On a rainy afternoon in Mumbai in August 2007, with the half-constructed Bandra-Worli Sea Link looming in the distance, an unsuspecting new colleague was ushered for an audience with Indrani Mukerjea in an office that served as the temporary headquarters of her soon-to-be-launched television empire. Without greeting or preamble, Indrani,On a rainy afternoon in Mumbai in August 2007, with the half-constructed Bandra-Worli Sea Link looming in the distance, an unsuspecting new colleague was ushered for an audience with Indrani Mukerjea in an office that served as the temporary headquarters of her soon-to-be-launched television empire. Without greeting or preamble, Indrani smiled at her new colleague and said: “Imagine there is a meadow with a hundred sheep on it. Now imagine that 99 of those sheep are looking in one direction, and one sheep is looking in another. Do you know who that one sheep is?” The bemused new colleague professed that he didn’t. “That sheep,” declared Indrani, “is INX!”This was Indrani Mukerjea, then 39 years old, in her avatar as a wannabe media baroness who, she imagined, would one day be as powerful as Rupert Murdoch. Until then, she had already been through several transformative makeovers in various phases of her eventful life. She’d played the role of a pampered child growing up in a middle-class Guwahati locality. Of a girl who left home early and dashed into an all-too-hasty relationship. Of a woman who fled that relationship, after bearing two children, to embrace the glitz and glamour of Kolkata’s famous club scene with a new husband. Of a suave, polished woman making another fresh start to run a successful headhunting firm in Mumbai. And eventually, as Peter Mukerjea’s wife, of the first lady of Indian television who was still seeking her own individual space. Indrani’s life was indeed an epic saga-part-Margaret Mitchell, part-John Steinbeck, part-Danielle Steel, until a grisly murder has now given it a macabre, sui generis Roald Dahl twist. Told like a grubby Madhur Bhandarkar potboiler.advertisementIndrani today stands accused of brutally killing her daughter, Sheena Bora, whom she had passed off to Mumbai’s high society as her half-sister. She allegedly committed the crime in collusion with her estranged ex-husband Sanjeev Khanna, a member of Kolkata’s swish set, and her driver Shyam Rai, who later bragged about the crime to a friend in a Mumbai bar. The three had allegedly abducted Sheena on April 24, 2012, strangled later, and then burnt and dumped her body. Indrani’s arrest this August 25 and details of her hitherto-unexplored life have set into motion a series of revelations about her past that have both intrigued and disturbed India. Indrani, her face covered with a black cloth as she is ushered to court by policemen amidst a frenzy of TV journalists, now finds herself in the discomfiting glare of a nation that is unable to look away. She is a figure of universal derision-a bit like Walter Palmer, the dentist from Minnesota who has been accused of beheading Celil the lion in a Zimbabwe forest reserve in July, and a bit like the scheming, despised vamp from the family soap operas she once commissioned as the programming head of general entertainment channel 9X.But even as the police close in on preparing a chargesheet, led by Mumbai Police’s media-savvy Commissioner Rakesh Maria himself, it’s been hard to distinguish fact from fiction in Indrani’s carefully constructed, but brittle life story that has now been shattered into a million pieces.The police and media circus is still throwing up more questions than it is answering. The motive, the modus operandi, the sudden reconciliation of Indrani and Khanna, are all unclear. Is this a debauched family squabble? Is it all about money, as top investigators have suggested to India Today? Why did Sheena have to lose her life? And, perhaps the most unsettling question of all, did a mother really sever the most umbilical of bonds to murder her daughter in cold blood? To comprehend this most sordid of modern-day fables, one must first attempt to decipher who Indrani really is by charting the astonishing journey that she has traversed. Growing Pains | Indrani Bora | Guwahati (1968-1990)Indrani Mukerjea. Facebook imageIndrani’s story begins in 1968 in a dusty colony in Guwahati. Sundarpur, literally “a place of beauty”, wasn’t always the posh locality it is today. Once in the news for flash floods and roads with potholes the size of bathtubs, the area has recently gone through a ‘gentrification’, as if in anticipation of the national attention it was about to receive.Its concrete roads are now smooth, and most houses boast of unusually large compounds, with lush gardens and fleets of cars parked in driveways. Here, House No. 8 always stood out-not for its size, its design, or the cars parked outside, but for its heavily padlocked windows and for a distinctive spiral staircase that led directly