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Sunday, February 16, 2020

Un-coupled: Indrani, Peter Mukerjea head for an unusual divorce

Three years after Indrani, Peter Mukerjea were held for murder, their unusual story is heading for an unusual divorce. A story of their lives in jail.

Written by Rashmi Rajput , Sadaf Modak | Updated: October 7, 2018 2:31:27 pm
Un-coupled: Indrani, Peter Mukerjea head for an unusual divorce Indrani, on discharge from hospital in April; Peter is finishing a book in jail, the family says it will be a “tell-all”. (Express file photo)

Sometime in the three-month period between her arrest in August and his in November 2015, Indrani Mukerjea had said that news that Peter might divorce her was “the biggest shock” of her life. But in January 2017, it was Indrani who announced she wanted a divorce and in April this year, sent Peter a legal notice. Yet, almost every time the 46-year-old appears in court, including at the family court in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex where they filed for divorce with mutual consent on September 18, it is sporting a bright red sindoor.

Three years after the high-profile media couple were arrested, on the charge of having colluded to kill Indrani’s daughter Sheena Bora, the start of the divorce proceedings is another chapter in their unusual relationship.

Mumbai prison officials say this could be the first time a couple are going through divorce when in custody. This means their lawyers had to negotiate terms and prepare documents for the mutual consent divorce in court, when the two appeared for the murder trial. Indrani and 62-year old Peter also communicated through post, between Byculla District Jail and Arthur Road Jail, where they are respectively lodged. Sources said discussions over the division of their properties took place in the police van taking them to court.

Despite the constraints, Indrani and Peter managed to put together the consent terms over five months. At one point, Indrani sought a passport size photograph of hers from Peter to annex it to the petition, hoping he would have access to one.

One item remains missing: Indrani and Peter’s original marriage certificate. In their divorce petition, the two say they are “unable to diligently look for the same, due to unavoidable circumstances”.

The court has scheduled the next hearing in the divorce case after six months (March 25) as per procedure, to give the two time for reconciliation. No one can predict what will happen, a source says. “Six months is a long time in a criminal trial. Many witnesses will depose. Many things may change.”

Even as many remain constant. Since the trial began, on February 23, 2017, in the Mumbai City Civil and District Sessions Court, Indrani, former spouse Sanjeev Khanna, and Peter have always sat together in the accused box.

While they also arrive in the same police van to court from their jails, the three enter the premises separately. Outside courtroom number 51, as they wait, Peter, always dressed in white, has many visitors — from ex-colleagues at Star India, where he was the CEO, to his sister and other relatives. Khanna sits on a bench usually with his nephew, who brings him books to read. Indrani sits on another side of the bench, awaiting her lawyers. Her sole visitor at times is an old-time employee of the Mukerjeas, himself a lawyer, who holds discussions regarding her properties. Indrani’s other family — her son and Sheena’s brother Mekhail — is a prosecution witness.

None of the visitors who comes to meet Peter exchanges any pleasantries with Indrani, despite their years together, including as co-founders of INX Media.

It is perhaps this that Indrani was referring to in December 2016, when she told the court that “90 per cent of women in prisons are deserted by their families”. She also said she wanted to publish a book of the Bhagawad Gita translations she had done and donate 50 per cent of its proceeds to women prisoners.

Yet, in court, Indrani, Peter and Khanna seem close to each other still, often discussing court proceedings.

A prominent lawyer points out why this is unusual. Speaking to The Sunday Express, he says, “Many lawyers advise clients co-accused of criminal conspiracy not to appear together, to ensure there is no guilt by association.”

But despite the divorce proceedings, despite separate defence lawyers, and despite the bitter falling-out following the discovery of Sheena’s murder, this does not seem to be the case among Indrani, Peter and Khanna. Often, say prison officials, the three share meals in the police van, brought either by Khanna’s or Peter’s relatives. In December 2016, when Indrani was informed in court of her father’s death, Peter rushed to her side.

Sources say even the mutual consent divorce is to ensure there is no washing of dirty linen in public that could hurt the trial.

Byculla jail authorities, however, attest to a more tumultuous side of Indrani. In June 2017, she had led a mini-mutiny following the death of co-inmate Manjula Shetye after she was allegedly beaten up by authorities over food quality; has claimed threats to her life following her testimony against former Union minister P Chidambaram’s son Karti, after which she was shifted to a high-security cell; and gone through a bout of mystery illness in April this year that prompted an inquiry led by the inspector general of police (Prisons).

On September 7, the court rejected Indrani’s bail appeal saying her claims of “threats” to her life were “over-exaggerated and unacceptable”. But last week, Indrani again sought bail, citing deterioration in her health condition, loss of 18 kg while in prison and her two visits to J J Hospital in three weeks. She said her medical reports show “probable onset of a major brain stroke anytime” and that she should be allowed to present her case to court in person. The court is yet to hear her plea.

Now extra staff guard her cell, even as prison officials claim that the hospitalisation in April could have been a case of drug overdose, with drugs slipped to her during court visits.

Another former jail official says Indrani may suffer from depression. “I have interacted with her. She has interest in crime novels, and when I saw Gone Girl, I was reminded of her.” The bestseller book, on which a film was made, features a woman and her elaborate revenge against her husband.

On the other hand, post the Shetye episode, Indrani’s popularity amongst inmates has soared. Some of them who are out on bail, including foreign nationals, had started dropping by to meet her during hearings. A stop was put on this after the April hospital scare.

Unlike Indrani, Peter interacts with only a few inmates. The last time he was in the news was when Ramdev visited the Arthur Road Jail in 2015, and he was in the front row following the yoga guru’s instructions.

Jail officials say Indrani and Peter spend their days readings and writing. While Indrani often writes to Vidhie, her daughter with Khanna whom Peter had adopted, Peter is finishing a book. It is likely to underline what Peter has maintained before courts: that Indrani was the dominant partner in their relationship.

Peter’s family, which continues to stand by him, too asserts the same. Sister Shangon Dasgupta, who regularly attends hearings and is the only relative of all accused willing to talk, says, “I have no doubt my brother is innocent. The only mistake he did was trust his wife.”

A family member says Peter has been keeping detailed notes of his jail days in a diary. With newspaper articles clipped on, the diary is voluminous. “He has already thought of two titles. It will be a tell-all,” says the source.

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