Squashing the evidence…? oh God…yet another step backwards and now Ria was scared… She felt her confidence faltering as the Judge dismissed the CCTV evidence which was extremely grainy and proved nothing. As she kept looking at Gaurav, she couldn’t help but feel for him. He had been still all this while with absolutely no reaction but from his muscle tightness which she could feel even few metres away… she knew he was suffering.
“…I object your honour… Just because there is no eye witness, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen… Dr. Chopra treated himself…those marks in the photographs presented as evidence were from Tuesday and not 29th July, Friday…and the CCTV footage was an attempt to show just that… I am sure its Ms. Sawant in the footage…” Khatiyal looked fatigued as he spoke. It appeared the man hadn’t slept for days.
“..thats exactly what I want to say about what happened to the complainant. There is compelling circumstantial evidence including a nearby shop owner’s CCTV capture of the accused walking into the complainant’s building in an inebriated state on the night of 29th July, wading through the ankle-deep water. Though it isn’t a clear vision because of the heavy rain. We couldn’t get the exit time because the camera conked off…. “ Khandagale spewed the words ina single breath and stared at Khatiyal panting and if there was a start=ing match between the two it was equally poised.
The judge cleared her throat. “I do not allow this evidence. Its grainy anyways and it can’t be concluded that it’s the complainant. Besides Mr. Sequiera’s testimony doesn’t prove anything accept that he found the accused in a drunk stupor… Proceed please…”
Khandagale smiled wickedly and spoke. “I would now call upon the accused Dr. Gaurav Chopra on the stand for questioning.”
As if out of a trance Gaurav stood and started to move towards the witness box. “…excuse me Dr. Chopra, you are the accused… your place is here…” Khandagale snickered as he spoke and Ria’s heart fell watching Gaurav walk towards the stand for the accused. He showed no emotion on his face whatsoever and nodded at the judge slightly before Khandagale walked upto him.
“…So Dr. Chopra, lets get to the start. Those rumors about your alleged affair with the complainant… what do you have to say about that…?” His tone dripped of sarcasm and disparagement.
“…Those are just rumors that’s all… there isn’t an iota of truth in them…” Gaurav spoke in a calm voice. Ria realised she was holding her breath as she released it.
“…Come on Dr. Chopra, if there was a talk for two years… there has to be something…isn’t it…?”
“…OBJECTION YOUR HONOUR… the prosecutor is beating around the bushes. There is no proof whatsoever pointing towards any affair…”
The judge straightened her glasses. “…Sustained…Mr. Khandagale, please stick to the facts…”
Khandagale raised his hands in mock surrender. “..OK..OK… well… Dr. Chopra, getting back to the Tuesday that you are so particularly talking about… I have a few questions because your story. doesn’t make sense at all… Why did you relieve the other waiters except one who is now reportedly missing…?”
“… There was no crowd baring a couple and I thought if the waiters get adequate rest during the week days they could be fresh for the weekend crowd…”
“…Why did you drink so much… I am told by witnesses that drinking heavily was a regular part of your regime in that bar of yours… You even had a brawl sometime back with your customers… Is that right…?”
“…OBJECTION YOUR HONOUR…”
“…Overruled… please continue Mr Khandagale…” The judge calmly retorted and Khandagale gave Khatiyal a victory smile chilling Ria to the bone.
“…Thank you, your honour… I have a couple of witnesses whom I would like to call upon with your permission who can vindicate my current stand…”
The judge nodded and Khandagale called upon two young men one after the other. It was all a blank for her as Ria only looked at Gaurav who was pensive as he heard the witnesses. She got to know they were the waiters at Karma and gave the statements about Gaurav drinking heavily quite a few of the days when he visited and also confirmed his fight with the customer…As for the absconding waiter Ram Singh they only had good things to tell… about how sincere and an ardent worker he was and no one had any clue about his whereabouts. They looked at Gaurav and Manek apologetically as they were led out by the constables.
