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Sheena Bora Trial: The tricks memory plays

February 09, 2019 14:24 IST

When it came to his cross examination by Sanjeev Khanna's lawyer Niranjan Mundargi, Imtiaz Shaikh appeared to be afflicted by that peculiar gap-in-one's-memory or Choosy Memory Syndrome with his recall of other dates in his life, except those directly related with the murder, shaky or non-existent.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

If Imtiaz Abdullah Latif Shaikh's wife, the lovely Saya*, reads this report, he is a dead duck by the close of the day.

Shaikh, Prosecution Witness No 31 in the Sheena Bora murder case, has a spotty memory. Something his wife will not appreciate.

He remembered the exact date and nearly the precise time, even if it might not have been the right time, he picked up Accused No 2 and Indrani Mukerjea's former husband Sanjeev Khanna from Mumbai airport on the day Sheena Bora was killed back in 2012.

He remembered how long it took him to get to Hiltop Hotel, Worli, south central Mumbai, where Sanjeev was staying, from the airport.

He remembered his route to the hotel.

He remembered Hiltop Hotel well, he said.

He remembered asking the reception desk at the hotel for Sanjeev Khanna’s room number.

He remembered that Sanjeev Khanna had a room on the first floor.

But..

He did not remember the year in which he joined his third job. Or the day he quit.

He did not remember when he met the CBI to record two statements.

He did not remember the year in which he met his second wife.

He did not remember the date on which he divorced his first wife.

He did not remember when he proposed to his second wife Saya*.

 

Shaikh, 44, who once worked as a driver for actor Balbinder Singh Dhami, was called in to testify on Friday, February 8, 2018 at CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's Courtroom 51 at the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, as he was the man who picked up Sanjeev Khanna on April 24, 2012 from the airport and brought him to his hotel, from where he eventually caught up with Indrani who was headed to meet Sheena on the last day she was ever heard from.

His testimony in chief was conducted very smoothly by CBI Special Prosecutor Kavita Patil, gracious-looking in a striking black, white and beige floral sari.

After explaining his connection with Dhami for whom he worked for some 12 years (dates Shaikh was unsure of) and how he knew Sanjeev Khanna who was "mera boss ka (my boss's) childhood friend" and someone he had occasionally picked up from the airport or ferried about over the years, Shaikh supplied the details of the critical airport trip in 2012.

"Dhami Sahib se phone call aaya ki Sanjeev Bhai aa rahein hai. Unko airport se leke jaana, car le ke, aur unko drop kar dena jahan unko jaana hai (A call came from Dhami Sahib that Sanjeev Bhai was coming. Pick him from the airport with the car and take him wherever he wants to go’)."

Patil: "Date yaad hai? (Do you remember the date?)"

Shaikh promptly, memory well-oiled: "24 April (2012) tha. 3.30-4 airport pahucha (It was 24 April. I reached the airport at 3.30-4 pm)."

Shaikh said he drove that day a white Hyundai Accent, which belonged to Dhami, to the airport.

Shaikh: "Sanjeev Sahib 4-4.30 bahar aaya. Gaadi mein baith gaye. Phir gaadi aage barhi. Unhone ek phone call mara 'I've landed' (Sanjeev Sahib came out. He sat in the car and we took off. He made a call saying 'I've landed')."

He recalled taking Sanjeev by the Bandra-Worli sea link to Hiltop Hotel, Worli, and once there taking his laptop bag up to his room and "handover kiya."

He said: "Mein ne pucha 'Kuch kaam hai? 'Meeting hai. Wait karna mein batayega' (I asked him 'Do you have any work for me?' He said, 'I have a meeting. Wait and I will tell you')."

After that, Shaikh recalled going down and killing time "just had some wada pav (snack)" -- and when he didn't hear from Sanjeev he drove off, after reporting his movements to his employer.

He told the court he knew Indrani who had been "Sanju Bhai ki wife", who after coming to Bombay and living in Dhami's house and using his office "kuch din mein Worli shift ho gaye Peter Mukerjea ke ghar (After a few days she shifted. Into Peter Mukerjea's home)."

