'I kept photographs of everyone. Because I was working for them.'
'Madam, Saab...' Shyamvar Rai, the approver in the case, said in a tone that tried to suggest that that would be a routine practice for a driver.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
Saturday, August 19, afternoon's proceedings in the Sheena Bora murder trial at the sessions court, south Mumbai, focused on an odd habit of Shyamvar Rai's.
His penchant for keeping with him the photographs of the people he worked for.
That Rai, the Mukerjeas' driver, Accused No 3 and now approver in the case, had a picture of Sheena Bora in his possession, had been established in his 2015 testimony to north west Mumbai's Khar police station, before he was finally booked.
The police had taken away his Aadhaar card, PAN card and a photograph of Sheena, when they searched his home at Mosambi Tabela, Vakola East, also north west Mumbai.
"Why did you have a picture of Sheena Bora (Indrani Mukerjea's daughter from her first marriage) with you?" questioned Sudeep Pasbola, Indrani's lawyer.
"Mein sabka photo rakhta tha. Unke liye kaam kar raha tha, is liya rakha (I kept photographs of everyone. Because I was working for them)," Rai replied.
"Madam, Saab, Vidhie..." Rai said in a tone that tried to suggest that that would be a routine practice for a driver.
"Whose photos did you have exactly?" queried Pasbola, attempting to draw out the absurdity of it.
"Madam, Saab, Mekhail, Rahul?" asked the lawyer as he went through all the names in the clan, in an exaggerated fashion, stopping short of adding Shabnam, Peter's first wife.
After that momentary lucidity, the driver retreated into his kingdom of vagueness, a place ruled stubbornly by a lapsed memory.
He said he did keep photos of people he worked for. But he could not recall whose photographs he kept.
Or how many and how long he had had them.
Or what photographs were in his home when the police searched it.
Or if he tore them up at any point.
"Mere paas kiske photo tha us samay yaad nahin... Pahile rakhta tha. Hogi ki nahin hogi, ki phaar diya, yaad nahin (I don't know whose photo I had at that time. I don't remember. I did keep them. If they were there or not or if they had been torn up, I don't remember)."
Pasbola rephrased his question and tried again. To no avail. He turned the question on its head, muttering and grumbling to himself, and posed it once more.
Nope, Rai could not be pinned down to any substantial answer.
The good news is that the driver, who is a native of a not-even-a-dot-on-the-map village in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh, has added an extra two words to his stunted witness box vocabulary, as he goes through the cross questioning with Pasbola.
Since Friday, in addition to "yaad nahin, maloom nahin, shayad (I don't remember, I don't know, maybe)," there is the shiny, brand new "dhyan nahin (I am not aware)" that has surfaced, that sometimes alternates with "dhyan mein nahin tha (I was not aware)," in Rai's responses to the lawyer's battery of thorny questions.
Being new to courts and Indian courtroom procedure, I asked another lawyer on the case, what he made of Rai's tendency to theatrically prevaricate and never answer a question in a to-the-point manner. Was this beating about the bush the refuge of all reluctant witnesses or accused-turned-approvers?
"No, no, he is not answering properly. He has been instructed to answer this way."
The lawyer went on to add that most other witnesses, even approvers, gave more straightforward answers, either yes or no, and did not get into this circuitous exercise of ducking questions by asking another question or launching into "I don't remember" at every turn.
Friday and Saturday were back-to-back sessions in court in the case. They were also the fourth and fifth day of cross questioning by Pasbola.
In five days it can be estimated that Pasbola has asked at least 250 questions of the driver, who, after leaving the Mukerjeas' employ in 2012, drove an autorickshaw and did temporary work.
It can also be approximated that the driver had replied to a mere quarter of them, or probably less -- in the range of 50 questions -- with any logical or noteworthy answer.
As queries were pitched at him fast and furious, Rai's dramatic technique of non-answers has not altered much over these five days, or endeared him to the defence lawyers, especially since drama is meant to be entirely their province, even if Indrani steals the show at times.
Rai's blah answers caused Pasbola's irritation with the driver to explode, at times, as it did on Saturday.
"He thinks for so long!" he pointed out to CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale, adding that Rai wastes court time and takes deliberately an aeon to answer a question with no answer at all.
Indeed, Rai's "yaad nahin" answers were invariably preceded with his now distinctive heavy philosophical thinking, ceiling gazing, looking off into the distance or out the window at the rain-clouded Elphinstone College, with a stumped look pasted on his face, that kept the courtroom on tenterhooks, and in pin drop silence.
Occasionally he looked at Pasbola, guardedly, only from the corner of his eye.
Or he took on Pasbola angrily and squarely stating that he just could not remember.
