The invisible accused: Indrani Mukerjea’s driver is facing the worst punishment
Shamwar Pinturam Rai was Indrani Mukerjea’s former driver and allegedly an accomplice in dumping her body. In a story studded with an Alpha cast he is the bit player who is usually referred to by his job description - the driver. It's another matter that it was his arrest that opened up the entire long-buried can of worms.
Sharda Rai is not doing the rounds of television studios. Socialites and celebrities are not springing out of the woodwork to tell stories about their close encounters with her. She has not been spotted coming out of the police station where sources say at least one senior officer dealing with the Sheena Bora case is a “close friend”. She has not been seen going into the Police Club late at night to see “some old friends.”
According to a news report, Sharda Rai is busy trying to keep a roof over her head ever since her husband Shamwar Pinturam Rai’s arrest in the Bora case. Shamwar Pinturam Rai was Indrani Mukerjea’s former driver and allegedly an accomplice in dumping Sheena's body. In a story studded with an Alpha cast he is the bit player who is usually referred to by his job description - the driver. It's another matter that it was his arrest that opened up the entire long-buried can of worms.
His wife Sharda tells the Indian Express she has not seen him in 10 days. She had not heard Indrani’s name until the news broke on television. She is trying to figure out where to go with her three-month-old son and eight-year-old daughter. She tells IE, “Since Wednesday, the landlady has been banging on my door every few hours, saying ‘mere room mein koi lafda nahi mangta hai (I don’t want any trouble in my room’). The neighbours want them out. The aunt and uncle who brought her up after she lost her parents have said she is not welcome at their home. These are very different problems than no one buying you drinks at your club again.
Even as the Sheena Bora murder mystery tantalises us with its shocking twists and turns, it becomes a scathing commentary on our society and the gulf between its haves and have-nots. As a powerful media baron, Peter Mukerjea has an impressive rolodex. Even though he has changed his story along the way, even though his account has its unexplained gaps, even though there are allegations swirling about missing money from the 9X days, he has largely been able to project an image of himself as a man who loved not wisely but too well.
On Times Now he said, “I think it’s a fair assumption that people will consider I am gullible. But I can assure that I am not hiding anything.” Peter the Gullible is probably his best defence option right now. As news broke about his wife’s arrest, he showed great alacrity and composure in going on television shows to put that image out there even as he claimed to be “in a state of dismay and shock”. The media has mostly played along. In the process, the likes of Indrani Mukerjea turn into particularly virulent Lady Macbeth strain of the genus Social Climber who are, as Reshmi Dasgupta reminds us in ET, “basically nobody’s nobodies out to make it as somebody’s anybody: friend, lover, spouse, confidant, helpmate, dalal. Whatever.”
For the Mukerjeas this might in the end become a desi version of a War of Roses, played out with a battery of well-connected celebrities and well-heeled lawyers. For the Mukerjeas’ former driver it will likely be a very different story. “Sometimes I think I should commit suicide with my children,” says Sharda.
We do not know what was the lure or pressure exerted on Rai to make him an accomplice, as the police say he was, in the alleged murder and disposal of Sheena Bora. But one thing is clear. When the super-rich and powerful are involved in a high stakes fight, the poor bear the scars. As the IE report points out nothing in that one room chawl suggests that Rai had come into money in the last couple of years thanks to any criminal favour he might have done anyone.
In his Booker winning novel The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga had written the story of one Balram Halwai, a driver who is on the run after having killed his employer, one Mr. Ashok. It is a dark story set against the bright lights of the new India where people are trying to make the jump, fueled both by ambition and resentment, from the have-nots to the haves across a very primordial class divide. “The book is called The White Tiger which is meant to be a metaphor for an exceptional individual,” Adiga said in an interview. “My character keeps reflecting on the fact that more servants don't kill their masters.”
What we are discovering however is that more often that not, when it comes to the superrich and superconnected, servants are more apt to be covering up for their masters. It’s an unwritten part of the job. Rai allegedly not only transported the body, he had to stay guard overnight after the first plans to dispose of it failed. Salman Khan’s driver, Ashok Singh, came forward to accept blame for a drunk driving accident that mowed down pavement dwellers, a claim the court refused to believe. The driver now faces perjury charges for his loyalty.
The driver, the one about whom we know the least in this case, is the Invisible Man of the story. Adiga said that when he came back after a long stint in the United States he was struck by the number of “invisible men” in India like the chauffeur “who can understand what is being said (in the backseat) but he’s almost not there. He’s part of the machinery.”
And sometimes when push comes to shove, he is deployed clinically like machinery. He knows where the bodies are buried. Heck, he was the one who had to bury them for the saab or the memsaab. As Shovon Chowdhury comments darkly on Quartz: "Drivers in India do much more than drive. They run errands, bear witness and confess to your crimes. This is a very vital position.”
Perhaps there is money offered. Perhaps it’s coercion. Perhaps assurance that it will be “managed”. Whatever the case, what we have here is not really the White Tiger syndrome, but a far more old-fashioned feudal story playing out in a brash New India between invisible servants and their apparently invincible employers. In the confined space of the car there is a dynamic between the driver and the driven that fosters a sense of intimacy that is ultimately fake. The only power he ultimately enjoys is the power steering. He is invisible, not invincible at all.
There is an old saying Cherchez la femme or look for the woman. In an Alexandre Dumas play the line goes "Il y a une femme dans toutes les affaires ; aussitôt qu'on me fait un rapport, je dis : "Cherchez la femme!" (There is a woman in every case; as soon as they bring me a report, I say, "Look for the woman!")
If anything, the morbid lesson we will draw from the Sheena Bora story is that here even if we are transfixed by a femme fatale, cherchez le chauffeur because one should never underestimate the importance of a good driver in a service economy.