Two years ago, the brutal murder of young TV producer Neeraj Grover sent shockwaves through Mumbai. More extraordinary were the accused: a handsome young naval officer, Emile, and his attractive actress, Maria. Meenal Baghel, editor of Mumbai Mirror, has been following the trial for her book- Death in Mumbai. As the verdict is delivered we present an extract…
Maria’s tiny flat was full. Apart from her, Raorane counted her mother, an aunt, Veronica and Richard. The actress had summoned her family as soon as Emile left forCochinon May 8, telling them the police was harassing her because her friend Neeraj had gone missing. Though, until then, the Malad police had only recorded her and Emile’s statements just as they had the statements of the rest of Neeraj’s friends. Perhaps the idea of going back alone to the flat where Neeraj had lain dead less than twenty-four hours ago was unpalatable to her.
Raorane, his keen eyes missing nothing, played the mild-mannered cop. ‘We were in the flat for about twenty minutes, asking routine questions.’ But once the formalities were over, came pointed questions about the deep gashes on both her palms and the bruises that had so distracted Kiran earlier when she and Emile had gone to borrow his car.
Maria explained away the injuries to her hands saying they were sustained while using a grater to scrape vegetables. ‘I thought to myself, if this is what can happen cooking just one meal, how will this girl manage for the rest of her life?’
‘And these bruises?’ Ghoslakar chipped in. There wasn’t a hint of coyness in her response: ‘Those are love bites. My fiancé Emile was in town, and we got romantic…’
‘But you know,’ Raorane tells me rolling his eyes, ‘we are also married people hanh!’
Something was amiss — what exactly he couldn’t put a finger on — but he’d been reeled in, ‘hooked to the case.’
One by one, officers of unit IX began calling in Neeraj’s friends, Nishant, Deepak Kumar, Haresh, grilling them for hours, and also trying to get a sense of Neeraj’s personality. All their stories were of a piece. Police naik Nandkumar who was still hunting for Neeraj with Amarnath Grover told Raorane, ‘He doesn’t seem the kind of man who will just go missing. He likes his work, his girlfriends, family and friends. He is too much of this world.’
Nandkumar was sharp, patient and hard working, and usually his observations were germane. Raorane paid heed. ‘We were working by elimination. If Neeraj was not the sort to wander off then someone else had to be involved in the case. If so who, and why? I began to concentrate on that.’
Rakesh Maria’s instincts as usual proved razor sharp. When Neeraj’s friends, frustrated by the police’s inability to locate him, went to the crime branch boss to complain, he confidently pointed a finger at Maria Susairaj.‘You, madam, are my suspect number one.’
‘It set them a flutter,’ he recalled smiling at the memory. He repeated his claim a few days later when Maria, this time accompanied by Richard, met him again asking for permission to leave Mumbai for some days. ‘Our parents were anxious back home inMysore, and our grandfather was ailing,’ recalls Richard. ‘Give us time, we told him, and we’ll come back whenever you need us. But he just looked at us and said there was no way he could let us leave town as Moni was his prime suspect.’
‘How can you say that? What proof do you have against me?’ Maria remonstrated, but Rakesh Maria’s attention, like the others before him, was arrested by the darkening bruises and the gashes on her hands. ‘Get a medical done on that Susairaj girl,’ he called unit IX as soon as Maria and Richard walked out of his office. The medical reports indicated that the injuries came from a sharp object like a knife and not the abrasive surface of a vegetable grater.
Amarnath Grover meanwhile was becoming tired, anxious, suspicious, and very very afraid. It had been six days since his son Ginni had gone missing and the police had nothing to offer: no clue, no comfort. After some private sleuthing, he arrived at his own deductions. When inspector Ghosalkar, befriended during the long fruitless search across Mumbai, asked if he suspected anyone of wanting to hurt Neeraj, Amarnath Grover told him of his terrible suspicions about Nishant Lal.
Neeraj was a strapping fellow, and only Nishant Lal among his friends, was big enough to harm him physically, he said. Also, he was disturbed by the mumbo-jumbo that Nishant had told him the previous day about a tarot card reader whom he had consulted for Neeraj’s whereabouts.
‘The tarot card reader pulled out a death card and said that Neeraj was tied up somewhere and crying out for help,’ he had told Amarnath Grover. Then, seeing the old man overcome with emotion, Nishant had leaned forward and requested him to return toKanpur. ‘The police is doing everything they can and we’re here to keep a tab on them. Uncle, please go home and you can come back as soon as there is any information.’
‘I find his talk strange, ’ confided Amaranath Grover, reason clouded by his anxiety. ‘Neeraj is so popular with girls, perhaps Nishant is jealous of that.’
At Ghosalkar’s instruction he invited Nishant Lal to Neeraj’s flat at Seven Bungalows the next evening where, following a pre-arranged signal, a team of eight plainclothes policemen grabbed and bundled the young man into a waiting Bolero.
