'As Rai spoke, in an unbelievably dead pan, almost off-the-cuff tone, about helping plan the murder of two youngsters, drugging them with vodka and whiskey spiked with dava (medicine), smothering one, dragging a body in rigor mortis out of a car, burning a corpse, destroying evidence, and so on, it felt like he was discussing nothing more surprising than the intricacies of the weather.'
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustrations: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Shyamvar Pinturam Rai is a mild man who speaks in a very quiet voice.
Medium height, greying hair but black moustache, slightly stooped, he is not shifty eyed.
Nor obviously nervous either.
In a cream/beige bush shirt, un-tucked, and dark trousers, he's non-descript, or projected that way.
If you passed him on the street, your eyes would not pause for even a nano second to notice him.
This not very brawny man, probably in his 40s, with a stooped frame, which makes you wonder what he has gone through, is the lynchpin of the Sheena Bora case. He was the Mukerjeas' driver.
Today he gave his long, many-hour testimony at the south Mumbai sessions court, before Judge J C Jagdale.
Today after months, an overflowing courtroom, waiting with bated breath, finally got to hear how the murder of a young woman was allegedly committed in 2012.
As Rai spoke, in an unbelievably dead pan, almost off-the-cuff tone, about helping plan the murder of two youngsters, drugging them with vodka and whiskey spiked with dava (medicine), smothering one, dragging a body in rigor mortis out of a car, burning a corpse, destroying evidence, and so on, it felt like he was discussing nothing more surprising than the intricacies of the weather.
Rai, who hails from the small village of Danwa (2011 Census put its population at 281 in 44 homes) in Chhindwara, southern Madhya Pradesh, referred, from the witness stand, to Indrani, always deferentially, as Madam and Peter as Sahib, even though he hasn't been in their employ for years.
Before stepping up to the stand he carefully removed his footwear, as if he was entering a temple.
Almost implausibly Rai's evidence was literally a tale of: Memsahib asked me to murder her sister and brother. I am the driver. I obey orders, so I did it.
While delivering his testimony of what occurred over two months in 2012, over about four testy hours in court on Friday, July 28, he did exactly what the prosecutors and the CBI officers briefed him to do.
He carried out what was required of a crucial witness turned approver.
He looked, most of the time, straight at Judge Jagdale, while recounting his tale in unvarnished Hindi, in a level, direct voice, its tone never wavering even as the account got hairier.
Rai didn't ever look around or back. Or into the corridor where the CBI's investigating officer K K Singh had been told to park himself at the request of the lawyers for the accused and the judge.
He didn't look at Indrani Mukerjea, Peter Mukerjea or Sanjeev Khanna, even when at times he turned to answer a query from CBI lawyer Kavita Patil, dressed in a black chiffon sari with silver badla work, who was guiding him through the testimony.
He never got flustered, never lost his way, as he re-recited the events patiently, apparently for the third time, which were also the basis of the chargesheet.
It was almost as if he had memorised it, pausing every so often to take a deep breath, marshalling his shoulders, and rattled on, the way a school-going Indian youngster might recite lengthy, ratto-ed prose.
Friday's matter was meant to start after 11 in Courtroom 51. But Rai's delayed arrival from Thane Jail changed that even though Indrani, Peter and Sanjeev arrived well before time.
She wore a wrinkled white kurta-salwar and a dotted yellow bandhni chunni and yellow bindi.
Sanjeev was crisp in a new white and blue striped shirt with epaulets on the sleeves. Peter was in white and khaki, the white belt cinched around his diminishing waist.
They had a surprise awaiting them.
Vidhie Mukerjea, Indrani, Peter and Sanjeev's daughter, arrived shortly after, with a young friend.
You may well ask how she has three parents, but it was quite apparent today that she does, even if they are all in jail.
Months of watching Peter and Indrani in court, deciphering their whole range of emotions -- be it anger, resignation, humour, anxiety -- didn't prepare one for the very special emotions reserved exclusively for their child -- the poignant, melting expressions on Peter and Indrani's faces when the August-born 19 year old, who looks a lot like Indrani, showed up in court in a black and white striped shirt, black leggings, light blue tennis shoes, a large pair of spectacles and a crepe bandage on her right arm.