Apart from those reluctant, sometimes smouldering looks at Pasbola, Rai generally tends to evade looking at anyone else in the room except the judge.
Pasbola and CBI Counsels Kavita Patil and Bharat Badami quarreled over the Rai non-answer issue all the time.
Patil: "Let him answer!"
Badami: "He is answering."
Patil: "He has already answered!"
Badami: "Har cheez aap ke hisaab se hoga (everything should happen according to your whims)?!"
Pasbola: "Aap ke hisaab se hoga (according to your whims)?!"
These television soap variety exchanges always triggered the court policeman, sitting next me, at my perennial perch near almirah 19, at the very front, to chuckle. As do the most famous of Rai Hedge Moments.
There were, though, a few Rai answers that were met with a triumphant "Very good!" from Pasbola. They were moments when the lawyer was successful in prodding Rai down a cul de sac from which there was no escapes or U-turns.
Like the courtroom learned on Saturday that the parcel that had the gun in it, that Indrani gave him, had been in the car, on the day of Sheena's murder, in a pocket behind the driver's seat.
Questions then followed on when the package was taken out of the car eventually.
Rai stumbled over the date for a bit and then said April 25, 2012. Indrani and Sanjeev Khanna exchanged glances in the accused box at the back of Courtroom 51.
Both Friday and Saturday the advocate worked hard, bit by bit, to establish the loopholes in Rai's testimony by pointing out that what he said, on many an occasion, to the CBI was the exact opposite, or quite different, from what he told the Khar police or the magistrate when he decided to confess.
The loopholes established were mainly about that parcel with the gun in it, that had come into Rai's possession. And about his attempts to throw away that gun from that parcel.
The driver had told the court during his testimony on July 28 that Indrani had some time after the Sheena Bora murder, on a phone call, told Rai to get rid of the parcel. And when he finally opened it he was shocked find a gun in it.
But Rai told the police at the Khar police station, after his arrest, that Indrani had asked him to keep the parcel with the katta (country-made revolver) carefully and not tell anyone about it.
Pasbola then produced his statement made under No 161 (of Criminal Procedure Code), that had been eluding the court, since the last two proceedings, till Judge Jagdale passed an order to have it retrieved from Khar.
Rai looked at it. Waffled. "Bola hoga. Dhyan nahi hai (I may have said that. I am not aware)."
Pasbola: "Sahi bola ki jhoot bola (did you say the truth or a lie)? Is there anything there that says to throw it?" as Rai kept looking at the statement.
At that CBI Counsel Patil raised an objection about what Pasbola was getting Rai to do.
The judge turned to her and said equitably, "Madam, you also know the fact... Let's not waste time.
There was a difference too between the statement to the Khar police station and to the CBI, and what Rai said to the court, about where he kept the gun parcel.
He first said he had kept it behind a cupboard in the garage at Marlow, the Worli, south Mumbai, address at which the Mukerjeas lived.
Later he changed it to a drawer in the Marlow garage. When faced with this flip flop, Rai again proffered: "Shayad bataya hoga (I may have said it)."
Pasbola repeated: "Shayad bataya hoga?!! Aise nahin hua toh kyo bataya (I may have said it! If it didn't happen why did you say it)?"
Rai: "Rakha hoga yaad nahin (may have kept it. I don't remember)"
Pasbola: "Rakha hoga yaad nahin (may have kept it. I don't remember)?! Why didn't you tell the Khar police station?"
Rai: "Bataya ki nahin bataya yaad nahin (if I told them or did not tell them I don't remember)."
A similar disparity about his attempts to dispose of the gun arose.
According to Rai he had made three attempts to dispose of the gun.
But during cross questioning a few days ago it emerged, rather strangely, that the other two earlier attempts occurred only in his mind and not in real.
Saturday he was back again to suggesting that he couldn't remember how and when the previous two attempts took place.
Maybe he had left the house with the intent to dispose of the gun on those previous two times and he returned or something like that.
Rai kept dumping the issue in some vague zone.
But in his statement to the Khar police station he clearly said he had made two more attempts to rid himself of the gun.
Pasbola: "Barabar likha hai (Is it correct, showing him the 161 again)?"
Rai lamely: "Likha hai barabar. Yaad nahin. Bola hoga police ko yaad nahin (Yes, it is written there. I don't remember. I may have told the police. I don't remember)."
Pasbola also asked that after the alleged murder, when the package, with the gun in it, came into his hands, why didn't he have the curiosity to open it given that he had just allegedly participated in a murder?
Why did he only decide to open it after leaving the employment of the Mukerjeas and taking that package home?
Didn't he think there might be something fishy in that parcel?
Rai shrugged and said he had not thought about it.