It was to be the only misstep in the entire investigation.
Amarnath Grover was woken up the next morning by a furious Deepak Kumar who accused him of causing harm to Nishant when all he had done was tried to be kind and helpful. The police had detained Nishant through the night, Amarnath Grover realised, with all its attendant implications. ‘I am sorry,’ he told Deepak. ‘But the police asked me for suspects, and I was forced to comply.’ Nishant himself never spoke of it again.
The morning after his visit to her flat, Raorane asked Maria to appear at the unit IX office at Bandra. It’s a smallish space with warren-like rooms tucked away behind the sprawling police station on a main thoroughfare, almost as an afterthought. Maria arrived at 10.30 am ‘like a star on a film set,’ recalls Raorane with minders, Richard and Veronica, in tow. She was directed to a hard wooden bench in the corridor outside and made to wait for the next four hours.
Interrogations are at their heart about power and the interplay between the interrogator and the interrogated. Physical intimidation is the standard tactic, and employed on poor, petty or hardened criminal though after the outcry raised by human rights organisations cops are more careful to camouflage their efforts. For instance, a suspect will be wrapped in cold towel before he’s caned so that there are no visible marks on his person. At other times just a few words delivered with the right amount of menace can suffice. There’s the story of a famous encounter cop with a dizzying body count against his name who just had to walk in, cock an eyebrow, and ask, ‘Cooper, ya ooper?’ for the other person to start blabbering. (Cooper is a hospital in suburban Mumbai).
But brute intimidation is also unsophisticated and has its limitations, forcing policemen like Rakesh Maria to evolve more refined methods. When he was probing the 1993 blasts Maria was known to offer suspects kilos of jalebi, but he’d stop his hospitality at that refusing them even a drop of water thereafter. Try eating even four or five jalebis without a sip of water to know what exquisite torture that is. ‘All this maar-dhaad is outdated,’ Raorane tells me. ‘You have to read the profile of the person you are questioning and raise yourself to that level.’
After making Maria wait, Raorane called her in with all the warmth of an apologetic host. She came across as composed, confident, willing to answer all questions. While Richard and Veronica waited outside, stressed about the elapsing hours, Maria and Raorane chatted away about her likes and dislikes, her life, her career, her ambitions. He found her rather well-read and she favoured, like Emile, books on Christianity, and also crime thrillers. He let her move around the room, answer phone calls. ‘Her body language suggested over confidence — she would stroll around the place as if she was in command. At no point did I believe what she said, but I never let it show. It wasn’t anything like an interrogation,’ says the investigator. Since he had no evidence against her they let her go home. This would become a pattern over the next eight days.
Simultaneously unit IX and Malad police began to verify the nature of Maria’s relationship with Neeraj, her past, as also her statements to the police. Choreographer Deepak Singh told them how she had come to stay at his house but spent all her nights with Neeraj, the coffee house nomads confirmed their public display of intimacy at the party at D’ultimate, and Neeraj’s roommate Haresh Sondarva told the police that Neeraj and Maria bunked together.
Her ex-boyfriends were scrutinised. Arpit was questioned, Raorane debated summoning the well-known actor she had known, and called Rakesh Maria for advice. ‘Does he have a direct bearing with Neeraj Grover’s disappearance?’ Maria asked.
‘At this point I am not sure, sir.’
‘In that case, let it be. The media will needlessly get something to chase. Let’s instead focus on the other facts of the case.’
‘From everything we gathered about her, all that boys’ talk about women with dark circles seemed to be true,’ Raorane grins snarkily, briefly letting his guard down.
‘What about women with dark circles? You mean they should be using eye-cream?’ I respond flippantly. ‘That they are highly sexed.’He seems genuinely puzzled as I look at him incredulously. ‘Don’t you women too have theories about men?’
When it was her turn to be questioned, Nisha Borilkar denied having called Neeraj over to Nishant Lal’s place as Maria had claimed in her first statement. She’d spoken to Neeraj on the night of May 6, Nisha admitted, but it was to check his whereabouts and find out how he was doing. She also complained about Emile browbeating her at Malad police station where they had all gone to record their statement on May 8. ‘He kept telling me to stop lying and accept that I had called Neeraj over, that I had told him naya maal aaya hai,’ she told Raorane. ‘Nothing of the sort had happened.’
Each night, the unit IX boys got together over dinner to discuss the day’s proceedings, relishing the prospects of a complex case. It was to become their daily ritual, analysing, summing up, planning the next day’s strategy.They were not entirely sure about Maria’s involvement in Neeraj’s disappearance, but of the available material she seemed the most promising. It was a game of attrition: she would come with Richard and Veronica, be made to wait, sometimes for hours, before being called in for the cat and mouse questioning. Only the persistence with which Raorane questioned belied his conversational tone, reminding her that this was no drawing room conversation. But while Maria kept her nerve— ‘she was a tough cookie,’ admits Rakesh Maria—Richard was beginning to lose his.