to one of the bedrooms on the first floor. This is the house where Indrani Bora, known back then by her “ghoruwa naam” (nickname) Pori, lived with her parents, Upendra Kumar Bora and Durga Rani Bora. Six hefty young men, all regulars at a local gym, guard the house round-the-clock these days-to keep prying reporters and inquisitive onlookers at an arm’s length. It is said that Durga Rani is not keeping well, and must not be aggravated further.advertisementWith the Boras out of commission, people in their locality are having a field day offering different versions and myriad impressions of the family to anyone armed with a TV camera, or even a notebook. Neighbours today describe them as “reserved” and “reluctant to mingle with others”. According to Jibon Bordoloi, who lives down the road, they would rarely attend weddings or any other ceremonies in the locality. But no one seems to know for sure what Upendra Bora did for a living. His brother Manik, who lives a four-hour drive away in Tezpur, Assam’s cultural capital, says Upendra was a contractor. “He also rented out some of his properties,” Manik tells India Today, adding that Upendra still earns “about Rs 27,500” as monthly rent, which, he stresses, is a fair amount given the going rate for rentals in the city. Part of the ground floor is leased to a private firm while two families and some working men stay in what were once the Boras’ servants’ quarters.A 31-year-old man, who asks not to be named, claims that Upendra once worked as a manager in his father’s paint factory, but was sacked because of a dispute over money. People also remember that the Boras once ran a guesthouse in Guwahati called Chanakya Inn, which, according to a local newspaper, was raided by the Dispur police in 2000 over allegations that rooms were being rented out on an hourly basis for sleazy liaisons. When India Today checked records in Dispur police station, however, no such case was found to be registered. Another example of wild, unsubstantiated rumours flying thick and fast, as neighbours, colleagues, even relatives, stretch the limits of reality to align their versions of Indrani with the demonised figure they now see on TV.By all accounts, the Boras led a comfortable middle-class life. Manik claims his brother is close to 90, but electoral records suggest that Upendra is now 78 and his wife Durga Rani 73. The Boras sent their only daughter, Indrani, to St Mary’s, Guwahati, one of the most prestigious girls’ schools in the state. One neighbour suggests that Indrani had eloped with a man from Nepal when she was in the ninth standard, and was rusticated from school. The school records, however, tell a different story. Indrani was, in fact, a bright student, scoring over 80 per cent when she cleared her Class X board examination in 1983. Her classmates remember her as a “brat” who always managed to do well in studies.After Class X, Indrani joined Guwahati’s Cotton College, alma mater of the who’s who in Assam, including musician Bhupen Hazarika and former chief minister Sarat Chandra Sinha. It was at Cotton College that Indrani, still in her teens, met Bishnu Chaudhury, a law student who was the son of a well-known Guwahati-based doctor, B.L. Chaudhury. There are some suggestions from former classmates that the two were married briefly, but Chaudhury says that though they were in a relationship, they never tied the knot.advertisementIndrani moved to Shillong’s Lady Keane College midway through her intermediate studies and finished her Class XII board examinations in 1985. Here, she would often frequent a popular restaurant, Chirag, where she met Siddhartha Das, then a dashing young man who used work in a private firm. A far cry from the Das who was seen on TV on September 1, face covered with a handkerchief, offering details of their time together. It appears that Siddhartha’s wife, Babli, had no idea about his links with Indrani until the media came knocking. By 1986, Indrani had told her family that Siddhartha was her husband, and had brought him to live in Sundarpur with her parents. This month, almost three decades later, Siddhartha has said that they were not married then.Indrani’s father tried to help Siddhartha settle down by opening a restaurant for him in Ganeshguri, but the venture never really took off. A jobless partner was not Indrani’s idea of marital life. The responsibility of two children-Sheena, born in 1987, and Mikhail, born in 1988-added to the tension between the two. So in June 1990, Indrani moved to Kolkata, saying she wanted to complete her education. Within three days, Siddhartha was evicted from her Guwahati home.In 1992, when Sheena was to be admitted to school, the Boras decided that her grandparents would be the legal guardians of the two children. The following year, Indrani submitted an affidavit in the Kamrup judicial magistrate’s court handing over custody of the two children to her mother. But the