Rahul knew this was coming. That 'dirt' would be dug up.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
The Indrani versus Rahul Face Off began with a bang in Special CBI Judge Samarendra Prakashrao Naik-Nimbalkar's Courtroom 51 at the Mumbai city civil and sessions court in the Sheena Bora murder trial on October 3.
Monday wasn't about the trial of Indrani Mukerjea, Accused No 1. It was, instead, the start of putting Rahul Mukerjea on trial.
Offence is the best form of defence.
With this principle in sharp focus, Indrani's new, gung-ho, lawyer, Ranjeet Vishnupant Sangle took off at Rahul with vigour, swords drawn.
Going by appearances alone, it was a very cool and calm Rahul, who took the witness box to face his first day of cross-examination by Sangle and Indrani's battery of lawyers.
Rahul knew this was coming. That 'dirt' would be dug up. The resignation on his face indicated he was expecting it. He didn't get worked up. And merely denied the unsavoury stuff flying his way with sharp, clear "That is not correct"s in a perfect British accent.
October 3 was probably the day he had been dreading since 2015, ever since Indrani Mukerjea had been been charged with the murder of Sheena Bora.
It's one thing to offer your testimony about the murder of your girlfriend and wife, via the prosecution, as he did in June. It is another thing to face the advocates of the woman who you feel sure hated you and loathed you for coming into the life of her daughter.
Rahul said as much in court on Tuesday -- "Indrani has had it out for me (since shortly after their first argument)."
The bitter feelings obviously go both ways and the depth of the bitterness can only be imagined.
Whenever Sangle dared to call Indrani a parent of Rahul's, he bristled.
He declared at one point: "Indrani is not my parent. My father is. I would not classify Indrani as my parent." And Indrani, sitting in the accused box behind, gave a long mysterious smile.
Peter Mukerjea, former Star CEO, in his usual white and khaki getup, and a baseball hat next to him, looked like he smiled too, maybe meditatively.
Sangle: "Would it be correct to say that Indrani cared for you like her own son?" Adding that she had always been worried about his welfare.
Rahul politely dismissive: "I can't speak for Indrani. I wouldn't know."
The younger son of Peter, who is Accused No 4 in the Sheena murder trial, Rahul was born in the United Kingdom in December 1982. He had spent a majority of his life in England before he decided to migrate to India in 2007, where he met Sheena, loved her, lost her and his life was changed, nay marred forever.
A tall strapping man, still very boyish at 39, when he took the stand, which was smothered in barely transparent plexiglass, shrouding him, Rahul dwarfed it. Wearing a white shirt, cream trousers, his wrist was covered in some sort of zen-type meditation bands and his left wrist had a large black-dial watch. His hair was gelled back on top and a close buzz-cut about the neck.
Quite the spitting image of his dad, but with better physique and build, various quirks about his manner were reminiscent of Peter too -- his sort of wry sense of humour, although it had a bitter edge to it at times and the Pratim-brand charm lurked beneath, even under the stress of being cross-examined. Peter, when asked, told those in the corridor outside, after the hearing, that he got his charm "from his mother."
Each question put to him, Rahul thought over for half a second, with a short contemplative "umm" or a 'hmm" and promptly offered a straightforward reply. A fairly apparent kind of honesty seemed his strength in the witness box.
His memory, though, for certain facts, which Sangle was able to highpoint, seemed weak, which could be a typically male, poor-memory-for-dates trait (Science Daily has documented details of a Norwegian study that showed that men have issues recalling names and dates). Or in the case of Rahul for perhaps mildly emotional reasons.
For instance, he did not know when his parents had married or how long they were married. Rahul-1, Ranjeet-1. Indrani found that amusing and Peter shrugged. (Sanjeev Khanna, Accused No 2 was absent and was on a delayed flight back from Kolkata where he had been spending time with his elderly mom.)
Sangle, against whom Rahul was pitted, even as Indrani did the delicate shadow boxing peeche se, sported a neatly-cut suit, combed back silver hair and a tidy moustache. He is also tall but broad and toughly built, which continues through in his verbal approach or comportment.
He played the Indian cultural values card quite often, during Monday's proceedings, to the firang-born Rahul, like asking him, in a you-should-be ashamed-this-is-not-the-Indian-way voice, how he could not remember when his parents, who have been divorced for almost 30 years, got married.
Rahul respectfully to Sangle: "That would be before I was born," adding deadpan "Perhaps you can tell me?"
Sangle, a tad pompously: "I will in due course."
Rahul then murmured, amusingly, to himself and to the room in general: "When they got married, they weren't my parents (yet)."
The lawyer has smooth diction and a very loud, slightly scary, voice. His speech is suave and oddly accented that had Judge Naik-Nimbalkar commenting something in Marathi to the courtroom, to the effect: "I can barely understand him. But nor can I understand you and your accent."
The room laughed. Sangle preened: "It's practice."
Judge Naik-Nimbalkar, who had spent time in Kolhapur, was also a newcomer to this trial, and was transferred to Mumbai from, it seems, Nashik, as per information available.