The bewildering series of events have not distanced Vidhie from the Mukerjea clan. She is still "our baby", as one relative said, and the long hug Peter exchanged with Vidhie, as she almost went to pieces in his arms, was evidence of her being a girl with two fathers.
Suddenly a human element came alive all around in this austere court, as even the police officers seemed to unbend some.
Evidently not enough.
Vidhie, who studies apparently at Regent's University, London, and was on a break home, is, it seems, a witness in the case and was initially not allowed to meet either Peter or Indrani.
Sanjeev, for some reason Vidhie did not meet or even exchange pleasantries with, even as he is being tried for a murder on this teenager's behalf.
A lawyer friend of Peter's took Vidhie away until the lunch break when they took the judge's permission to meet her.
And then a mother and a father, Indrani and Peter, sat adoringly, on each side of Vidhie, on a bench inside the courtroom, hearing her latest life exploits and tenderly examining her wounded arm.
It was almost a three-year rewind with Peter and Indrani renewing, at the same time, a bond, that had seemed earlier to have vanished.
When they emerged from the courtroom, Vidhie sat for a while with Indrani and then went across the corridor to the stairwell area to spend time with Peter as he ate his box of mangoes and had his chai, as his sister Shangon, and two friends sat around.
Indrani was agitated and anguished when the six women policemen, guarding/protecting her, would not give her more time with Vidhie while the men guarding Peter had no issues.
But the firm senior lady policewoman, handling Indrani's security, making an effort to be more amenable, more than these guards usually are, explained that she had already given her 25 minutes, including an extra 15, as instructed.
Indrani looked shattered.
After lunch Rai resumed his testimony. His testimony did not deviate much from what was on the charge sheet, that all the lawyers had open in front of them, spiral bound, at the lawyers' bench.
His testimony began earlier, before lunch, with details of how he -- a 10th class pass from rural MP -- came to Mumbai and how he later happened to be employed by the Mukerjeas, via INX, in 2004, to drive Indrani around, and do school, college and tuition duty for daughter Vidhie and eventually sister Sheena, for Rs 10,000 per month.
Long story short, the Mukerjeas' second driver Prashant Chakravarty, who drove Peter around, was the connection.
Rai stood by the Mukerjeas as they began to lose employees after 2009 and 2010, as INX did not gain success, until he was the only employee left, along with secretary Kajal Sharma and Pradeep Waghmare, who worked both in the office as the peon, and in their home at Marlow, Worli, as a sweeper/cleaner, where a cook named Maya Singh was also employed.
The Mukerjeas themselves went abroad or "videsh" as he termed it and Rai remained in their service renting cars to drive them around when they returned to Mumbai on stints.
Events relating to the murder started up on March 18, 2012 when Indrani suddenly wished to speak to him, in private, on this new-fangled thing called Skype.
Kajal set up an account for Rai, didn't give him the password and organised a conversation.
"Kajal Madam laga ke diya aur chalee gayi (Kaajal Madam set it up and went away)," Rai said. "I didn't know the password. Hum baith gaye samne. Madam ka photo aaya. Dekha. Madam bolee ki tum bahut bharosa-wallah aadmi ho (I sat down. Madam's photo showed up. I saw it. She said you are a trustworthy man)."
"So don't tell this to anyone. And it is my duty to look after the education of your children. It is also my responsibility to take care of your family's medical needs. And tumhara naukri chalta hi rahega (your job will go on). Sheena and Mekhail are doing sab jagah badnami (they are defaming me in many places), calling me their mom."
"There is a lot of fighting over property. Aur Peter Sahib ka ladka Rahul(Peter's son Rahul) is having an affair with Sheena."
"I want to kill Sheena and Mekhail. Don't be afraid. Your work is that of a driver. Tension mat lena (Don't get tense)."