birth years of both children were changed. In the affidavit, Indrani claims she lost touch with Siddhartha in 1989 and Mikhail was born in 1990. With Siddhartha out of the picture and Indrani in Kolkata, the Boras raised Sheena and Mikhail as their own.Sheena was enrolled in Disneyland School, now renamed Sudarshan Public School, in Guwahati’s Khanapara locality. Quiet and unassuming, she finished Class X with over 80 per cent marks, and her Class XII board from Faculty Higher Secondary School as a humanities student. Mikhail, not quite as smart in classwork, dropped out of Disneyland in the ninth standard, and finished his Class X boards as a private student. The Boras’ main source of income at this time was their guesthouse Chanakya Inn. When it finally went under in 2000, they began struggling to make ends meet. Over this period, Upendra, Durga Rani, and their two adopted children seemingly lost all touch with Indrani- at least for now. The Transformation | Indrani Khanna | Kolkata (1990-2001)It was in Kolkata, as a young woman free of family encumbrances, that Indrani first reinvented herself. A sprightly 22-year-old, who first rolled into town as Indrani Das, she is remembered by partyphiles as a charming roisterer, and by corporate bigwigs as the exotic Assam beauty who knocked on every corporate door, always draped in chiffon saris-black, red or yellow-in search of business for her small-time HR consultancy, INX Services.It hadn’t taken too long for Indrani to don her new air-kissing avatar. Although she lived in a modest PG accommodation after arriving in the city, she got access to the upmarket neighbourhood of Hastings in Alipore after a brief romance and swift wedding with Khanna in 1993. The Kolkata clubland believes that Khanna, a regular on the manicured grounds of the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club (CCFC)-India’s oldest sporting club and one of Indrani’s favourite playing fields in the city for 10 years-played Pygmalion to her. “He was a jovial fellow, friendly, spoke to seniors with respect, came from a good background and a good school,” says a CCFC committee member. “Although he was not into the key activities of the club, say, hockey, football, cricket or rugby, he was a motor rally enthusiast. And he knew a lot of people.” On the flip side, he loved his drink, sometimes got into brawls, got suspended from the club for a while, and defaulted on payments time and again. He suffered from a “damsel-in-distress syndrome”, say his friends, and was besotted by Indrani. Their daughter, Vidhie, was born in 1997.An HR consultant, who used to work with leading recruitment agency ABC Consultants, remembers Indrani as someone who often approached them for placement services with INX, which she set up around 1996. “Her office was somewhere near Park Street Post Office and she would walk over to our office regularly,” she says. “She was trying to cater to restaurants, small hotels and events outfits, basically placing girls fresh out of college.” Over the years, her network started to grow.But it was possibly T.P. Roy, Ronnie to his friends, former owner of tea plantations in the Dooars, north Bengal, who gave Indrani access to the dyed-in-the-tweed upper crust of Kolkata. Roy was an active member of clubs across the city, until he was struck by paralysis a few years ago-members of Tolly Club still remember the garrulous old man nursing his drinks, with a nurse in tow. Roy belonged to one of those old money families that have historically exuded a larger-than-life image in the city: for the early fortunes their ancestors made, for their love of art, and for the privileges they have always enjoyed. “They don’t have that sort of money anymore,” says someone who knew Roy and his family. “But doors open for them socially. Indrani was close to him and, through him, got access to those exclusive echelons of an ultra-snob society that wouldn’t have opened for her otherwise,” says a veteran club man.”She was never a kitty-party person,” says another HR consultant. “Her favourite hunting ground was corporate offices, the CCFC, the gatherings of rich Marwari girls, mostly old students of schools such as Queen of the Missions and Calcutta Girls, and the IAS wives’ circuits.” It probably helped Indrani climb the ladder through the changing profile of the city. As expat British chef and restaurant consultant, Shaun Kenworthy, says: “Kolkata is all about history and heritage. But now a whole lot of cool, smart Marwaris are giving the city a new sort of buzz. And that’s the game changer for the city.” Kenworthy, who joined the Park Hotel as executive chef 14 years ago, has unveiled the swanky 1658 Bar and Kitchen recently. He had never met Indrani but thought of Khanna, who helped launch 1658, as “a genuinely nice bloke”.Indrani in Kolkata is a kaleidoscope of impressions, and a litany of contradictions: from sweet to manipulating, polite to