'Who is the right Mekhail? Mekhail I or Mekhail II?'
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
It has been over 550 days since I started coming to CBI Special Courtroom 51, located on the third floor of the 1972-built boxy annexe of the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, close to Mumbai University, in the oldest part of this bursting metropolis.
Every day in court imparts something new. Something you didn't know before. While not exactly a school of hard knocks, it is a place, certainly, of alternative learning.
If there is one thing that I have learned, it is: Each witness is actually at least two people.
If not three. Or four or more, given that there is a sort of grainy, Rashomon quality about the whole experience.
But two people, for sure.
Person No 1 is the witness who takes the stand on her/his first day in court and gives his 'examination in chief' guided by the public prosecutors.
Over a day or several days, through his testimony, s/he tells a story, which is captivating and breath-taking, if not sometimes heart-breaking, that offers insight into who s/he is, her/his life and how it intersected with the crime.
It is, often, a story that feels so honest it grips you.
Person No 2 is still the very same witness who takes the stand for the first day of her/his cross examination by the defence.
The advocates of the defence bit by bit ease/tease out, or sometimes tug out, another totally unalike story from her/him, that builds a picture of someone else entirely, nothing like Person No 1.
Person No 2 might have a completely different life from No 1 and her/his intersection with the crime happens quite contrarily.
This story too feels so true it grabs you.
By the end of the cross-examination you are not even sure if Person 1 and 2 are the same people or maybe just one two-headed hydra.
The gothic novella about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is also the tale of every witness that enters this courtroom at least.
While trying to make sense of these dual-personality, dhoop-chau (two-shade) witnesses you begin to seriously doubt your powers of observation.
Your objectivity and skill at steering an unbiased course. Or ability to read character.
More gravely, your perception of the truth, a commodity that keeps wilfully, wickedly slipping from one's grasp and tantalisingly dancing, just out of reach, taunting you.
A judge's job, you realise, must be infinitely strenuous, as he sifts the truth day in and day out.
So it was with Mekhail Upendra Kumar Bora, 28, resident of Sundernagar, Guwahati, who works as a steward in a restaurant and is the 15th witness in the Sheena Bora murder trial.
I have been peering into his face since July 23, attempting to get a sense of who he is, and am not any wiser.
When he took the stand to give his 'chief', he told the sad tale of a troubled young man, who grew up both motherless and fatherless.
He then had his only relative, his sister, suddenly robbed from him, although his maternal grandparents might have lavished him with love.
They certainly left most of everything they had, after they died, to him in a will, revised a few days after his sister's murder, a twist the defence has been cashing in on to arouse suspicion. He seemed to have returned that love faithfully taking care of them in their last days.
His story was both wretched and tragic.
But when Mekhail came back to the stand for his cross examination, of which there is still a day or so to go, he transmuted into an altogether new Mekhail, as per the defence's portrayal.
This Mekhail seemed spoilt, babied, still living on his mother Indrani Mukerjea's adequately-provided 'pocket money' at age 24 or 25 -- a man-boy who liked his drink, cigarettes, tobacco, marijuana and fast cars.
An individual who apparently had behavioural and addiction problems, was overweight, had been unable to complete school in two different places and acted out at awkward moments in a not very self-preserving manner.
Who is the right Mekhail? Mekhail I or Mekhail II?
Would the real Mr Bora please stand up?
Mekhail's watchful face gave me only a few, scarce clues.
His alert eyes would not meet those of his mother or her husbands Peter Mukerjea and Sanjeev Khanna. Understandable.
Nor would they look at the face of Indrani's lawyer Sudeep Ratnamberdutt Pasbola. But witnesses are not supposed to glance into the eyes of the lawyer questioning them, I was told. They are schooled not to. Avoid the death stare at any cost.
But otherwise his gaze was often very direct. Looking firmly at the judge. Or at the rest of us in the courtroom.
It was a fearless gaze, even when he was caught at a dead end trying to talk his way out of 'cross' question he could not answer.
His voice was confident. So was his carriage. Self-assured. Cocky. Slightly devil may care.
He might not have had that city slicker, upper crust Mumbai sophistication accompanied by the British-accented English that is kind to the consonants and slurs the vowels, turning, hoity-toitily, words like 'hour' into 'aaar' and 'flower' to 'flaaar', being a Tier-II metro boy, but he came across as well mannered and gently spoken.
On Thursday, August 16, through the continuing cross examination, the mission was on to flesh out the bad boy Mekhail II aspect of Mekhail Bora a little bit further by the defence.
Indrani's lawyer Gunjan Mangla was in charge since Pasbola was away.