Much had changed around there after the pandemic briskly and cruelly swept through and after one's own hiatus from No 51.
Judges had been transferred -- Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale, who handled the case since 2017, was posted out of Mumbai.
Lawyers had passed away. So had peons.
RIP, Mr Shrikant Shivade Sir, Peter's legal mainstay and a wonderful raconteur, when he sat on the benches beyond the courtroom and chatted.
RIP, Shri Waghmare, the tall, lanky, highly efficient white-uniformed peon who was a quiet fixture at Courtroom 51.
Other lawyers had been replaced -- the 24/7-working, lively Sudeep R Pasbola and Gunjan Mangla were swapped for Sangle and the always elegantly-attired Sania Khan, because Indrani evidently felt Pasbola was too busy for her needs. Peter is now represented by badminton and billiards-playing senior advocate feisty Manjula Rao.
This courtroom, with all the rest in the court, had installed a PA system and developed those plastic barriers against the mighty virus that now hamper both reporting and cross-examining. Sangle rued the arrival of the plexi barricades because he said, he could not, critically, read the body language of his witnesses during cross-examinations.
The cross began in a very orderly manner with Sangle starting right from the very beginning, checking when and where Rahul popped out into this world and details of his "biological parents," implying Rahul had also non-biological parents. Turns out he was born in Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire, but just 24 miles north-west of London.
Then on to ascertaining the size of the house Rahul learnt to walk and talk in -- "Was it a bungalow?" or "A villa?" answered with "I would call it a semi-detached house" -- and quizzing him about his recollections of his home addresses. A slightly perplexed Rahul offered that he was just a baby when they lived in the first house and "subsequently we shifted to Berkhamsted," in the same county.
From there, Sangle enquired where he had schooled and what he studied.
The cross quickly went downhill after that, with Sangle on the course of projecting Rahul as a rich, surviving-on-daddy-bucks, do-nothing kid.
He established pointedly that Rahul, who studied first conservation biology and then hospitality management, never completed his college education nor earned a graduate degree. Rahul took the unspoken criticism in his stride, saying, matter-of-factly, that he went to work instead. "So unfortunately, I never completed my graduation. I moved on to start working in different places."
Sangle's plan got broader and ambitious as he also tried to prove or proved that not only was Rahul an idler but he was criminal too.
To that end the cross travelled to Rahul's three traffic offences and "certain accidents you got into" that saw his driving license get suspended when he was a teenager for a year.
And the fact that he was at the age of 17 growing six pots of marijuana in his bedroom cupboard in the home where he lived with his artist mom, Shabnam Anand Singh. His too exotic gardening habits were reported to the police and Rahul was hauled off to court to receive a £ 200 fine.
Judge Naik-Nimbalkar queried of Rahul: "Marijuana?"
Rahul: "They were quite small."
Sangle, smiling, eyes widening: "They grow..."
Again Sangle: "Marijuana is often called weed?"
Rahul placidly: "If that is what you are telling me..."
Sangle wondered why Rahul didn't agree.
Rahul, former amateur teenage gardener 'opined': "There are many plants that are weeds. But marijuana is marijuana."
Sangle hopefully: "You started smoking marijuana at age 13?"
Rahul correcting him in a reasonable voice: "I think I must have been 15-16."
Sangle probed how many more times he had been arrested and how many more narcotics he had dabbled or used in a tone that suggested that Rahul's rap sheet might be as long as a London high street.
In 2007, Sangle constructed for the court, how a criminal record-owning Rahul arrived in India to save money -- he received rental income of £ 500-600 from a flat put in his name -- and live off his father, after being "dumped" by his girlfriend.
An argument ensued because Rahul protested, remonstrating that he was a kid when he was fined £ 200 and in the UK justice system your record gets expunged after six years.
Sangle pointed out, triumphantly, that it didn't work that way in India -- once a criminal, always a criminal. And plus, as per the British system, he was not allowed to take a government job for a very long period.
Rahul refuted that, sans any return note of triumph, and said one of the jobs he took was as a traffic warden for the British government.
Sangle: "Your girlfriend (Sarah) of seven years dumped you because you were unemployed and involved in illegal activities?"
Rahul, now sitting on the witness box stool, legs apart, hands folded, looking relaxed, laughed, "No. That's not correct."
Sangle assuredly: "That's not what Saraaa said."
Rahul, correcting Sangle's pronunciation of the name Sarah, with whom he clearly was not in touch with, but realised Sangle was, first, good humouredly inquired: "How is she? I wanted to come to India. She wanted to stay in England. It was a mutual decision and she did not break the relationship."
Sangle questioned Rahul's decision to come to India and if he was "shunted there" for "better prospects" on his father's advice. Rahul said he had come to get to know his extended family, spend time with his father "After all I am (native) to India."
Sangle, full of approval: "Hmm, correct."
Sangle wandered from Rahul's relationships with women to Peter's dalliances with the fairer sex and if a woman named Shashwati 'Sasha' Banerjee was the reason for the divorce of his parents. He tested Rahul's IQ of his dad's GFs and if he had named a dog after Sasha.