aggressive, vivacious to vengeful. According to a senior HR executive, she was “mindlessly ambitious”. Yet others “never sensed anything like that in her”.Indrani and Khanna slowly drifted, and then fell apart. Soon, she was gone. The last Kolkata remembers of her is a phone call that everyone who was anyone had received from Mumbai in 2002. “You know what? I was Indrani Das. I was Indrani Khanna. And now I’m going to be Indrani Mukerjea. And Peter has bought me this amazing red Mercedes!” The small-town girl from Assam had won by hard conquest the right to reinvention: from the abyss of being nobody to the pinnacle of being somebody.Juicy gossip rippled through the CCFC. In between drinks and laughter, people huddled discreetly in corridors and walked to balconies to chat: “She did what?” Just one solitary figure in the main bar, drowning dangerous amounts of Jack Daniel’s and throwing darts at a board, seemed oblivious to it all: “Poor Sanju,” they all said. The First Lady | Indrani Mukerjea | Mumbai (2001-2012)Former Star India CEO Peter Mukerjea with his wife IndraniIndrani’s move to Mumbai was fortuitous. Advertising and theatre maven Alyque Padamsee would frequent Kolkata to meet with clients, says wife Sharon Prabhakar, and he often encountered Indrani there. She was a party-perennial who had bagged a staffing contract with Reliance through her HR company. She was going through a troubled marriage and had dreams of making it big.Padamsee says he nudged the petite, polite, put-together professional to move to Mumbai. When she did, in 2001, he became her step up to the social circuit. Most advertising professionals today recall first meeting Indrani with Padamsee, then quite at the peak of his branding career. He presented her as his chic ‘plus-one’ at a party hosted by Suhel Seth at The Library Bar of the Taj President in 2002, and Star TV CEO Peter Mukerjea, there with a girlfriend, was interested enough to drop her home.On day two, she walked into Peter’s office to ask for a recruitment assignment. By day three, they were dating. And by day four, Peter had fallen for her signature North-eastern mutton curry. With Peter firmly by her side, Indrani set her focus on the media and began to acquire big clients-the Times Group, HT Media, Percept Picture Company, BIG FM, WorldSpace Satellite Radio and FedEx, to name just a few. A month into their romance, she had moved in with Peter. Three months later, they were married at their marble-floored Pochkhanwala Road home, with singer couple Sonali and Roop Kumar Rathod for neighbours.The newlyweds soon came to be known as one of those “get-a-room” couples who couldn’t stay away from each other. At a dinner hosted at socialite Farzana Contractor’s Malabar Hill home in 2002, a few weeks into the young flush of their love, Indrani and Peter famously interlocked their hands under the table and, unwilling to be parted, ate dinner-one with the right hand, the other with the left. Friends laughed at Peter’s newfound adolescence. But the story goes that Indrani managed to offend actor Simi Garewal at a party with a few ill-timed remarks early into her Mumbai initiation. Another friend, who once saw her correcting a CEO on how to hold his wine glass, said she soon earned many “polite enemies”.It was in Mumbai that the fantasist in Indrani first began to take flight. She constructed a whole new back story for herself-as corroborated by senior journalist Vir Sanghvi, with whom she worked during the planning of INX Media’s NewsX channel. Indrani told her newly acquired friends that her father had died when she was a child, and that her mother had married the father’s brother. According to Indrani, her stepfather had molested her, and she’d fled to Kolkata at a young age. She also claimed that her ex-husband Sanjeev was “vile” and “abusive”, and that she had left for Mumbai with their daughter Vidhie, who was later adopted by Peter.Home after home in Bombay’s high society opened their doors to the Mukerjeas, more out of a connect with Peter than his wife, whom they didn’t really know, and who, as TV executive Ravina Raj Kohli says, “was often discussed behind champagne glasses”. Indrani was too clearly receiving a step-up to be fully accepted. “She was too nice,” says one industry magnate’s wife, “so nice that you couldn’t believe it after a while. She would look into your eyes too much when she spoke, and flutter her eyelashes, and call you ‘babe’. Nobody is that nice.” As socialite and former Miss India Queenie Singh puts it: “She was never a part of Bombay society. She was too much of an outsider. Bombay society would not accept her, so she was creating a society that was clearly all in her head.”But a lot of these comments, including the accusation of “crazy eyes” that most of high society today avers they once saw in Indrani, spring from wanting to dissociate with someone accused of murder. By all accounts, Indrani and Peter were a