There is a 2018 video of Indrani Mukerjea on Times Now in which she alleges that she met P. Chidambaram and his son Karti, and the latter asked for a bribe of $1 million. Her eyes are sparkling, the hair is dyed black again, her accent is clipped, and there’s a little smile playing on her lips.
Arrested in 2015 for allegedly killing her daughter, everyone had almost forgotten Indrani Mukerjea except perhaps Arnab Goswami, who resurrects her hashtag from time to time.
But Indrani is now back in the news as well as in drawing room conversations with the arrest of P. Chidambaram in the INX Media case.
There is no doubt that Indrani is a survivor and her allegations against the Chidambarams may well be a part of her strategy to save herself or reduce her sentence. Reviled as the daughter-killer, she is now a convenient stick to beat the Chidambarams with.
A CEO or slayer of reputations
For the first time since being jailed for allegedly murdering her daughter Sheena Bora, she looks like the woman who had a certain kind of powerful, middle-aged Mumbai man at her feet, first as a corporate head hunter who turned more heads than she hired, then as the socialite wife of one of the most influential media executives in the country, and finally as the CEO of a wannabe media behemoth with interests in news and entertainment. Meet Indrani Mukerjea – trophy wife, powerful CEO and slayer of reputations.
This was the woman who so enraptured then-Star India CEO Peter Mukerjea “one rather wet evening” at The President’s The Library Bar that although she had arrived with the late advertising legend Alyque Padamsee, she left with the man who was then Rupert Murdoch’s blue-eyed boy. As Suhel Seth, then the darling of the Delhi-Mumbai-London set and now tainted by multiple MeToo allegations, wrote in a column in The Telegraph in 2015, “The evening went off swimmingly well: in fact, so smitten was Peter by her that he left his girlfriend Sapna behind for Sumantra (Dutta, a Star executive) and me to drop and went off with Indrani”.
That was written a day after Indrani was arrested on the suspicion of murdering her daughter Sheena Bora, whom she had allegedly tried to pass off as her younger sister. Once seen as a harmless enough Becky Sharp-like character by Mumbai/Delhi high society, discarding husbands as she moved up the social ladder, Indrani acquired more sinister, Medea-like qualities, destroying anyone who opposed her. Margaret Atwood described William Thackeray’s Becky as someone living on her wits, using “men as ambulatory bank accounts”. (Margaret Atwood, Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing, p 130, 2005)
She may as well have been writing about Indrani.
Ambitious women on the make
Mrunalini Deshmukh, prominent Mumbai lawyer, told ThePrint she remembers Indrani as a “seemingly simple woman entering into marriage with a formidable man, yet caught in an ugly divorce battle”. At that time, she was married to Kolkata businessman Sanjeev Khanna (who was to surface later in her life when she allegedly murdered Sheena), and was concerned only about the custody of their daughter Vidhie, later adopted by Peter.
“She seemed head over heels in love with Peter,” recalls Deshmukh, “with the right body language, all the blushing and the flushing.” That was 2002. Deshmukh recalls meeting her later, socially, at a few Mumbai parties, in her avatar as a media mogul and says she saw a distinct change. “She would throw her weight around in a most unrefined way.”
High society in India is not particularly kind to ambitious women on the make. Whether it is power broker Niira Radia who built a seemingly invincible career playing interface between corporates and government till she was brought down by the Radia tapes. Or whether it was Sunanda Pushkar who burst onto the Delhi circuit as Shashi Tharoor’s independently wealthy love interest and part-owner of an IPL team till her mysterious death in 2014 cast a cloud of suspicion over the couple’s reputation.
The world tries hard to keep its innate misogyny aside when women are on their way up, but it surfaces the minute they are pulled down.
Shiny on the surface
When the going was good, Indrani was a star. In 2008, The Wall Street Journal named her in their top 50 women to watch list – she was placed at No. 41. Explaining the choices, the list said: “Out of the ashes of the economic meltdown, some new stars have emerged – most notably Sheila Bair, No. 1 on this year’s Women to Watch list, who has been thrust into the spotlight in her bank-rescue role as a hard-charging regulator at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. And Barbara Desoer, No. 3 on this year’s list, has risen to a pivotal role at Bank of America as president of mortgage, home equity and insurance services”.
On the surface, everything was shiny. Indrani and Peter raised funding from a cluster of investors for INX Media. But by 2009, the company was in a crisis, and Indrani and Peter quit their management positions.
But apart from mismanagement that dogged their media venture, there were also domestic complications. Peter knew of Indrani’s marriage to Sanjeev Khanna (who suffered from a ‘damsel in distress syndrome’ according to friends quoted in India Today) and their daughter. But he apparently had no knowledge about the father of Indrani’s first and second-born – Sheena and Mikhail – a Shillong-based man calledChirag, or her subsequent marriage in Kolkata to a businessman Siddhartha Das.
In 1993, according to India Today, Indrani gave custody of Sheena and Mikhail to her mother, and started a new life with Sanjeev Khanna, a pattern she was to repeat when she remade herself to suit Peter’s based-in-Bristol-works-in-Mumbai-holidays-in-Marbella world. Peter had had his own share of relationships and two sons by marriage to Shabnam Anand, who now lives a quiet life in Dehradun. Peter’s older son, Rahul, a wannabe actor, would have a relationship with Sheena, who came to live with Peter and Indrani in Mumbai in 2006, and would seek her well after he was reportedly told that she had abandoned him to go to the US.
Indrani managed, by all accounts, to manipulate people into believing that Sheena had left for the US in 2012. But the arrest of Indrani’s driver in 2015, after a tip-off from an unidentified caller in Meerut, with a pistol on him led to the Mumbai Police digging up Sheena’s skeletal remains from a spot near Tiger Point, 90 km off Mumbai. It kicked off an investigation into the murder, which continues to date.
As former head of Mumbai Crime Branch, Meeran Chadha Borwankar, puts it: “From what I know through media reports, Indrani has turned approver in the case. But her statement, even if given before a magistrate under Section 164 of the CrPC, must be corroborated by independent evidence. Only then can it be relied upon by the court”.
Different parameters for truth
In jail since 2015, Indrani has gone through many avatars – the prisoner who wants her Sanskrit-to-English translation of 700 verses of Bhagvad Gita to be published, themember of a 200-strong group that rioted in Byculla Jail after an inmate’s death, and now a convenient stick to beat the Chidambarams with.
Gautam Mukerjea, Peter’s younger brother who lives in Goa, says: “What’s playing out is there for everyone to see. My comments are of no consequence really as perhaps everyone knows what she is about and capable of.” He points out that “everyone in her family appears to be dead, except for her brother/son Mikhail”. His brother, Peter, arrested in November 2015 by the CBI, has been in in Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail, which has seen many high profile inmates, from Sanjay Dutt to Salman Khan. His appeal for bail has been rejected several times.
So, what does it say about us as a society where the prime accused in a heinous murder case can be considered a reliable witness in a corruption case? Even in a country that has got used to business titans skipping continents to avoid repaying bank loans, there has to be some moral standard.
Deshmukh is quite categorical: “It is quite a disgusting situation but it says less about us as a society and more about our politicians that they will stop at nothing to achieve their ends, using, dumping and using people again. They have no ethics.”
And Indrani is a product of the same society, which has flexible parameters for what can be constituted as truth. “We’ll play this thing,” says Indrani in the 2018 Times Now interview. For how long and how far?
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.