Rahul replied that the dog was his elder brother Rabin's (Sangle got his birth date too) and the similarity in names was perhaps a "coincidence," and that his father "was free to make his own decisions in life."
Lawyer Rao got up angrily to defend her client saying this cross-examination was not being conducted for the entertainment of the media nor was Peter on trial and it was about the death of girl and that Sangle had to desist from character assassinations.
Indrani, very thin but glamorous in flowing hair and a flowing pink leheriya sari, her blouse trimmed with zari, watched this angry interchange between the advocates, very keenly, with an emotion close to satisfaction flitting across her face. Right through the proceedings Sania was relaying messages from Indrani to Sangle, as Indrani attempted her marionette number on her new lawyer.
What had Rahul done in India post his arrival and how did he meet Sheena?
Sangle spent the second hour of the cross, building a picture of Rahul's lack of career successes and misdemeanours, right from the moment his jet touched down in India.
Twenty minutes was devoted to where in Mumbai Rahul had worked or not worked (well). For six months in 2007 he had held a job with Prime Focus, a post production company, where he earned a sumptuous Rs 30,000 per month as a trainee.
He agreed that he lost interest in the work and stopped attending office four months into the job because he learnt he had been given the job "as a favour to Papa" and that if he had to go further in the field of sound engineering, he required more training and at that office "no one had the time and inclination to teach me the basics."
Sangle asked Rahul if he had purchased a motorbike out his own funds. He had -- a Yamaha RX 100 to get to his next job.
"One of my favourites," exclaimed Sangle and queried if Rahul had ever "met with an accident" on the bike.
Rahul: "I never had a major accident. A minor accident that could hardly be called an accident."
Sangle: "Is it true you crashed into a pregnant lady?"
Rahul: "No! It's not quite true."
Sangle: "Two days later she lost the baby?"
Rahul: "I never actually connected with her."
Sangle: "No FIR (first information report) was registered?"
Rahul: "It wasn't really an accident and I can explain."
Sangle: "If I need an explanation, I will give you a chance. The FIR was not caused to be registered by one Sohail Buddha (a former policeman and acquaintance of the Mukerjeas)."
Rahul: "I wouldn't know why the FIR wasn't registered. Perhaps because it wasn't an accident."
Sangle alleged: "Are you aware (allegedly) Rs 10 lakhs was paid to the police to not register the case?"
Rahul, laughing: "No, I am not aware of that. Sohail Buddha never informed me. Ten lakhs is an awful lot of money (for an accident that did not occur)."
Sangle: "She still fell on the ground."
Rahul: "I (put) on my brakes and never touched her. She made a lot of drama. The police took my bike. I called my father and my father got in touch with the cops."
The cross then turned to Sheena, how they met and how the budding unlikely friendship -- between an Assamese girl and a British-born, half-Bengali, half-Uttarakhandi boy -- blossomed into something he would have considered beautiful and the stuff of a poignant Netflix episode on Indian modern-day, jab-we-met romance series.
If it was painful to retrace the details of his love story with Sheena, it didn't reflect on Rahul's face although at one point he said he was there for Sheena. Indeed, we are all there for Sheena and sometimes in the melee of tracking the strange details of the case we forget that.
Rahul took up residence in his father's flat, 19 Marlow, Worli, south central Mumbai, when he arrived in India. Sheena was at the time living as PG (paying guest) in Colaba, south Mumbai, and would come over on weekends. Within six months -- "not much longer than that" -- they began to have feelings for each other. "We started watching movies together. Under the same blanket. And our toes met..."
Reality interrupted via Sangle: "You did know that Sheena was a very close relative of Indrani's?"
Rahul: "I did, yes."
Sangle: "Was the first time you had sex with Sheena at 19, Marlow?"
Rahul quickly replied, his face closing down, wiped of emotion: "I am not going to answer that. It's very personal."
Sangle: "That was the reason you were shifted out of Marlow to a flat in Bandra (northwest Mumbai)?"
Rahul: "I wouldn't know."
Sangle: "Rahul, technically Indrani is your stepmother and Sheena was your stepsister, technically."
Rahul: "Yes I suppose so."
Sangle: "And you had no hesitation morally or ethically (in having a relationship with her), even after realising she was your stepsister?" Sangle additionally asked if he and Sheena thought to inform Peter or his "stepmother" of their relationship.
Rahul answered that he hadn't to both and added something to the effect that he and Sheena both did not think that fact mattered: "We were consenting adults."
The romance unfolded further and Sheena would often come and stay over with Rahul at his new address in Bandra that had been organised for him by Peter and Indrani perhaps.
Sangle is likely to delve into all that further when he continues his cross examination of Rahul. The clock was striking 2 and it was agreed that the court would reconvene on Tuesday, October 4.
Rahul folded his hands in a kind of namaste and stepped down from the witness box to chat with Special Public Prosecutor Manoj Chaladan.
One of the court clerks, who was helping write up the court transcript, came over with a sweet smile and asked Chaladan and Rahul: 'Marijuana ka spelling please de deejiye?"
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com