Shaikh pointed both Sanjeev and Indrani out in court, who barely glanced at him.

His testimony in chief unfolded efficiently. Without a stumble. Or even a micro-second pause to dig out a date or time or detail or jog his memory. Shaikh, like a diligent, teacher's favourite pupil acing an oral exam or an actor in a play who knew all his lines by heart, was word perfect.

But when it came to his cross examination by Sanjeev Khanna's lawyer Niranjan Mundargi, Shaikh appeared to be afflicted by that peculiar gap-in-one's-memory or Choosy Memory Syndrome with his recall of other dates in his life, except those directly related with the murder, shaky or non-existent.

The lawyer momentarily shed his spotless black and white advocate garb to become a radiologist conducting an ultrasound and in a delightful display of mastery, deftly put on exhibit the true state of Shaikh's hippocampus, the home of memory located in the brain's cerebrum.

As we all peered in, we could clearly see it was slightly frail. The only lonely date lodged there firmly, weirdly, in its cortex, was the date he picked up Sanjeev from the airport. Not even of later trips made by Sanjeev to Mumbai.

Employing a daring gamble, Mundargi started off his 'cross' in a going-for-the-jugular-manner asking about Shaikh's marriages.

That startled the slightly smug Shaikh and were questions he did not rightfully need to answer.

In a case that has, since it began in early 2017, touched on an unimaginable range of subjects, some racy -- from actors, shoes and cocaine to live-in relationships, love and electric shock treatment -- hit a new high on Friday when it wandered into the terrain of Mumbai bar dancers.

Shaikh had to unwillingly explain to the court that he divorced his first wife Shabina after he fell in love with a bar dancer named Saya* at a restaurant in Kandivli, north west Mumbai. She apparently embraced Islam and they eventually married and had a little boy.

It was a tale that should have sounded sordid, but instead was a revealing sliver of Mumbai life, where mores must cede their medieval sway.

Mundargi: "Imtiazji, abhi jo wife hai Saya* Shaikh, aap ki doosri shaadi hai? Kya yeh baat barabar hai ki Saya* ke saath affair chal rahi thi (while married to the first)? (Imtiazji, the wife you have now Saya* Shaikh, she is from a second marriage? Is it correct to say that you had an affair with Saya* while still married to your first wife?)"

Shaikh, angrily: "Nahin galat hai. Woh ghar chalee gayi thi (No, that's wrong. She had already gone home)."

Mundargi: "January 2015 mein talaq ho gaya Shabina se? (In January 2015 you divorced Shabina?)"

Shaikh, now defensive: "Ha (yes)."

Mundargi: "January 2015 mein kaun sa din talaq hua yaad hai? (Do you remember on which day in January 2015 your divorce happened?)"

Shaikh: "Yaad nahin (Don't remember).

Mundargi: Ye baat sahi hai ki aapke talaq ke pahele Saya* Shaikh se prem sambandh thi (Is it true that before your divorce you already had a relationship with Saya* Shaikh?).

Shaikh reluctantly, grumpily: "Ha."

Mundargi: "Ye Saya* Shaikh kaun se saal mein milein? (In which year did you meet this Saya* Shaikh?)"

Shaikh: "2014." Pause. Moment of thought. "Nahin sir, 2013 ending."

Mundargi: "Kaun se din? Kahan? (Which day? Where?)"

Shaikh: "Kaun sa din yaad nahin (The date I don't remember)", refusing to answer the next question.

Mundargi: "Kahan kaam kar rahi thi? (Where was she working?)"

Shaikh baldly, in English: "She was working in a bar. In Kandivali."

Mundargi: "Pahele mulaqat propose kiya? Ki baad mein? (You proposed at the first meeting? Or later?)"

Shaikh: "Baad mein (Afterwards)."

Mundargi: "Jis din propose kiya tareek yaad hai? (Do you remember the date you proposed?)"