Neatly attired in a black and white kurta, spangly Kolhapuri sandals and her white lawyer collar, she made an intriguing change from Pasbola. Her approach is slightly more polite, a bit more methodical, her Hindi a tad better.
While lacking Pasbola's colourful, bombastic, style, Mangla is steady and sturdy in her approach, occasionally barking at a witness too.
The questioning lingered, first briefly on Mekhail's treatment at the Masina Hospital, central Mumbai, and next on his seven-eight months stint at the Chaitanya Mental Care Centre in Pune, where it had been established on Tuesday that Mekhail had been admitted for his marijuana habit and conduct issues at age 17.
Mangla with her questions poked around a bit more, improving on Pasbola's work and established that Mekhail had also undergone counselling, perhaps to indicate the extent of his issues.
Mekhail denied it was counselling and said it was just "baatcheet (conversation)."
Mekhail recalled, resentfully, that when he told the lady counsellor that Indrani was his mother she said, as if he was having hallucinations: "Tumhari galat fehmi hai, tumhari didi hai, mummy nahin (You are under the wrong impression. She is your sister, not your mother)."
The facts about his treatment for addiction or behaviour problems might have been adequately sketched in for the court to feel that anything Mekhail said could probably be a liability.
But witnesses' habits -- and marijuana done regularly, in small quantities, is considered as innocuous as cigarettes globally these days -- should have nothing to do with the quality or honesty of their testimony, even if the defence was hoping it did.
Nor does grappling with mental issues. If anything it might enhance it (alcoholics, schizophrenics are known to be more honest than the average person).
But since Tuesday, large amounts of courtroom time was allotted to dwelling, it seemed, on depicting Mekhail as not sound of mind, and parading his symptoms, without, bewilderingly, the legitimate backup of any documents, medical papers, discharge slips, medical diagnosis.
In establishing the darker Mekhail II, Mangla brought up four more disquieting issues on Thursday, that made the process of distinguishing between the two Mekhails more arduous, dangling you at the end of a yo-yo.
Mekhail apparently had a police case brought against him by the parents of a Guwahati girl, although the city was not clearly mentioned.
Mangla: "B----- aur R--- M--- D--- (names concealed) ke baare mein kuch jaante ho? (Do you know anything about someone named B----- and R--- M--- D---?)"
Mekhail: "Dhyan mein nahin aa raha hai (I am not aware)."
Mangla: "Agar mein kahu ki yeh aap ke against police complaint file kiya unke beti chhedne ka liye woh sach hoga? (If I tell you that they filed a police complaint against you for harassing their daughter, would it be true?)"
Mekhail, lamely: "Dhyan mein nahin aa raha hai", and then he added rather inadequately, "Daughter ka naam kya hai? (What is their daughter's name?)"
Gunjan: "Iss silsile mein police station lekke gaye? (In this connection were you taken to the police station?)"
Mekhail, loudly: "Galat! (Wrong!)"
The young woman lawyer didn't pull out any documentation to bring credence to this possible skeleton in Mekhail's cupboard, whose dimensions/depth, one mused, if the defence is to be believed, must be rattlingly enormous.
Mangla moved onto Mekhail's Bangalore International School days and the inferiority complex he admitted earlier he had suffered there because most of the students were foreigners, were of a higher background and were given much more pocket money.
Was Mekhail's desire to travel abroad a reaction to that?
Was the trip Mekhail took to Europe, with his grandparents and Sheena, that Indrani bankrolled, an attempt to bolster his ego?
Gunjan: "Yeh trip liye the kyo ki aapko inferiority complex feel ho raha tha? (Was this trip planned to assuage the inferiority complex you felt?)"
Mekhail, ringily: "Ek dam galat! (Absolutely wrong!)"
Indrani, wearing a white and pale green kurta-salwar, standing between husband Peter Mukerjea and former husband Sanjeev Khanna, in the accused box at the back, nodded her head up and down repeatedly, emphatically, to vouch for it being true.
Finally, Gunjan asked him about the attack on a housemaster at the Bangalore International School.
Mangla in Hindi: "Did you stab with a knife the housemaster at Bangalore International School who found marijuana in your possession? You were issued a warning by the principal and told the next time it happened Indrani would be told?"
Mekhail impassively, unmoved by this charge said unheatedly: "Galat!"
Lastly, Gunjan asked a few questions about who accompanied Mekhail from Bengaluru to Mumbai when he left the school. And also from Pune to Delhi, where he went after his discharge from Chaitanya.
Both times he said he went alone.
