Pasbola wound up his cross examination, tabling a new narrative in the murder case.
That Sheena Bora had been murdered not by her mother.
But by her brother.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
207 calls exchanged between January and May 2012.
38 conversations over the telephone from May 16 to May 18, 2012, a few days before a murder.
Phone calls lasting as long as 1,500 seconds or 1,700 seconds. That's between 25 to 28 minutes.
Telephonic contact right till August 2015.
Their colourful but eerie phone call history illustrated the odd and somewhat suspicious relationship that Mekhail Upendra Kumar Bora shared with Shyamvar Pinturam Rai, till he was arrested.
Indrani Mukerjea's son and her former driver.
Why would a son, living 2,810 km away from Mumbai in Guwahati, Assam, keep in constant, steadfast touch with his mother's driver, whom he had met about four times?
Even nearly three years after the driver was no longer working for his mother? A driver the son claimed to be scared of.
Not because a man should not be friendly with someone from the driver class -- no, no, not for parochial class prejudices, banish that thought -- but because it was a tenuous connection, at best.
These were the absurd inconsistencies Indrani's lawyer Sudeep Ratnamberdutt Pasbola bit by bit uncovered, in his distinctive approach, on Thursday, August 23, at CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's Courtroom 51, Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, in the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Mekhail didn't deny the number of calls he and Rai exchanged.
He just said, "Kiya hoga (Might have done so)" without providing any additional details.
Or clarify further why they had had this intense level of interaction, apart from what he said on Monday that Rai would call up to ask how Mekhail was handling taking care of his ailing grandparents.
In Rai's testimony last year there was no concrete explanation either of the reason for continuously being in touch with Indrani's son.
Pasbola, who had been slowly playing up the abnormality of this association over the past few days, finally strategically utilised it on Thursday to drive a firm, hard-to-ignore wedge of suspicion between the court and Mekhail, so you looked up once more into the face of this 28-year-old man and reassessed him yet again.
While closing his cross-examination, in a surprise rat-tat-tat AK-47-style attack, he swung towards Indrani's son and accused him of conspiring with Rai to do away with Sheena.
Pasbola, choosing slightly unusual words, announced loudly: "Mera yeh kehna hai ki aap dono conspire kar ke aap aur Shyamvar Rai Sheena ko gayab kar diya. Disappear karne ka karan aap ko unka property hadpne ka tha! (I declare that you and Shyamvar Rai conspired together and made Sheena disappear. You made her disappear because you wanted her share of the property!)"
Thursday's hearing started up at 11 am sharp.
The sessions court was still celebrating Bakri Eid. Families kitted out in their Sunday best came visiting their menfolk at the court.
Hordes of kids ran about. Some were playing dhapa in the courtyard below. It led you to wonder, given the pace of justice for undertrials, how many years for these children would spent coming to court and how would that change their lives.
Women, wearing the prettiest of kurtas, awaited the jail vans bringing their relatives. Mothers were there with food.
One couple was occupying the staircase leading up to the third floor. He was tall, bearded and wearing a spotless white pathan suit. She was in burkha, but had for the occasion a gay patterned gold scarf wrapped around her neck and a baby at her hip.
Their son, wearing a T-shirt that said Troublemaker on it, entertained himself running up and down the stairs, over and over again.
The eldest daughter, about six, wearing crimson and mustard and white patent leather shoes wouldn't leave her father's knee.
Father and daughter hugged many times and he would look into her eyes adoringly and pinch her cheeks or stroke her hair. Her father was the most important person in the world for her.
That's the thing about courts.
It is a place where people, perhaps guilty of heinous crimes, arrive to be tried, in hundreds, every day.
There is loads of: Sadness. Desolation. Frustration. Anger. Bewilderment. Horror. Pathos.
But there are those tiny, sparkling stolen moments of happiness too. Truly intense human moments.
Against this grim landscape of despair, they shine brighter and more beautiful than happiness you have seen anywhere.
The teary-eyed wife meeting a husband out on bail.
The mother bringing lunch for her imprisoned son.
Relatives of one prisoner sharing food with another prisoner.
Or that pathan-suited father, I observed on Thursday, spending precious, golden time with his daughter.
That narrative carries on one floor up too to outside Courtroom 51 amongst the accused in the Sheena Bora trial, where you see, court date after court date, a dependable sister bringing food and the news of home for her brother. And one cousin arriving with food, books, papers and clothes, faithfully week after week, for another cousin.
It is love of the rarest kind. And precious to behold.
Thursday's session began from where it left off rather abruptly on Tuesday: former Times Now anchor Arnab Goswami's interview.