Pasbola also attempted to use Rai's innumerable yaad nahins to his advantage.
There were occasional high points on Friday and Saturday when Pasbola succeeded in showing Rai up as ludicrous for being a man with holes in his memory as large as Chhindwara.
Rai apparently had two different cell numbers at different times. But he did not remember on which phone Indrani might have called him from London. Or if he called her.
When asked if there could have been yet a third number he didn't entirely accept or deny it.
Pasbola: "So how many phone numbers did you have? Three, four, five, six? Ten?"
Rai: "I don't know how many numbers I had."
Pasbola, announcing to the whole room, looking around too: "I don't know how many phone numbers I had?! Theek hai, jaane do (fine, let it be)."
In the accused box Peter Mukerjea, Indrani and Sanjeev observed the cross questioning closely, taking notes as they habitually do.
Indrani, was her usual perky self, livelily telegraphing her reactions on Rai's answers from the back to the room at large, or to Sanjeev, via smiles, laughs, whispers and exaggerated expressions, her always eloquent eyes alert.
She has a dazzling smile.
Sanjeev, unshaven -- in his standard bemused, slightly off, bystander mode -- always looks the stranger at his own trial, as if you might need to jostle him with your elbow to remind him: Look, aren't you Accused No 2?
His is a gentle, polite face; his voice is soft too.
Peter was sick, complaining of chest congestion, temperature, and was on a course of antibiotics.
He took Judge Jagdale's permission to get blood tests and an X-ray done after court.
Looking quite miserable and woebegone, he buried his head in his arms on the railing, resting. Sometimes with his eyes closed.
Before the start of proceedings Peter had sat outside with his sister Shangon Das Gupta and another young male relative.
CBI Counsel Bharat Badami passed by and then reversed, going up to Peter with a grin to suggest that he should not want to sit on a bench in front of the CCTV.
Peter and family hastily swapped benches moving out of camera's eye.
In the hallways Indrani started up a little tamasha too on Saturday.
She stood up, from eating her vada sambar from the court canteen, and announced urgently, to all present, that the CBI public prosecutor was talking to the approver -- Badami to Rai.
"Write it. Write it!" she urged the media.
Her police escorts smiled, amused. Apparently being on special duty for Indrani is always a learning experience.
A very young policeman, agitated that no one was listening, was instructed by two senior colleagues to learn to go easy, and that unlike other prisoners, one had to be a little soft with this group.
Proceedings ended on Saturday on that issue of Sheena's photograph.
After it was established that Rai could no longer recall, from the inscrutable recesses of his mind, whose photos he once owned of the Mukerjea family, Pasbola asked him to tell him more about the Sheena picture he once had.
Who else was in the picture?
Was it just of Sheena?
Or were there others in the picture?
Who were the others?
Rai again attempted to block off all avenues of questioning, with neither-here-nor-there replies.
Pasbola: "Us photo mein kitne log the (how many people were there in that photograph)?"
Rai: "Kitne log (How many people)?"
Pasbola, loudly: "Haji"
Rai: "Single ho sakta hai. Dhyan nahin (maybe just one. I am not aware)."
Pasbola: "Could there have been four people?"
Rai: "Single ho sakta hai, aur log ho sakta hai, yaad nahin (maybe just one, maybe more people, I don't remember)."
Yet another road block that frustrated Pasbola and riled the CBI counsel.
Pasbola explained his line of argument to the judge. He said the photograph of Sheena Bora would be shown to Rai.
But since they didn't have time to open up the package and take out this trial exhibit on Saturday, he was attempting to pin down what Rai remembered of the picture, before he confronted Rai with the photo next time.
The photo was in a fat brown package, wrapped in tape sitting on the table of the legal clerks.
It will be the centre of attention, no doubt, of proceedings on the afternoon of August 21.
We might also learn why Shyamvar Rai had a picture of Sheena Bora in his home.
EARLIER IN THE TRIAL
- Pirates hijack the Sheena Bora murder trial
- Where did the statement vanish?!
- Sheena Bora murder trial hits a memory block
- 'The Suitcase' appears in the Sheena murder trial
- 'Then Sheena went silent...'
- Indrani's sharp eyes roamed the court...
- Peter spoke to Indrani for the first time since the trial began
- 'Is that a terrorist or is that Indrani?'
- Seasons change, but nothing really moves in the Sheena Bora trial
- And so the Sheena Bora murder trial gets a new twist
- How did Indrani get the hair dye?
- Indrani's charm has not deserted her
- Indrani Mukerjea sat there, alone...
- And Peter Mukerjea went hungry...
- Indrani, Peter, Sanjeev: A morning at the Sheena Bora trial