Mangla: "Mein agar kahu ki Mr Sohail Buddha aaye the aap ke saath toh galat hai? (If I say that Mr Sohail Buddha [a former Mumbai policeman who owned the security company Star Protection Private Limited, whose name has been repeatedly skirting the periphery of this case] -- came with you, would it be wrong?)"
Mekhail denied it.
Neither for the stabbing incident nor for the alleged Guwahati police case were documents displayed to substantiate the charge. The accusations were merely tabled.
In between Mangla asked Mekhail a whole flood of odds-and-ends questions.
How had he got from airport to his home on April 24, 2012, when he returned to Guwahati from Mumbai after the alleged attempt on his life by his mother?
The distance from his grandparents' house to the airport?
Had they been at home that day when arrived from Mumbai?
Were there hospitals, clinics or dispensaries on his route home from the airport?
How much staff did he have in his home in Guwahati, how long had they been in his employ and who paid them?
Were there gardeners or watchmen?
When he was discharged from Chaitanya hadn't Indrani come to pick him up?
Hadn't Sheena visited him in the hospital in Pune?
Something about Mangla's entire line of questioning began to steadily irk Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale, who seems to have less patience when Mangla is handling the cross examination.
As Mangla continued her queries, after the lunch recess, and reached the Sohail Buddha part, the judge suddenly interrupted.
He asked when Mangla would start on the omissions and contradictions part (discrepancies), which Pasbola had said Tuesday Mangla would take up.
Mangla said she would ask a few more questions and then work on the omissions which she said were not many.
Judge Jagdale, by then angry: "I will not allow another day for completing omissions and contradictions! That is enough."
Mangla said something to the effect that these questions were also crucial.
Judge Jagdale, now the angriest he has ever been: "I know what is important. Pasbola had said you would be doing omissions and contradictions. Why are you not following what your senior asked you to do?! He has promised he is going to complete the 'cross' today. That is enough. I am running out of patience!"
The judge continued to fulminate angrily saying he had had it with all the delays. He drew the attention of the court to the fact that the witness had come from 1,000 km away and that was not being taken into account.
Or the fact that the accused had been in jail for three years and they were first-time offenders and not hardened criminals, whose longer presence in jail as an undertrial was understandable as they rotated between several cases in which they were accused.
CBI Special Public Prosecutor Bharat Badami nodded his head sagaciously, agreeing with the judge at every turn. At the back the accused were quite startled with the situation.
Indrani looked a bit bug-eyed, since it seemed some of those questions Mangla had put to Mekhail were suggestions from her.
Mangla weathered Judge Jagdale's storm bravely, attempting to reason with him and tried to hold her ground in the face of his wrath.
She apologised profusely and said she was only following her seniors' orders and was putting questions to Mekhail as per Pasbola's instructions.
She requested with a "Please my lord" if she could finish the line of questioning she was on and would then complete the omissions-contradictions process.
Judge Jagdale pacified, ordered: "Finish the job given to you."
For the next hour Mangla worked on the omissions, that looks at the pieces of information that existed in Mekhail's statement to the police or the CBI, but not in his testimony in court. Or vice versa.
The most significant were some differences in his statements on the manner in which he had tried to contact Sheena after his return to Guwahati on April 25, 2012, the day after she was killed.
And the fact that he had not told either the police or the CBI that "narco drugs nahin chhue (I didn't touch narco drugs)."
He had not said earlier that a mail came to him, post Sheena's death (which he was not aware of) from her Hotmail account. He had mentioned only an e-mail.
Badami did not agree with this omission, saying there was very little dissimilar between e-mail and Hotmail and both were mail. That had both Sanjeev and Indrani laughing and Mangla hot under the collar.
Thursday's cross examination winded down as Mangla plodded along dutifully raising omission after omission till the clock struck five.
The judge ordered for the hearing to be brought to a close and for it to resume on Monday, August 20, without further delays.
Mekhail agonised with the judge about when he could return to Guwahati and said he was still on probation at his job.
Judge Jagdale patiently heard him out, trying to help, but when Mekhail asked something about his air ticket the judge looked a bit bemused and said he needed to speak with the CBI, not him.
It might have been 550 days plus since I started coming to this court. But as one departs the building, one is still not reconciled to its grim, slovenly state -- the dirt, grime, trash, the neglect -- that detract from what the majesty of a court should be, where judges, prosecutors, lawyers and staff work tirelessly to cope with a numbing case load.
The Swachh Bharat sign about working together to keep things clean, which is new, in front of the one working lift mocks you as you exit.
- MUST READ: The Sheena Bora Murder Trial