Shaikh: "Yaad nahin (Don't remember)."

Mundargi in Hindi: "When did you join Balbinder Singh Dhami in 2001?"

Shaikh: "Yaad nahin (Don't remember)."

Mundargi: "Jis din resign kiya tareek yaad hai? (Do you remember the day you resigned?)"

Shaikh: "Resign nahin kiya. Aise hi bola. Yaad nahin (I didn't resign. I just told him verbally. Don't remember when)."

Shaikh, a much more zany type than his boss, the actor and businessman who had occupied this stand last month, was also a snappy dresser, raising the standards of witness box fashion a couple of notches. He was clad in dapper black and white check pants, a short white kurta with black buttons, black shoes. On the wrist of his left hand was a black watch with a coloured dial.

He was also more audacious character than Dhami referring to his job of dropping and picking up people as a driver as "client servicing" and to the actor's advertising agency with the plural possessive noun "our."

A resident of Shanti Nagar, Thane, who had a stint in Saudi Arabia as a salesman, Shaikh, speaking mainly in Hindi, often broke into fluent English during his testimony and cross examination.

Shaikh was also the man Sanjeev Khanna was supposed to have spent time with after he dropped him to the Worli hotel.

The man, who knew Sanjeev from way back, who could have perhaps vouched for the fact that Khanna had not gone from Hiltop Hotel to Bandra, as per the chargesheet by the CBI.

The witness who could have been an ally.

The witness who could also have testified for the kind of traffic that day on the roads that would have prevented Sanjeev from reaching the crime scene in the timeline established by the CBI.

Sanjeev, wearing an olive green shirt and dark trousers, stood in the rear accused enclosure, his hands gripping the railing, listening to Shaikh's version. The expression on his face was one of mild anger.

What thoughts could have crossed his mind?

For each of the accused, it must be a solid blow every time a witness, who you think might speak for you -- and perhaps vouch for your innocence, if you are innocent -- gives the court a testimony that does not work in your favour and a version you have not heard of before.

Across the room for the prosecution in their long, winding, bid to get a guilty verdict, there must be moments of immense satisfaction every time a witness gives his testimony and comes through a cross-examination without slipping or losing his verbal footing, even before a solid wall of handsomely paid defence lawyers.

None of this is, of course, fair to the powers of the poor hippocampus.

How can any witness have faultless, impeccable, memory or testify accurately in a case, with dates and times, where the crime occurred nearly seven years ago?

Mundargi's next quest was to trip Shaikh up on his timings at the airport and the time taken for the driver to take Khanna from Vile Parle, north west Mumbai, to Worli.

Calling out the mistakes in his account that Sanjeev Khanna emerged from the airport at 4 pm-4.30 pm, the lawyer queried Shaikh about the communication he and Sanjeev had prior to Sanjeev coming out of the airport terminal.

Shaikh effortlessly handled that, saying he could not remember the exchanges or if there were any -- whether he could have called or Sanjeev called him. He finally agreed that logically there must have been some sort of communication.

That Sanjeev and he spoke at 5.19 pm at the airport before Sanjeev exited on April 24, 2012, Mundargi informed him, probably citing call data records, Shaikh denied. Nor was he flummoxed.

He very slickly asserted: "Sir, itna late nahin (Sir, it could not have been so late)..."

Mundargi then asked about the call Khanna made from the car and how long it lasted.

Shaikh: "Can't recall. He said 'I've landed'." Shaikh virtuously added: "Gaadi chala raha tha. Nazar road pe thi (I was driving a car and my attention was on the road)."

Mundargi smiling, agreed: "Ha woh toh important hai! (Yes, that is important!)."

The cross-examination returned once again to dates. Mundargi wondered how come in his initial statement to the Khar police, north west Mumbai, who first handled the case, the driver never mentioned the date he picked up Sanjeev Khanna in 2012.

That is when Mundargi hit a sixer, as CBI Investigating Officer Kishore Kaushal Singh listened, a small smile playing on his face.