unit and she made herself a roaring success in the city-he played golf and tinkered with cars, she placed top CEOs and cooked her famous mutton curry. “Mumbai society lies prostrate before success. In front of success, all is forgiven,” says former Times Group CEO Pradeep Guha, the inventor of Page 3. “And like it or not, she was successful.”In 2002, when news of Indrani’s providential new marriage filtered to Guwahati, her parents wrote to her, for the first time in almost a decade. They said they were struggling financially, and could not take care of the children any longer. They urged Indrani to do right by them and send home a stipend. Indrani, although incensed by a letter that may have exposed her past to Peter, agreed to help.Neighbours in Assam say the Bora house was transformed overnight. Interior decorators were summoned, and two new cars were bought. Indrani went to Guwahati in 2006 and brought Sheena to Mumbai, as her half-sister. The Mukerjeas enrolled her at St Xavier’s College, and Sheena, who got along famously with Vidhie, was often seen with them at social gatherings. Mikhail was moved to Pune to further his education. Peter’s son, Rahul, from his previous marriage with Shabnam Anand, never warmed up to Indrani but grew fond of Sheena almost immediately. The two even began dating later-an awkward link that led to much disharmony in the Mukerjea household.It was in the middle of this complicated family dynamic that Peter and Indrani decided to launch INX Media in 2007, with Sanghvi as the credible face of NewsX, and Indrani taking over as programming head of 9X after the first incumbent, Dilip Ghosh, was removed months before launch.Peter, known for transforming Indian television with shows such as Kaun Banega Crorepati, and mentoring a host of future channel heads, had been sidelined in 2006 after Star had been overtaken by Zee after six solid years. He had quit soon after.The investors of his new venture INX, insiders say, were a curious mix. There was investment from some subsidiary companies owned by a top industrial house; from the Singapore-based Temasek Holdings; from New Silk Route, an entity that involved Rajat Gupta, the US-based businessman who was later convicted for insider trading; from another group called New Vernon Private Equity; and from Kotak Mahindra Capital.Not long after the launch of 9X and music channel 9XM, however, it became clear that the network was not going to be the money spinner everyone thought it would be. That was a peculiar time in India’s TV industry, not too dissimilar to the dotcom boom of the early 2000s. Sameer Nair, Peter’s longtime colleague, had left Star to launch NDTV Imagine, and Viacom18 was investing heavily in their new venture Colors. All these networks were hoping to garner huge advertising revenues and high valuations. But the market was more saturated than they imagined, and of the three, only Colors eventually survived.With 9X’s ratings plummeting and NewsX still far from launch after a dispute over its distribution budgets, allegations of misappropriation of funds through inflated billing and hawala transactions began to surface. An inquiry was ordered by the government in 2008, but never really took off. To put the numbers into perspective, insiders say that 9X had an annual programming budget in the region of Rs 350 crore, a distribution budget of Rs 150 crore, and a marketing budget of Rs 100 crore. Another inquiry, conducted not long after the sale of INX Media to Indi Media in 2009, by the corporate affairs ministry’s Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO) in 2013, revealed that there had been a wrongful gain of Rs 168.5 crore in what was described as a “sham transaction” carried out at that time. Although there are allegations that a lot of that money went to Peter and Indrani, who have been described as the “Bunty aur Babli” or the “Bonnie and Clyde” of the TV industry, there is no direct evidence yet that the money trail ends at them. Nor is there proof yet that they diverted funds from these deals to offshore accounts.Once their connection with INX ended, the Mukerjeas retreated to the margins of Mumbai’s high society, before extricating themselves altogether for greener pastures. They moved to Bristol, where Vidhie was studying. Sheena, meanwhile, joined Mumbai Metro One, a unit of Reliance ADAG, in 2011-a year before she would allegedly be killed. The Accused | The ‘perfect murder’Indrani’s still-rosy story took a dark turn earlier this year, when the Mumbai Police received an anonymous call from a yet-to-be-identified source in Meerut that Sheena, who Indrani insisted had moved to the United States, was missing for more than three years. It was a tip-off that caught Maria’s attention, and the subsequent arrest of Indrani’s driver Shyam Rai, allegedly in an arms case on August 21, opened a Pandora’s box that led to Indrani’s arrest, and later that of her ex-husband