On Monday it had been decided that a verified CD of the newscaster's one-hour conversation with Mekhail would be heard in court on Tuesday.
With great fanfare, after the sound failures of Monday, the defence produced a laptop with a booming Bose speaker on Tuesday. The CD was brought and Goswami's penetrating, strident voice filled the room.
But the defence then asked the prosecution for their certified copy of the transcript to use along with the CD. The prosecution had none, even though they had squarely rejected the defence's transcript on Monday.
Court orders were looked up and it was determined that Judge Jagdale's predecessor Judge H S Mahajan had ordered transcripts for this interview as well for Peter Mukerjea's interview to Goswami but there hadn't been 'compliance' of that order.
Sparring started up.
"Why did you not file it?"
"Why did you not raise objections at the time!"
To quickly settle the issue, CBI Special Public Prosecutor Kavita Patil, wearing a lovely gold and black sari on Tuesday, said she might have a copy of the transcript in her office. She said she would go back there and locate it and bring a copy to court after lunch.
The copies she brought after lunch on Tuesday had portions missing and were incomplete. Patil was given till Thursday 11 am to produce certified copies and Tuesday's hearing ended with much time wasted and nothing accomplished, often how it is in court, in spite of Judge Jagdale's sturdiest attempts to keep the proceedings happening at top gear.
The first two hours of Thursday went in the painstaking, time-consuming task of verifying/comparing the transcript the prosecution produced on Thursday with the CD in the judge's chamber, which had a few minor errors and needed mild corrections.
For two hours everyone sat around waiting. The accused, their guards, the judge and the court.
Time often stands so infinitely still -- you can quite clearly hear it tick by, second by second -- in a courtroom where cell networks are poor (Jio thready and iffy/Vodafone and Airtel non-existent), that one re-learns the simple yesteryear Art of Waiting, without fiddling with a phone to occupy you.
You are re-taught the art of simply sitting and contemplating your environment -- actually noticing the state of your unkempt toes or the perfect slate grey of the Mumbai monsoon sky or the view from a window of colonial buildings, without distractions.
That can be pleasant, calming and oddly freeing, since there is no compulsion to look at the last whatsapp forward or the latest corniest FB post or the cutest Twitter meme or a pressing e-mail.
But waiting in court, covering a trial that has been going on for 19 months, also imparts a slightly uneasy fear of eventually becoming part of the lumpy court furniture.
How many more years will I be waiting in this same room with the same accused, same clerks and same peons, missing birthdays, anniversaries, filing copy day after day? Could it be one? Two? Five? There is no knowing.
And the judge, in front of you, who is trying his level best to put a jaldi on this case is no doubt a hero for that reason.
If that is what you feel, how do the accused come to terms with this vacuum-like, suffocatingly enveloping limbo?
They say they are reconciled to losing many years as undertrials, but the limbo can be tough to grapple with. The 'what ifs' and the 'what wills'. Though they don't miss their cellphones.
The court re-convened at 3 pm to:
Pasbola's argument for Indrani's bail focused on the alleged frail state of Indrani's health and the threats to her life.
Indrani, wearing a white and light green kurta-salwar and a light green bindi, sat very still and alert, in the accused box behind, through his arguments, hanging onto every word he said.
She looked wispy and wan -- you never see her eating anything more than an apple most of the time -- giving a certain bit of credence to her lawyer's statements.
Pasbola spoke, his statements punctuated by multiple "My lord"s about her "chronic" "small vessel ischemic disease" (abnormality of blood vessels in the brain) which if not consistently monitored could be harmful for her future well-being and did a rewind of her medical history over the past three years.
"Supply of oxygen to the brain can get cut off causing seizure or blackouts."
This had been established too by doctors attached to Byculla prison. Her general condition had also not been exceptionally good with fluctuations in BP, attacks of malaria and dengue, apparently some urological issues and loss of weight -- she lost 18 kg soon after entering the prison.
Pasbola spoke about her four visits to the hospital and her bail application of 2016 being rejected because it was said medical treatment was easily accessible.
"We cannot be waiting for deterioration. She requires constant care and medical treatment. Not a short-term treatment. She was to be examined quarterly which has not happened."
He also stressed that if she had be dispatched to the hospital urgently because of an emergency arising from her microvascular ischemic disease it was not possible in a prison set-up where the paperwork would delay her release.
"That may prove to be fatal in case of a brain stroke."
Threats to her were two-fold. For deposing against a politician. No names were mentioned. And for testifying as a witness against those who killed Manjul Shetye, the Byculla jail inmate who was killed in 2017 by prison guards.