In an attempt to retrieve the situation, that failed, Shaikh offered: "Date nahin bola. Khalee bola choda tha. Specific date yaad nahin tha is liye nahin bola (I never gave the date. I just said I dropped Sanjeev Khanna. I did not remember the specific date and so I did not say)."

Mundargi was pleased with the answer he got.

That was the standard line Shaikh gave Mundargi thereafter for all the new facts that had appeared in his CBI statements that were not there in his first statement to the police.

Questions about the time taken to get to and from the airport or from Worli to SV road, given the traffic, Shaikh batted off effortlessly with the proclamation that distances took much longer now because of Metro work but in those days, if one was travelling against the traffic, they could be covered in hardly 20 minutes or so.

His definition of Mumbai rush hour was something that began beyond 7 pm.

Mundargi closed his cross examination with the accusation that all the dates and times Shaikh provided had been done at the behest of the CBI, gesturing to Singh, and further what is more he probably never picked up and dropped Sanjeev Khanna from the airport and that he was deposing falsely.

Shaikh, in a flutter, but not really terribly surprised, reacted with: "Mere ko Hiltop Hotel bilkul yaad hai. Definely jhoot bol rahein hi. Jo sach hai bol raha hoon (I remember Hiltop Hotel clearly. He (Mundargi) is definitely lying. Whatever is the truth I have said)."

A bit of a kerfuffle erupted about the next date for the hearing.

Indrani, wearing a light blue shirt tucked into figure-hugging white jeans, black shoes and red sindhoor, looking like she strayed in from the nearby Kala Ghoda fair, stepped up to the witness stand.

Having put in her bid to become an approver, in the CBI case against Karti Chidambaram about the funding for INX Media, her earlier company, she informed the judge that she had another hearing coming up and there could be a date conflict. She also stated she had had no lawyer to represent her in that case.

The judge wondered how the CBI was not aware of the hearing in the other case. "CBI is one."

K K Singh, who was in court after a long gap, explained to him there were different branches. That didn't convince the judge.

Judge Jagdale further added, speaking to Indrani's lawyer Gunjan Mangla: "She has not got a lawyer. Your services are not available. The court is giving her a lawyer. She has to organise one."

In the interim, after stepping off the witness stand, a mildly irate Shaikh, hot under the collar (on the coolest day in court since the trial began) wanted to know from K K Singh how the defence lawyers could have asked him "personal" and who the lawyer was because he wanted to take action.

He muttered something about his marriages not being a concern of anyone and that as per the laws governing his community he could have two more if he so wished.

He was patiently pacified by the prosecution and later by Sanjeev's lawyers and told that these 'cross' techniques were part of the turf. Still put out, Shaikh asked if his job in the court was done and then left.

Meanwhile, Indrani was holding court. Looking at the various Thursday newspaper clippings that had articles on her request to become approver and summons by the Mumbai income tax, she pointed out the inaccuracies to the reporters around her.

The income tax query apparently had arisen because as a non-resident she had spent more than 180 days in India and the income tax didn't have the paperwork to deal with her present tax status.

Judge Jagdale watched slightly bemused as Indrani spoke to the media.

One of Indrani's lawyers hissed that she was in court and not giving a press conference.

Judge Jagdale objected and in his mild, gentle manner, that always gets an immediate response, commented that in the past someone from the media had had the temerity to actually "use an electronic gadget" to record Indrani's statement and "the other reporters objected" and that he needed to intervene then too.

Someone from the prosecution, looking at Indrani's clothes, mumbled about the importance of a dress code.

Peter was sitting with his sister and another visitor having a fast food lunch.

Finally, the police were given orders that the accused's time was up and they had to return to jail.

As Peter was departing, K K Singh told Peter he would be more than happy if Peter got a chance to stay a full hour and eat his lunch properly, but that the police guards get restive and irritable when their duty hours get extended and they get hungry seeing all the food.

The next hearing will be on February 12.

*Name concealed

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com