Ganesh Patil was collecting wild mangoes when he stumbled across the body. Some of the ripe yellow fruit had tumbled down an incline in the forest, and he had followed their trail through the dense vegetation.
The body was almost entirely burnt. It was a woman. The flesh had melted from the bones, but long hair still flowed from the scalp and varnish still gleamed on the remnants of fingernails.
Patil lived ten minutes away in the village of Hetawane, off an unlit arterial road that connects rural southwestern Maharashtra to Mumbai, the state capital, 52 miles away. He worked three jobs. He festooned tents for weddings with auspicious flowers. He plied an auto rickshaw, ferrying tourists to the waterfalls near his home. And, like his father before him, Patil served as a liaison between the villagers of Hetawane and the police, mediating quarrels over wayward cattle and reporting the sale of illegal country liquor. Once in a while, though, his responsibilities veered toward the forensic.
Hetawane is located in the densely forested district of Raigad. Fast-moving rivers run under the awnings of sal trees. The gorges are dizzyingly deep. As a child accompanying his father on his rounds, Patil sometimes had to help recover a body. He saw so many corpses it stopped bothering him.
On the morning of May 23, 2012, when Patil found the burnt body, he remained calm. Wiry and small-boned with probing eyes, the 36-year-old father of two instinctively committed the scene to memory. The surrounding area was charred, he noted. There was a strip of suitcase material lying to one side. Snapping a photograph of the body on his mobile phone, Patil secured his haul of a dozen mangoes, which he dropped off at home before dialing the police.
The police, Patil says, dispatched two or three bones to a hospital in Mumbai, presumably to test for DNA and forensic evidence. But then, rather than open an investigation, they proceeded that afternoon to bury the body, paying some villagers to dig a 3-foot-deep hole right there in the wild.
Raigad is sometimes referred to as the dumping ground of Mumbai. There are two officers in the station that Patil called, and they are expected to police 35 villages on a scooter, carrying only a bamboo stick for protection. Villagers stumble upon at least one unidentified body every other day. Most of the dead, like the body Patil found, are disposed of without investigation, so it’s hard to draw conclusions about who they were.
Three years passed. Then, on August 28, 2015, Patil was woken by a 4 a.m. call from an officer with the Mumbai police inquiring about the location of the body. At 6 a.m. he was in the forest, heading down the muddy incline. Police personnel armed with digging equipment swarmed around. The skeleton’s hands and feet were intact, Patil observed, although the other bones were broken.
Jostling reporters and camera crews soon gathered, having arrived from Mumbai in a fleet of cars. People from the surrounding villages came in droves, and curious passers-by stopped to snap pictures. The circuslike atmosphere bemused Patil, who had never seen such a fuss made over a dead body. It was only on asking that he was told what the visitors from the city already knew.
Three days earlier, the wife of the media tycoon Peter Mukerjea had been arrested in Mumbai for the murder of the woman Patil had discovered in the forest. Within minutes of the news, Indrani Mukerjea was trending on Twitter. Rich, beautiful, and enigmatic, she was “The Great Gatsby of Mumbai,” proclaimed The Times of India. She was India’s Gone Girl. O.J. Simpson in a sari. The couple instantly became a national media fixation.
The Mukerjeas were a flamboyant symbol of India’s seemingly untouchable upper class. They stood out even in Mumbai, a city with high self-esteem and low regard for people who are foolish enough to live anywhere else. Although as overpopulated and poverty-ridden as any other part of India, Mumbai is entranced by its own mythology as a cross between Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street. The Mukerjeas were regularly seen in photographs — arms entwined, wineglasses in hand — in the gossip pages of The Times. “They were the ‘It’ couple,” says Meenal Baghel, the editor of the Mumbai Mirror, a tabloid that is sold with The Times.
The Mukerjeas were well-known in Mumbai, but the rest of India heard of them only after Indrani’s arrest. In a country where the majority is poor, a wealthy criminal is like a rare specimen, something to gawk at. On the one hand, Indrani fulfilled that widespread suspicion that the rich are immoral and bloodless. On the other, the privileges she had enjoyed made her actions, rather like those of multimillionaire murder suspect Robert Durst, incomprehensible to ordinary people. Her arrest was viewed as poetic justice. For once the system had nabbed someone powerful rather than poor.