"She has given a statement against a powerful person who was a central minister. Just because he is now an ex-minister doesn't mean he has become a non-influential person."
Judge Jagdale: "But the ex-minister is not in jail."
To which Pasbola explained it didn't matter because he was nevertheless influential.
He brought up the two episodes of drug overdose and said it was too far-fetched to suggest, as the CBI had, that she had received these drugs from persons she met in court.
"She is a witness in the Shetye case and their (the accused) associates are all around Maharashtra. She was a witness in the murder of a jail inmate and was instrumental in getting an FIR lodged."
He concluded with "Constant threat on her life. Her life is in danger. Can't wait", and he asked for her release on humanitarian grounds.
It was then the CBI/prosecution's turn to counter this argument. They -- represented by CBI Special Public Prosecutor Bharat Badami -- took time till Monday, August 27, since Patil was absent.
Pasbola playfully needled Badami: "Boss nahin hai! (Boss isn't in!)"
Badami, playacting back: "I am a small officer."
Another lawyer said wittily in a whisper: "Small officer, big man."
Mekhail then took the witness stand wearing the same mustard shirt and dark blue-back trousers, he has been seen in for the last four appearances, day after day.
Jokes were cracked that the defence was not paying for his dhobi or his Surf. And that the CBI had instructed him to wear just one shirt continuously to put across a poor, bechara look.
Through this last session of cross examination of Mekhail, Pasbola, in a fine killer mood, roamed his terrain, asking random, unsettling questions, without sequence, of Indrani's son.
Why had he said he took a direct flight from Mumbai back to Guwahati on April 25, 2012, when he came back via Kolkata?
Why had he answered he could not remember how he got home that day from Guwahati airport when he told the CBI and the police that his driver Sunil Hajog had picked him up?
Had he not travelled to Mumbai on April 24, 2012 under an assumed name?
Why hadn't he given his flight tickets to the police or the CBI? Did he still have copies of them?
When he came to Mumbai in August 2015 to give evidence to the Khar police, north west Mumbai, who were initially handling the investigation of this murder, where had he stayed?
What was the name of the hotel and how much had he paid? Hadn't he told Arnab Goswami he stayed with friends?
Where was his passport and why had he not brought it to the court as requested?
Wasn't his shoe size 8?
Why had he given so many interviews to the press?
Why had he sent a message from his grandfather's phone to Rahul Mukerjea, Peter's son from his first marriage, with whom Sheena was in a relationship with, telling him to improve his tone while talking to his Nana ("Iss tone mein mere Nanaji se baat mat karna. Stay out of my family matters")?
Why was he consistently rude with Rahul Mukerjea and often didn't take his calls?
Why had he told Rahul when he called in late April 2012 that Sheena was in Mumbai?
Did he know that his grandparents disapproved of the match between Sheena and Rahul?
Did he know an Arnab Sikdar? Why had he told Arnab Sikdar on Facebook Sheena was in the US and gave Sheena's gmail address to him, the same address he never used to find out how Sheena was in the three-and-a-half years that she was missing?
Hadn't his cook Kishore Barman come with him and his Nani, Durga Rani Bora, when they went to the sub-registrar's office in Kamrup, Guwahati, where she submitted a revised will on April 30, 2012, that reduced the portion she was leaving Sheena?
Had he told Kishore Barman to call Rahul Mukerjea and speak to him and ask him what Indrani was saying about where Sheena was.
Mekhail's blanket answers, not entirely convincing, to most of these questions ranged expectedly between he did not remember or he didn't know or since he was under tremendous stress in 2015, after just discovering the murder of his sister Sheena, he might have said a few odd things.
He did offer one or two either odd or rather random replies to some of Pasbola's gunfire of questions.
He never used his grandfather's cell phone.
He didn't initially acknowledge that he remembered the name of the cook worked for him.
Neither the CBI or the police had asked for copies of his flight tickets to Mumbai in April 2012. And he didn't have copies anymore.
He denied being rude to Rahul or telling him Sheena was in Mumbai. But he looked a tad edgy while replying, fidgeting, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt, which was short-sleeved in any case.
His shoe size was 10, and when Pasbola challenged him, he said angrily he was willing to take off his shoes and show them to the lawyer.
That would be the second witness (remember Indrani's assistant Kajal Sharma) ready to wave a shoe at the lawyer?
He and Sheena had many friends called Arnab (none of them Arnab Goswami!) and he couldn't remember which Arnab Sikdar he had spoken to on Facebook.
He spent Rs 15,000 to Rs 16,000 staying in a hotel, he could not remember the name of, or the area, in 2015 for ten days when he came to give evidence to the Mumbai police. Nor did he have a bill.
