawyers and the judge.

When Pasbola took permission to introduce a portion of an interview with a "mischievous anchor, Arnab..." not getting his full name, Judge Jagdale reproached him saying it would not be fair to call him that without basis.

The judge, a little later asked, in jest, if the defence was keen to ask Arnab Goswami to come in as a witness. And when the court stenographer could not get the name of Goswami down right, Judge Jagdale commented to the room: "He has been watching too many Marathi serials."

Meanwhile, Badami began to object to the introduction of the Goswami clip on a cell phone without prior notice. He grumbled: "I can also take out something from my pocket and introduce. It is not stabbing from the back. It is stabbing from the front!"

Judge Jagdale, with mock sternness: "No stabbing business here."

Finally, the clip began to play, where Das tells Goswami he did not know that Indrani had married Peter till the news of the murder broke.

Das insisted to the court too that he was not aware that Indrani and Peter were married although he knew his daughter was engaged to Rahul, Peter Mukerjea's son, and that she was living in Mumbai.

At the end of the cross-examination, Pasbola levelled two accusations at Das.

Pasbola: "Mr Das, would it be correct to say that Indrani left because of physical abuse. By you."

Das: "Not correct."

Pasbola: "I put it to you Mr Das, you have no concern or responsibility for your children."

Das said nothing. He looked for a long moment at Pasbola.

There was something unreadable in his eyes. Not anger exactly. Nor regret.

But some hard-to-fathom intense emotion.

Shortly after that he, the man who had lost his only daughter in a grisly murder, left.

And we never got to know why he had never cared for her.

Or if he had ever mourned for her.

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com
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