Relegated to the background of this marquee crime was the victim — Sheena Bora, a 23-year-old human resources executive at a public transportation company. With elegant cheekbones, full lips, and glossy chestnut bangs, Sheena displayed an uncanny resemblance to Indrani. In fact, the media reported with gleeful horror, Sheena was Indrani’s sister.
Although the Mukerjeas hadn’t been in the limelight in the years immediately prior to the arrest, Peter would always be known as the former chief executive of Star TV India. Owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Star TV was among the first broadcasters to capitalize on the cable-channel boom in the Indian market. Under Mukerjea, in the early 2000s, Star TV’s 40-plus channels made it India’s top-rated network, attracting one-quarter of all viewers. The network’s 24-hour programming included glitzy Hindi soap operas and flagship shows like the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.Mukerjea seemed well equipped to handle the lifestyle that he commodified on TV. The eldest of three children, Pratim Mukerjea was born in 1955 in England, where his parents, both doctors in the Indian army, were completing their specializations. His father went on to become an anesthesiologist, his mother a gynecologist. When Pratim, or Pitu, as he was affectionately known, was 2, the family moved back to India, where the Mukerjeas rejoined the army. Pratim studied at the Doon School, an elite boarding school in the Himalayan foothills whose alumni include some of India’s most prominent industrialists and politicians, including one prime minister. In 1973, he returned to the United Kingdom to attend university, staying on to pursue a career in marketing for companies like Heinz and the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. But it was Star TV in India, where he resettled some years later, that made him a name brand.If Mukerjea played a role in defining the Indian media scene, then the media returned the favor. In 2004, India Today named Mukerjea one of the country’s “50 Power People.” “He drives himself to work in a Land Cruiser while his chauffeur reads out the newspaper headlines,” reported the magazine. Tall, mustached, and broad-shouldered, he was “a rogue with the ladies,” according to the novelist Shobhaa De, who knew him socially.
Mukerjea was divorced and the father of two adult sons when, in 2001, he met Indrani Bora, the founder of an executive recruitment service. She was 30 to Mukerjea’s 46. It wasn’t the age difference that raised eyebrows. Men in Mumbai’s TV and film circles date young, same as anywhere else in the world. Rather it was that someone who was so Anglicized that he now went by Peter or Pete fell for a woman who appeared to mentally translate sentences into English before speaking.
Mukerjea was born into the professional class, Indrani into the working class. She wasn’t just from outside Mumbai; she didn’t even come from a place that registered with the Mumbai elite, such as a political power center like Delhi. She was from the tea-growing state of Assam, embedded in the northeastern corner of India. It is far enough away that Indrani was condescendingly viewed as exotic. Less charitably, she was pigeonholed as an opportunist attempting to parlay her beauty not just for money but for something money can’t buy — class. In a city full of boldface names with corporate connections, penthouses, and private-club memberships, Indrani was the guest who had arrived to the party empty-handed.
From things said and unsaid, Mukerjea’s circle came to believe that Indrani was a mother of one child — a girl named Vidhie, born in 1997, whom Indrani had with her first husband, a Kolkata-based businessman. Other than Vidhie, she didn’t appear to have family. This near absence of a personal history would have raised questions anywhere else in India, a country where family is fundamental to identity. But the tens of thousands of people who move to Mumbai every year have made it a city of migrants. Like their counterparts in Los Angeles or New York, the more ambitious newcomers discard signs of unlovely pasts — dowdy wardrobes, regional accents, birth names — in favor of personas more befitting their aspirations. In other words, the very thing that made Indrani appear suspicious in retrospect was at the time viewed as fairly standard.
The couple’s previous marriages, the differences in age and social class, and the presumed coming together of their children would have made their union appear, at least from afar, to be that of a new kind of family: one that was predicated not on the traditional Indian way of caste and class but, in an appealingly modern way, on sex, love, and second chances.
Still, the Mumbai set was taken aback. “There was a lot of curiosity about how Indrani landed Peter,” Baghel says. The Times announced the wedding, which took place in the fall of 2002, with a nod to Mukerjea’s job. “Peter Mukerjea ready to tie the knot with his new star,” it wrote. A smitten Mukerjea had proposed on the fourth date, reportedly at a party he threw at his house. “I have never felt so loved,” Indrani told The Times. “He spoils me.”
Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, attended one of their wedding receptions, but Indrani’s family was conspicuously absent. Later she introduced people to a stepsister newly arrived from Assam to earn a graduate degree. The young woman, Sheena Bora, is said to have stayed with the Mukerjeas while she found her bearings. Vidhie knew her as an aunt. The three often attended parties together. Absorbed into their social circle, Sheena became friends with Mukerjea’s younger son, Rahul, who was 18 at the time his father remarried.
In 2007, after 14 years as CEO, Mukerjea quit Star TV to form a network called INX Media. Mukerjea was chairman of the company, Indrani co-founder and chief executive. It was Indrani’s first time in a leadership position of a major corporation, but the investment the couple attracted belied her inexperience. INX Media raised $170 million in its first round of funding. The company announced plans for as many as 12 channels; the jewel in its crown would be a premium English news channel named NewsX.
Within months, though, NewsX was in turmoil. Several high-ranking employees quit, publicly expressing dissatisfaction with the way the Mukerjeas were running the network. In a resignation letter leaked online, an executive producer drew attention to the company’s finances. “[Indrani] has told the press that she owns over 60 per cent of NewsX,” he wrote. “Is this her own money, or is she fronting for somebody? I believe an investigation is called for.” Within the company, some started referring to the Mukerjeas as Bunty and Babli, a reference to a Bollywood film about two con artists loosely based on Bonnie and Clyde. Later, NewsX’s chief executive, who also quit in a public display of acrimony, would describe the couple as Bill and Hillary. “There wasn’t a single thing Indrani did that Peter didn’t know about,” he said.
Still, in 2008, Indrani continued to be feted. The Wall Street Journal placed her on its list of “50 Women to Watch,” an honor accorded to only two other Indians — PepsiCo’s chief executive officer and Cisco’s chief technology officer, both well-known and with long careers.
That was the last of the kudos. The next year the mismanagement that former employees had alleged was borne out by the Mukerjeas’ sudden resignations. It was a spectacular failure for the golden couple of Indian media, and Indrani, Baghel says, “was blamed for the fiasco.” Mukerjea’s reputation also took a hit. The once widely admired corporate chief was now dismissed as “the fat fool who had financed his wife’s ambitions,” De says.
Shortly afterward, the couple slipped out of sight. The Mukerjeas relocated to the United Kingdom, where they settled in Bristol, a prosperous town two hours outside London. They purchased a four-bedroom home on a tree-lined avenue for half a million pounds. Peter, a car enthusiast, drove a black Mercedes with the custom plate
PM55 MUK. The couple bought a second home in the Spanish resort town of Marbella, where Peter tooled around in a Maserati. Vidhie was enrolled at a prestigious prep school.
Several years later, when the Mukerjeas returned to Mumbai, they attempted to pick up where they had left off, hosting parties and making regular appearances at their private club. “It was back to chichi talk — light, happy, frothy,” De says. “I remember Indrani’s conversations. ‘Come stay with us in this château and that chalet and that villa,’ she’d say. What they were really saying is, ‘We’re back.’”
Meenal Baghel was at a dinner party on August 25, 2015, when she received the news that Indrani had been arrested. She immediately dialed a senior editor in the Mumbai Mirror’s city bureau: “I said, ‘Whatever you have on Page 1, take it off and go with this.’ Then I called one of my crime reporters. ‘We must get something exclusive,’ I told him.”Stylish and disarming but also famously dogged, Baghel had come to the job with a background in investigative journalism. In her ten years as editor, she had built a team of six well-regarded crime reporters who have broken stories about terrorists and gangsters. Mumbai has among the highest crime rates of any metropolis in India. When those crimes involve Bollywood or politics, the city’s twin obsessions, they become the stuff of tabloid gold. (“Sex, Lies, and Smutphones” was a recent headline.) Launched in 2005 by The Times, the Mirror is aimed at Mumbai’s sizable middle class, providing it not only with stories about potholes and pollution but also with ample amounts of gossip. The inaugural issue ran a front-page story of a feud within the Bachchans, Bollywood’s first family. The Times’ star has dimmed in recent years. But as India’s oldest and largest-selling English newspaper, it is still expected to maintain a degree of decorum. The Mirror doesn’t share this burden.On hearing of the arrest, Mirror reporters staked out police stations, slums, and the Mukerjea residence. A reporter was dispatched to Raigad. The following day’s cover story was published under the headline “Prime Time Murder.” Baghel had her exclusive: a photo of Sheena. The Mirror team had found her Facebook page. She looked out at readers with a clear gaze and a vibrant smile.