About telling Arnab Goswami that he said he stayed with friends he pointed out it was semantics. "Dost ke saath thehra tha (I stayed with a friend)" meant he didn't come alone and had a friend with him.
His passport, that he told the court earlier he had in his possession, and would bring to Mumbai, he now said strangely: "Kahan par hai maloom nahi. Sure bhi nahin ki hai. Expired hai (I don't know where it is. I don't even know if I have it. It is expired)."
He said he didn't remember he was to bring it to Mumbai. And the judge said the court had not officially directed him to bring it, even if the defence had asked.
Pasbola angrily, accusing: "Jaan boojh ke (deliberately) you are trying to direct the attention of the court away from your passport. Court ke saamne nahin laana chahte ho (You don't want to bring it to court)."
He further darkly accused there was something in the passport that would implicate Mekhail seriously.
On interviews he gave to the press Mekhail brought a round of laughter when he said: "Bombay mein nahin diya. Guwahati mein chobees ghanta press gharke bahar rahte the. Kuch bolke nikal jaate the (In Mumbai I didn't give interviews. In Guwahati the press stalked my home 24 hours and when I left home I would say anything while leaving)."
Pasbola: "Interview mein jo bolte the sach-sach bolte the ya jhoot bolte the? (In these interviews did you say the truth or lies?)"
Mekhail, dismissively: "Har interview ko dekha nahin (I haven't seen each and every interview)."
Pasbola, mockingly: "Aap ek celebrity ho gaye (You became a celebrity)."
Judge Jagdale interjected, laughing, objecting: "Everyone can become a celebrity. Lawyers become celebrities in the media. Why can't a witness?"
Pasbola to Mekhail: "Big Boss mein bhi chale gaye? (You even went on Big Boss?)"
Judge Jagdale, who evidently watches very little television, bewildered but taken aback: "What is this big boss?!"
There was a moment of silence.
Mekhail looked mildly uncomfortable but also slightly defiant, bored with a so-what!-pal expression on his face.
Pasbola gave an explanation to the judge in three or four words.
Finally the transcript of Arnab Goswami's interview was pulled out and the laptop fired up with its mother of all speakers, so Mekhail could hear the interview he gave three years before.
Pasbola first asked him if it was his voice on the interview.
Mekhail peering at the screen, cockily pretending doubt: "Lag to raha hai mere jaise (Seems like mine)."
Pasbola, equally sarcastic: "Face is yours? Kisee aur ka toh nahin? (Not someone else's?)."
Mekhail, if one heard right, joked that he didn't look like that face any more (given that he had lost weight).
Pasbola then put about five questions over 10 minutes to him about this interview that took two days to bring legitimately into the courtroom.
Hearing his answers played back to him, Mekhail looked ill at ease at certain points, fiddling with his hands and looking down at them.
While agreeing they were his answers (they had to be!) he added that at that time: "Halat bahut kharab tha (I was in a bad state then)."
He snapped at the lawyer once asking him not to speak in English to him at which Pasbola pointed out that he was only referring to passages in an interview Mekhail had given in English.
The most interesting passage of his interview to Goswami, that Pasbola put to Mekhail was that, after saying Indrani would not have murdered Sheena for reasons relating to property, he said: "(For) Sheena, there was no phone number. Her phone was switched off. She didn't respond to any e-mails. Yes, I have tried to contact her from e-mails, sent her e-mails, tried to send her message through Facebook, but her Facebook account was deactivated at that point. Because sometimes it gets activated and other days if I try to search her name it gets deactivated."
"I have photographs in my possession which would give everyone a clear idea what was the reason behind the murder."
In conclusion the advocate made his accusations about Mekhail conspiring with Rai to make Sheena "disappear."
Mekhail closed his eyes calmly. He did not react.
Pasbola continued: "You wanted her share of the property. On the 25th (April 2012) you were not behosh (unconscious). On the 25th you did not go to the airport. On the 25th you did not buy any ticket. You kept your phone off on the 25th-26th. 24th tareek ko Sheena ka phone aap operate kar rahein the aur aap khud message bhej rahein the (On April 24 you were operating Sheena's phone and sending messages from it)."
Mekhail, strongly: "Galat! (Wrong!)"
Pasbola, smiling: "Aur apne ko bhejna bhool gaya (But you forgot to send a message to yourself)."
Pasbola wound up his cross examination, tabling a new narrative in the murder case.
That Sheena Bora had been murdered not by her mother.
But by her brother.
Her closest relative.
Can a murder case be more bewildering?