Khanna, who had allegedly waltzed back into her life, out of the blue, for one morbid Last Tango.The case has been taking a puzzling new turn every day. But apart from questions such as who is whose daughter, and who is seeing whom-which have added to the media frenzy surrounding the story-there are serious gaps still to be filled about more crucial issues, such as the motive, the modus operandi, and even the murder itself.The case for the prosecution will now depend on the rigour of police’s forensic evidence, and a lot hinges on the DNA test report of the body that was exhumed in Raigad. For, as things stand, even the identity of the victim has not been proved. Given that Indrani’s key defence is to maintain unflinchingly, even when confronted with Khanna and Rai, that Sheena is alive in the US, establishing the death will be a crucial first step. The DNA report will also determine if Indrani is indeed Sheena’s mother. And it may, depending on the post-mortem and how clear the DNA evidence is after more than three years of decomposition, even reveal the manner of death.The second key evidence will be the computer from which Sheena’s fake resignation letter was allegedly sent after she had been killed, and Sheena’s cell phone from which 11 text messages were sent to Rahul, asking him not to seek her out. Call records that place Khanna and Indrani in conversation 11 times on the day before the alleged murder, and the cell tower data that places them in Raigad after Sheena was killed, are also crucial to the prosecution. And so is Sheena’s passport, recovered from Rahul’s house in Dehradun, that militates against the theory of her living abroad.The third element will be witness testimonies. Key witnesses include Rahul, who attempted to file a missing person’s report at Khar police station; the driver, who is expected to turn approver; Peter, who will need to prove his ignorance of the alleged plot to kill Sheena; and Mikhail, who claims there was a plot being hatched to kill him as well. The police have been filling the gaps with testimonies from anyone or anything that can corroborate their circumstantial evidence. From shop attendants who sold the props used in the murder, the doctor who conducted the post-mortem, CCTV footage from Hotel Hiltop in Worli that would allegedly show Indrani and Khanna working in collusion, and the policemen who did not register an FIR when the unclaimed body was first discovered in Raigad in 2012.Police recover a suitcase from Peter and Indrani Mukerjea’s Mumbai residence. Photo: PTIWhichever way the case unfolds, police sources say that Indrani is an accused like only a few others. Held in the Santacruz police station lock-up for women, there is a steely, look-you-in-the-eye confidence about her. Not for one minute since the police began their interrogation has her gaze faltered. She is stiff and unyielding, strong, and insistent that she will only speak with her lawyers present. She had stuck to the story that Sheena was her sister until the police confronted her with Khanna. It was only then, say those who were in the room with her, did they see her falter, only to compose herself in the blink of an eye.”She assumed that she had committed the perfect crime, except in our line of work, we know there is no such thing,” thunders a top investigating officer working on the case. Another highly placed police source, says, searching for a motive, “It can only be money.” How much? “Enough to make those who participated willing to kill for it, that’s how much!”Peter Mukerjea, Indrani MukerjeaBut the gulf between fact, fiction and theory is yet to the bridged, even as the police and sections of the media seem to have entered an odd race with each other to propound hypotheses and find witnesses. It was the press, for example, that found Mikhail in Guwahati and Siddhartha Das in Kolkata before the police could trace them. And it’s the police that are playing to the galleries by parading the accused from police station to police station, in full public view of the cameras, almost on a daily basis, to conduct their interrogations at Khar. In the middle of this all, Rakesh Maria dramatically arrives from the police headquarters in Crawford Market in a white SUV, getting off in the middle of the information-starved press corps, before wading his way into the police station.At the heart of this grand tamasha, being played out almost in slow motion, Indrani sits on the precipice, a sword hanging over the head. In the end, is this Indrani as Medea, who resolved to kill her own children? Or Indrani as Icarus, who flew too close to the sun? Or, as modern-day fables go, does the Indrani story hold the mirror to an ambitious nation longing for success about the dark alleys that could follow the unbridled thirst for pelf and power? Hark back to the Indrani who wanted to be the one sheep that looked the other way. Was she always a wolf in lamb’s clothing?