Indrani had helped strangle Sheena in a moving car, reported the Mirror. To avoid attracting attention on their drive to Raigad, she had allegedly combed her dead daughter’s hair and applied makeup to her. She had then propped the corpse up beside her on the car seat, making it appear as though Sheena was asleep. For nearly three hours, Indrani sat in the moving car with the corpse’s head resting on her shoulder. In Raigad, she helped burn and then hide her daughter’s body.
In Hindu mythology, a mother is worshipped as a devi, a goddess. She is a vessel of great expectations and bears great responsibilities. Over the decades, Bollywood films have crystallized these expectations in the popular imagination. The poor mother who starved so that her sons could have an extra morsel of food was a popular trope of early films. In the genre-defining blockbuster Mother India (1957), the central figure is a selfless woman who sacrificed everything for her children. “She was seen as a stand-in for the nation,” the film critic Jai Arjun Singh says, “the nation, which is supposed to be a mother to us all.” The ideal of the virtuous mother became the basis of a now-iconic dialogue in another blockbuster, Deewaar (1975), one with which every film-obsessed Indian is familiar. Amitabh Bachchan, playing a gangster, taunts his upstanding police officer brother: “Today I have a car, a house, money. What do you have?” His brother looks at him with reproachful eyes. “I have a mother,” he says.India also has a long history of honor killing, of parents murdering children who they believe have dishonored them — most often for pursuing a relationship of their choice and not allowing their parents to select a partner for them. The word honor represents what is lost to parents when their child has publicly defied and thus shamed them. But honor killings usually take place in rural India. Much more rare are urban parents murdering their children for something that is increasingly considered a forgivable offense in modern India — marrying for love. What made Indrani’s arrest shocking was the possibility that an educated woman would have succumbed to the backward ways of a villager.The media was convinced there was much more to this rich, mysterious woman than it was being led to believe. Driven to uncover the real Indrani, reporters in the days immediately after her arrest crisscrossed India.
Back in Mumbai, the Mirror reported another twist: At the time of her death, Sheena was engaged to marry Rahul, Mukerjea’s son — her stepbrother. She had told him that she was Indrani’s daughter, not her sister. Rahul went to his father with the news of Indrani’s duplicity, but Peter was having none of it. That’s absolutely untrue, he claimed, siding with Indrani, who denied the relationship.
With every revelation, a little more of Indrani’s life emerged. Here was someone who had left not one family but two. Who had not just one child but three. Despite the famous friends and the picture-perfect marriage, not a single person was willing to come forward to speak in her favor. Except for an interview with Times Now, even Peter remained out of sight. The media version of Indrani, goddess gone rogue, was far more compelling than her alleged victim.
Sheena would remain a hazy figure throughout. Abandoned by both parents — her father didn’t know she was missing until he saw on TV that she’d been killed — she was forced to live a public lie, masquerading as her mother’s sister. Then, in a form of reprieve, she found love with her stepbrother, only to learn that the possibility of another Bora-Mukerjea wedding incensed her mother. To friends, she allegedly revealed fears that her mother was poisoning her. But the sorrow and terror that must have dominated her life received little attention even after her death. It was as though Sheena lived, and died, only so we could learn more about her murderer. In a life filled with tragedy, the final blow was to become a footnote to her own passing.
Meanwhile, so many of Indrani’s family members were surfacing that the public struggled to keep up. To help out viewers, news channels broadcast a chart of her relatives. The Mirror published an illustrated version of the crime. Indrani was portrayed as a big-breasted vixen in Western clothes — code for loose morals. Sheena was shown being throttled with a scarf. In the next image, her head was on fire. One TV channel’s breaking news was the announcement, flashed across the screen, that “Indrani has eaten a sandwich.”
On the evening the police announced Sheena was Indrani’s daughter, Times Now’s editor in chief moderated a six-person panel in order to learn “what the motive was for a mother murdering her child.” It was an honor killing, declared a guest, who was introduced as a friend of Sheena’s. “I’ve heard rumors,” he offered by way of proof. In its first week covering the Indrani scandal, Times Now won 46 percent of the viewership. It would remain the highest-rated English news channel on TV.