Between March and April, Indrani Madam -- the judge laboriously repeated Rai's multiple Indrani Madams, adding a few extra for a good measure, as he dictated the testimony to the court stenographer -- spoke to Rai numerous times on Skype, making a range of odd requests that Rai says, matter-of-factly, he obliged, without curiosity or hesitation.
He had to buy bottles of medicine on Indrani's prescription from a chemist that Indrani patronised, took them on a train, going to Delhi via Nagpur, travelling in the general compartment, and waited for her to call there.
The call never came and when he called her, she told him to come "phataphat (quickly)" back to Mumbai by flight.
He reminded her he did not have money, so after she transferred money, a ticket was organised by a Mumbai travel agency.
A few days later she told him to fly to Kolkata with the six bottles of medicine and give it to a man standing outside the airport and return to Mumbai immediately after that.
There was another trip by flight and train to Indore via Bhopal and Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh, the details of which were sketchy in Rai's account.
These transactions were financed with a total of Rs 47,500 that Indrani Madam gave him, in bits and pieces, over a month, either personally, or via Kajal, or through a bank transfer, to his account.
On two other occasions he collected parcels from men who came from Kolkata, or spoke Bengali, who were standing outside the gates of Marlow, where Indrani once lived with Peter, Vidhie and Sheena.
No details on what was in these parcels.
In between Indrani came back to Mumbai and asked Rai to come up to the flat and call Mekhail and tell him that "'Madam has a lot of money at her home. Come to Mumbai. We will divide half and half and have fun'. I called Mekhail and told him what Madam said. But unhone mana kiya (he said no)."
Indrani then called last on Skype just before April 22, asking him to take a recce drive on the old Pune highway from Mumbai to Lonavla and check out spots.
When she arrived on April 23 in Mumbai, she and Rai again drove the same route in the Chevrolet "with dark windows" with license plate MH01 2605, that he rented.
At a spot they stopped at, in Khandala, Indrani remarked to Rai: "'This a fit place for Mekhail'".
At Khandala they also bought a plastic can with a capacity of 20 litres.
She then ordered him to take the Chevrolet to Khopoli and at Khopoli asked him to go to Pen Road, Raigad district, and they saw three places.
She was satisfied with the third place, near a little hillock and by the side of a nullah . She said: 'Remember this place. This is a very good place for Sheena'. She asked him to drive the car back to Mumbai.
Here was the tricky part, where all the defence lawyers jumped, as if struck by lightning: Rai said during the return journey Indrani was talking on the phone to someone and she mentioned both Sheena and Mekhail's names.
Kavita Patil stopped Rai's testimony, abruptly in its tracks, at this point. She asked him to repeat it.
The second time around he said Indrani was talking to Peter Sahib.
Indrani's lawyer Sudeep Pasbola was immediately out of his seat, jabbing an angry finger in the air, saying he took objection, suggesting Patil was putting words in Rai's mouth.
Judge Jagdale heard it and said "It is on the record. I have recorded your objection."
This part is a déjà vu of another earlier sequence, before the trial began in February.
In the original chargesheet Rai does not say Indrani was talking to Peter that day. But in 2016 when Peter's bail application matter came up before the CBI court, Rai said she was talking to Peter.
Later in the afternoon on Friday, another lawyer commented, outside the courtroom, that the prosecution was trying to twist the witness' words to suit them.
On their return to Mumbai, April 23, Indrani got off near Plaza theatre, in Dadar, central Mumbai. She disappeared for a bit as Rai took "chakkars" (rounds) of the area waiting for her.
When he located her she was with a man who had two "bara bara (big, big) bags" which were loaded into the "dicky (the boot of the car)".
The next day, April 24, the day Sheena was allegedly murdered, Indrani started out early.
Rai carefully, blow by blow, recounted the events of that 24-hour period and of the next morning, April 25, too.
Indrani went to the "beauty parlour" and also shopping buying two saris and three pairs of shoes (one pair for Rai, whose shoe size she checked; he is a no 8), a "khamba" of vodka, a bottle of whiskey, mineral water.