‘They’d call us at nine in the morning, letting us go only past midnight,’ he tells me, still harrowed by the memory of those eight days. ‘They kept asking my sister Roni and I what we knew of Moni’s life in Mumbai. I remember getting angry, it was just a missing complaint after all and with what authority were they interrogating us and to this extent!
The cops kept telling us that if Monica knows something she should reveal it fast and that we should convince her to do so, and we kept asking her why the police was hounding her, but all she kept saying was, If there was anything, I would have told you. We thought an evil eye had befallen on our family and we told ourselves, let us go through this with grace.’.
Raorane, taking his cue from the Susairaj family’s strong Christian ties, changed tack, often leading his discussion with Maria to a religious plane, talking to her about afterlife and doomsday. ‘To be able to speak on all these I must say I am grateful for my education,’ he says. ‘Daily main use apna cassette sunaata tha.’
Maria retained her equanimity through the sessions as she would later in court. ‘The mind has the capacity to be so fragmented that it can entirely deflect the reality of what is actually happening around,’ Udayan Patel later tells me when I ask him about Maria’s calm facade.
‘Why do Christians go for confession?’ Raorane would ask.‘So we can go to the almighty with open hands and hearts.’ ‘But we’re pawns on a chessboard, the Almighty makes us commit things, doesn’t he?’ She responded to that with a serene smile. And then the last thing at night before he let her go. ‘Maria, we all have to die and face God, think of yourself as a human being who is a part of God…’
‘Good night, Sir.’
Lieutenant Vasanth Kumar was in deep trouble. Against his better judgment, he had dropped his roommate Emile to the airport in the middle of the night so he could fly out to Mumbai. Emile had not taken permission to leave the base, and despite Vasanth’s repeated pleas had not called his course officer the next day to let him know of his absence. ‘Just tell him that I am SIQ (sick in quarantine),’ Emile had casually tossed the instruction over his shoulder as he ran into the airport to board the 3.45 am AirIndiaflight 691 to Mumbai. ‘You better call him before he asks me, otherwise I’ll be jacked,’ Vasnath shouted back, but his voice ricocheted as the automatic doors to the airport closed on Emile’s receding back.
He’d tried to make himself invisible in class the next morning, a difficult task in a large room with only a handful of men. ‘Where’s Lieutenant Emile Jerome?’ The absence had not escaped course officer Vishal Singh’s hawk eye. Vasanth Kumar had no option but to lie. Emile was SIQ, he said. ‘With whose permission? Please summon him from the room.’
Vasanth left the classroom and tried to call Emile in Mumbai. His phone was switched off. Bloody hell. It was just past nine on May 7 when he got through Maria and spoke to Emile. ‘You didn’t call the course officer as I told you to. He’s asking me about you now.’ ‘Yaar,’ Emile was cool, ‘I tried to, his phone was unreachable.’ ‘What are you doing? Please call him now, I told you I’ll be jacked otherwise’.
But Emile did not call Vishal Singh that day or the next, and Vasanth Kumar was asked to give a written explanation for making a false statement to his superior. An inquiry was set up against him and Emile, and an adverse note sent to his personal file. To top that Emile’s father arrived unexpectedly on the evening of May 8 demanding to see his son. Emile should have been back on base that day but had still not returned. He called to say that he had missed his flight. Vasanth had to spend an entire evening placating Jerome Joseph.
Really, even by Navy standards, there were limits to what a course mate could do, Vasanth thought as he went back into his room on the 9th morning only to find Emile sprawled on the bed in his shorts, sleeping like the dead.From the 9th till the 21st — the day assistant inspector Mahesh Tawade reached Cochin to arrest him — Emile displayed no untoward behaviour, say his superiors and course mates. ‘If anything he seemed calmer and relaxed,’ Vasanth Kumar told the police. ‘When I asked him the reason for that, he said, My problems with my girlfriend have been resolved. I’ve decided that by the year end we will get married, regardless of what my parents have to say.’ Back in Mumbai, Maria too was displaying the same steeliness under interrogation.
Emile focused in class and on his swimming, he ate well, and spoke to Maria in hushed tones for long durations, several times, every day. Love birds! Vasanth Kumar watched Emile, feeling somewhat forlorn as he thought of his own long-distance relationship with his wife. There was just one inexplicable change Vasanth Kumar noticed in his roommate after he returned from Mumbai: Emile had taken to getting up at 4.30 every morning to read from the Bible.
Meenal Baghel is the editor of Mumbai Mirror. Her book, Death in Mumbai, will be published by Random House India this year.