In India, women go missing so often, it’s not news. According to one report, when the coverage of the Indrani case was at its peak, as many as 73,242 women were missing. The figure represented women who had been reported missing, which means that their loved ones had successfully filed police complaints. The Indian police are so infamously dismissive, even getting them to write down a complaint is viewed as a great achievement. The number of missing women, therefore, far exceeds any reported figure. It was widely understood that if Sheena hadn’t been related to Indrani, her death would never have been investigated.Shortly after the discovery of Sheena’s body, the Mirror investigated the extent to which Raigad’s reputation as Mumbai’s unofficial morgue was justified. Compiling data from all the government hospitals in the district that had received unidentified bodies, the Mirror concluded that between 2012, when Sheena’s corpse was disposed of, and 2015, when it was disinterred, 763 bodies were recovered from the district’s “gorges, forests, and isolated sea shores.”Perhaps it was the undue attention that one missing girl was receiving, when so many others had been forgotten, that freed people to enjoy The Indrani Show. At a time when the economy was slowing down, pollution was a worsening health hazard, and the infrastructure in even major cities was a source of gnawing frustration, Indrani and her family were the soap opera that made Indians feel better about their lives.
On November 19, 2015, nearly three months after Indrani’s arrest, Peter was arrested. After his wife was sent to prison, Mukerjea appeared to slip back into his old life, visiting his private club and even sharing with reporters plans to redecorate his apartment. Not everyone bought his story — of a man so deeply in love he was blind to the goings-on in his own family. That Mukerjea not only knew of the murder but was complicit in Sheena’s death was a popular sentiment in Mumbai’s elite circles.
The Central Bureau of Investigation appeared to agree. On the eve of his 60th birthday, Mukerjea was picked up for questioning. Accompanied by Vidhie, the media magnate appeared old, overweight, and resigned when he arrived at the bureau’s office. Later he was taken to the same prison where his former driver and Indrani’s ex-husband were being held. Although no charges were filed, Mukerjea remained in jail facing sustained interrogation.
In February, soon after his bail plea was rejected, Mukerjea was formally charged with the murder of Sheena Bora. The extent of his alleged involvement came as a shock to many. According to the bureau, while Mukerjea was in Rome, he received updates as the crime unfolded. From the time his stepdaughter was lured into the car to the moment her body was burned in the forest, Indrani was calling and sending texts. Peter, the bureau alleged, had been Indrani’s co-conspirator.
No date has been set for the trial of any of the accused.
Waseem Sayeed moved from Bihar to Mumbai ten years ago — a 22-year-old with an eighth-grade education. His first job was sewing bags. He later trained at restaurants before landing a position in the tandoor section of a restaurant in the St. Regis hotel. The salary wasn’t much. Sayeed earned 15,000 rupees ($223) a month, most of which he sent home to his mother in Bihar. To stretch his money, Sayeed roomed with his father, Siddiq Ansari, who worked as a cook at a private club. The father and son shared their room with a third man, Ashish Singh, a migrant like them, who embroidered clothes in one of the small makeshift factories that proliferate in the city’s slums.On October 3, 2015, at about 11 p.m., Sayeed was at work at the St. Regis when his father called, asking that he come home as soon as possible. Ansari was in his mid-50s and had been diagnosed with a heart condition. He was on regular medication, but in the past year his visits to the doctor had increased. One hospital stint two months earlier had stretched to 17 days. After he was discharged, Ansari returned to the club, working the same long hours.Ansari next dialed Singh, requesting to be taken to the doctor. Singh, who was on his way back from another 14-hour workday, agreed. The doctor told them to get to a hospital right away, and Ansari and Singh hailed a taxi. Blood was trickling down from Ansari’s nose.
Although his father had lived almost all his life in Mumbai, Sayeed decided to take him back to Bihar — a 1,100-mile journey. This was not only because he wanted him near family but because in Mumbai, he said, so many people die that “if you bury someone today, two months later they are gone,” their bodies flung to the side to make way for another, fresher corpse.
“If the media hadn’t been there that day, my father may have reached the emergency ward sooner,” Sayeed said. “He might have been saved — or he might have still died but after I arrived. We would have had the chance to talk.” He sighed, realizing perhaps the futility of such a thought. “Living and dying,” he said, “is in God’s hands.”