The judge was baffled by the word khamba and it was translated for him: 750 ml vodka.
Back home she made Rai open the bottles, tip some liquid off into the sink, and mix the medicine he had bought from the chemists into both the bottles of mineral water and the liquor bottles.
"She told me to shake it well. She asked me to leave the daru (liquor) bottles on the table and take the bottles (of mineral water) to the car" and put in the pocket behind the driver's seat.
Most of the things Indrani bought were left in the car or in the boot of the car.
Only the plastic can was kept in the Marlow garage, that the Mukerjeas owned.
Rai and Indrani set out for Bandra that afternoon at a leisurely pace, carrying the two bottles of mineral water, which has been adulterated earlier with medicine.
They picked up Sanjeev Khanna near National College, Bandra, north west Mumbai, and she told Rai his name.
Thereafter, Rai always refers to Khanna by his full name in his account
This is the point where Sanjeev debuted in Rai's testimony.
Sanjeev sitting in the accused enclosure, hunched, taking notes, gave a large-ish philosophical smile, that lit up his hollow cheeks and unshaven face.
Smiles also played on the faces of his cousin Nikhil Kapur and his brother Vivek who was in court for the trial from Bengaluru.
They were standing in front, behind the lawyers, taking notes. As Rai's account progressed there were often exchanges of glances, tinged with amusement, between Indrani and Sanjeev. Or comments to Peter.
At critical junctures, when Rai said something astonishing, Indrani beamed out of the accused enclosure, at the court, laughing.
Peter, on the other hand, tended to pull funny perplexed faces and stroked his head, when Rai's testimony had baffling parts.
Indrani and Peter alternately sat and stood taking notes, resting the paper against the railing.
Sanjeev turned to his left, away from them, and jotted down the proceedings.
Earlier, before Rai's testimony began, Peter once again came up to the witness stand and requested a place towards the front so he could hear the trial, as he could not at the back.
Judge Jagdale said, sternly, but with a smile on his face, that he did not decide the right place for each person in court, but the honourable court did and hence his place was where it was and the accused's place was in back.
Peter returned to the enclosure upset.
In the corridors, outside, the fact that the accused cannot hear their own trial is often a subject of discussion.
Meanwhile Rai continued his story from the witness stand. After Sanjeev came, Sheena then also arrived in an auto with Rahul (Peter's eldest son from his earlier marriage to Shabnam Singh) at National College.
"Rahul saw us. Sheena got off and came towards Madam," Rai said.
"Rahul went away. Sheena and Madam hugged."
"She gave the medicine mixed bottle to Sheena. She drank a little and then they went to buy saris.
Rai and Sanjeev remained in the car. They came back with a bag and both sat in the back, with Indrani behind Rai.
Indrani asked Rai to take the car towards Pali Hill and they stopped in a quiet lane near there.
By this time, Rai said, "I looked in the mirror. Sheena's eyes were closed. She was sitting quietly."
After the car stopped, Rai says, Sanjeev came into the back seat. That is when Indrani strangled Sheena with the help of Khanna and Rai.
Khanna held Sheena's hair. Indrani asked Rai to swivel in his driver's seat behind and cover Sheena's mouth. But she bit Rai and his right thumb began to bleed.
"I heard Sheena was suffocating. She was making kho kho sounds. Then there was silence. She became quiet."
After Sheena was dead, Rai was instructed to start up the car.
He dropped Sanjeev somewhere along the way somewhere.
"Sheena was lying across the back seat and Indrani Madam sat on top of Sheena's face and she told me 'Sheena ko 3 BHK flat mil gaya'.”
Hearing this, Indrani once again chuckled soundlessly in her spot at the back.
Even though Sheena was now dead, as per Rai, he continued to refer to her as Sheena and not as the body.
Indrani asked Rai to take her to the Taj, near Bandstand, Bandra, after pushing Sheena's body to the floor of the car.
She was at the Taj for a bit while Rai parked a little way off near a garden.
