‘A man, probably a lawyer, in black trousers and a white shirt, next to me, was talking to a woman in white.’
‘My stock-taking stopped frozen in its tracks.’
‘I was sitting almost right next to Indrani Mukerjea.’
Rediff.com‘s Vaihayasi Pande Daniel spends a morning at the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
The first attempt by a court reporter greenhorn like me to attend Day One of the Indrani Mukerjea-Peter Mukerjea-Sanjeev Khanna trial for the murder of Indrani’s daughter Sheena Bora ended in embarrassing failure on Wednesday, February 1.
I couldn’t locate the trial room.
By the time, befuddled, I found the honorable Judge H S Mahajan’s mostly empty courtroom — just two clerks, one policeman along with his honour were inside, no sign of Peter or Indrani — it was well over one hour after the designated trial time.
I first awkwardly circled the corridor outside, wondering who to ask if I was in the right place and when the proceedings would begin; then spoke to the clerk in the honourable judge’s chamber who directed me to go into the courtroom and finally gingerly made my way into the courtroom, under the judge’s gaze.
The second clerk, I asked inside, exclaimed perplexed: “Woh toh ho gaya!? Next date: 4th.”
On Saturday, February 4, I was determined to be early and at the right place.
When I walked into Courtroom 51 on the third floor of the sessions court at Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai, half an hour before time, it was fairly full.
Legal interns, lawyers, reporters and others filled the benches.
I squeezed my way, as unobtrusively as possible, into a wooden bench at the back and settled down to wait patiently.
I took stock of the room, and then cast a glance to the right of me.
A man, probably a lawyer, in black trousers and a white shirt, next to me, was talking to a woman in white. My stock-taking stopped frozen in its tracks.
I was sitting almost right next to Indrani Mukerjea.
Accused Number 1 was ensconced between her lawyer and two policewomen. Behind her sat three policemen.
Dressed in a white kurta, edged with lace and a translucent white salwar, a black bindi, her grey-white hair, with its red-dyed ends, pulled back with a clip, she was busy writing a statement in a neat hand on plain, lined paper.
She looked slightly ethereal. Very thin, hunched. But her plain face — no makeup, black reading glasses — is of someone much younger and unlined. She occasionally smiled at her lawyer or a gentleman sitting behind.
A young man, his British accented girlfriend/wife, who I had seen that earlier day, came in and took the bench in front.
The clerk suddenly shouted, “Peter Mukerjea, call your advocate!”
I realised Peter too was sitting to the right of me, separated by the policewomen from Indrani, his wife of 14 years.
Peter, looking trim and fairly natty, in khakis and a crisp white shirt and a charcoal tikka on his forehead, got up to confer with the clerk.
Both Peter and Indrani looked much younger than their actual ages. Perhaps, as odd as it might seem, being in jail means you end up losing weight and therefore seem young.
When Peter came back, he and the young man and foreign woman began to speak. They were, it turns out, elder son Rabin Mukerjea and his wife/GF, who are based in England.
An older woman entered, sat behind Peter and chatted with him over his shoulder. His sister Shagun.
Murmuring continued in the court room for a while. Lawyers scurried about. Someone asked for more time.
And then a little after 1 pm the judge strode out.
Everyone got up, and it was over.
From my ignorant eye, it seemed like it had not even begun.
Later I was told that yes, legal business had been conducted.
Bharat Badami, the Central Bureau of Investigation’s lawyer, put it to the judge that he did not want to release his list of witnesses, meant to be the order of business on Saturday, in case any attempt was made to tamper with them.
Nor did he want the witnesses’ names to appear in the media.
The judge retired to his chambers and a fresh date would be given.
Peter, who the media calls a media baron, walked out to sit in one section of the corridor outside the courtroom, as they waited for the date.
His sister took out a dabba of peeled pomegranate, from a House of Fraser plastic bag, which Peter began eating as he spoke to her, his son, d-i-l/gf, relative and lawyer.
Indrani retired to another corner, never exchanging a glance with Peter, her head bowed talking and conferring with her lawyer.
There was no family or friends near her.
His Honour’s lunch — dal, alu curry, rice in a steel thali — went by.
A chai boy in a maroon uniform handed out little plastic cups of chai to all.
I realised that Sanjeev Khanna, Accused No 2 and Indrani’s husband No 2, had to be somewhere. As well as the driver Shyamvar Rai.
The driver, I was told, because he had turned approver in the case, would be brought to court another day.
Khanna was standing outside with a chatty friend and a young man, presumably a relative.
Dressed in a green cotton shirt and black pants, thin, slightly hunch backed, unshaven, Khanna was not hard to miss.
Unlike the more perhaps self assured Peter, the Kolkata businessman does not have a presence and is a sort of self effacing, easy-going man it would seem.
He had with him two plastic bags — one with papers, another with toiletries, with a box of earbuds visible.
Snippets of conversation wafted in the air, some emanating from journalists, some emanating from others.
Someone said Peter is writing a book. And that several journalists are too.
Someone spoke about the value of infamy and how it should be used.
There was a reference to the Talwar trial.
In India the faces of the well-to-do always look faintly familiar. You actually don’t know them. But then you also do — everyone wears similar clothes, similar perfumes, speak in similar accents about similar things and have the same air of prosperity.
Twelve policemen, three women, as different from the well-heeled lot, as chalk and cheese, floated about. The posse of three or four policemen, one with handcuffs guarding Peter, seemed upset.
One spoke angrily in Marathi to a senior officer, gesturing at Peter. Peter had apparently complained about them earlier, saying the police guards didn’t cooperate.
The policemen, perhaps in retaliation, kept attempting to herd Peter and Sanjeev back to the prison bus more quickly than perhaps was customary.
But Peter kept resisting, saying he had to read and sign papers with his lawyer even as he continued to snack on the pomegranate.
Finally, Sanjeev was sent down. He hugged his friend/relative and shuffled off.
Peter followed about 40 minutes later. He kissed his family and headed back to the Arthur Road jail in central Mumbai.
Indrani was brought down last.
She too walked off to another bus, headed to the women’s prison in Byculla, central Mumbai, unhugged by family or friends.