When she came back, she commented that Rahul was calling over and over again on Sheena's phone -- 'Bahut phone aa raha hai' were her words according to Rai.
They picked up Sanjeev near Marlow later that evening.
At Marlow, Rai parked the car in front of the garage. He brought one of the bags to Indrani from the "dicky" on her instructions and she asked him to put Sheena in it.
"Sheena ko bag mein bhar diya (we filled Sheena into the bag). Indrani Madam told me to put the bag in the garage. Me and Sanjeev Khanna carried it there."
Indrani apparently went upstairs to her home and Sanjeev wandered off somewhere.
Indrani called Rai on his mobile and asked him to bring some food, she had ordered, from a Chinese restaurant.
Later she asked him to pick up Sanjeev along the way too.
Rai and Sanjeev brought the food home and set it on the table.
Mekhail was in the house drinking "daru" from the bottles Rai had left on the table earlier that had medicine mixed in them.
Sanjeev went out to the terrace (it seems they lived in a terraced flat) and Indrani told Rai to also go out to the terrace.
When she came out to the terrace, she commented, "Mekhail can drink (huge quantities) and there is no effect. We will have to take care of him (dekh lenge) another time."
When Indrani heard Rai say this, she smiled broadly, her face creasing into a laugh.
Patil and Judge Jagdale quibbled on the English translation of "dekh lenge" -- is it see later or what?
"Sanjeev also commented it would be a problem to take two bodies to different places," Rai added.At which Sanjeev grinned from the accused enclosure too.
Thereafter, Rai said, Indrani suggested they retire early because they had an early morning ahead of them.
Rai went down to rest in the drivers' room at Marlow, but confessed he could not sleep and Sanjeev also left the building.
At 4 am on April 25 Indrani called him. By the time he got ready and came to the car, she and Sanjeev were standing outside the car.
They then loaded the suitcase containing Sheena's body on the rear seat behind the driver.
"Sanjeev Khanna and Indrani Madam took Sheena out of the bag and put her on the seat." He said the body had become stiff so she was sitting in a strange position.
They took off for Pen Road, Raigad.
Indrani asked him to turn off his mobile and to stop at a petrol pump along the way. At the pump Sanjeev went and filled about 10 litres of petrol.
While he was doing that "Indrani Madam put lipstick on Sheena's lips and arranged her hair."
Indrani then took out the three pairs of shoes and asked them all to wear them.
When they reached the earlier designated spot at Pen, Rai says he carried Sheena with her feet (the testimony is unclear here, perhaps he dragged her) to a spot in the jungle.
The petrol can was brought, as also the bag, the sari, the gloves and petrol poured all over it.
Indrani took out some matches "from the pocket of her pants" and lit the fire.
That done, they all piled back in the car. Indrani instructed Rai to drop them to Bandra and they would take an auto to the airport.
She told Rai to take the car home, to have it cleaned. She collected all the pairs of shoes from each of them and various other belongings and bags as well as Sheena's mobile and purse.
They reached Mehboob Studios in Bandra. Rai went and got three coffees for them from the coffee outlet next door.
"We drank it. Madam said don't tell anything about this to anyone, otherwise bahut bura hoga (it will be very bad)."
He did not clarify if that was a threat.
She and Sanjeev got off. Rai returned to Marlow and did as instructed by "Indrani Madam".
The spare suitcase Rai asked sweeper/peon Waghmare to take away and keep if he wanted it.
And then Rai went home.
As Rai's enormous testimony tapered to an end, Patil asked him to verify a few things.
Defence lawyer Pasbola then requested the judge that the next hearing be soon, so the train of thought remained intact.
Tuesday, August 1 was chosen.
By the time the proceedings wound up, it was late, past five.
Most legal business in the court complex was long over.
Indrani and Sanjeev soon departed, with Peter bringing up the rear.
Peter and Sanjeev's van was probably the last bus out of the court premises going jail-wards.
As a bunch of lawyers left the almost quiet court building, they laughed, "Sab murderers nikal chuke hai by now!"
EARLIER IN THE TRIAL