Khatiyal stood up and spoke. “…What is the point behind making the waiters testify…? So what if Dr. Gaurav drank… it’s a bar for God’s sake…”
“…Your honour, the point is Dr. Chopra is a hopeless drunk. Probably drank right out of his senses on Tuesday night and used that as an excuse to escape the clutches of the law…. It was easy to erase the CCTV footage. Sending the other waiters early was itself very convenient…. What do you have to say Dr. Chopra…?”
Gaurav looked at her, his eyes filled with the same unfathomable emotion that clenched her heart. “No… your honour… I don’t deny that I have been drinking off late… last couple of years to be precise… but I had abstained from alcohol… for a long time and even this was under control…” he didn’t let go the eye contact as if he was talking to her and not the prosecutor.
“…that’s enough Dr. Chopra… But there is something else your honour… We have in our possession a little something from Dr. Chopra’s past…” Khandagale was at his ruthless best but Ria was only held her chest tightly to calm her thumping heart as Gaurav looked away back to the wall.
Khandagale submitted a folder to the judge. “Why don’t you summarize this for me Mr. Khandagale…?” the judge said. Ria saw Gaurav’s grip on the stand had tightened his knuckles turning white as he stared straight ahead…
That was probably what Khandagale wanted. “…Okay… so, Dr. Chopra here isn’t a stranger to the bottle. The first few sheets are a testimony to his antics with the bottle as a young adult… he had almost run over a coupe of pedestrians as he drank and drove and bashed up his vehicle… Fortunately no one was dead and the complaint withdrawn after they were well compensated… following which our Dr. Chopra here spent a year in rehab, with a hope to clean up his act … but it looks like old habits die hard… do they Dr. Chopra…?”
Ria watched in stunned silence tears welling up blurring Gaurav’s stone like image as he merely stood silent. She was now worried… really worried…this wasn’t going as she had thought…in fact it was only getting murkier.
Khandagale continued. “…well the next few pages are what we could retrieve given the jurisdiction constraints. Dr. Chopra’s frolicking romps don’t end here your honour… he had a very colourful past in Dubai five years ago…”
What? Dubai…? What else was there in his closet…? Ria was in a complete emotional mess and didn’t know what to do then.
“…Our Dr. Chopra was charged with double murder five years ago by the Dubai court and eventually was acquitted for want of evidence… and of course his familial clout in the country… the details of the deceased and other trial details however are highly classified and we were bound by legalities to obtain them…”
“…OBJECTION your honour…. My client’s past has no connection whatsoever with the ongoing case… this is just a way to malign him and his family…” Khatiyal objected. But by now Ria had shut her eyes tightly to prevent the flow of tears and block whatever else was been said. But she couldn’t hold it anymore… she opened her eyelids and as the dam broke clearing her vision, she looked straight into the black orbs which were looking at her with a penetrating fury. She was torn inside, not knowing what to believe and whom to trust anymore. Her life was a mess… she sniffed back tears and looked away. This was a huge revelation… Drunk she understood… but murder…? Goddamn double murder…? It was difficult for her to believe he was the same guy who took cared for her more than anyone else in her life. She… couldn’t sit there anymore. She walked out of the court and stood in the permissible area of the heavily guarded corridor outside and as she glanced below, she saw the sea of reporters had swelled.
Did Gaurav really do all the good work at Parijath as a cover up or to put a band-aid over his feeling of guilt…? No… her heart wasn’t willing to accept it. But her brain said a different story and she was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. She took in a deep breath and decided she would definitely give the testimony but only to side with the truth. Then she would tender her resignation at the hospital, first thing after the verdict, whatever it was and get away from this place… from all the toxic relationships she was surrounded with… She had enough. And this was the last straw…
She wiped her eyes and felt calmer at her resolve though her heart had broken into a million pieces. She was just another charity case for the bossman… like the other women in Parijath… and would be nothing more than that for him, however caring he was towards her. She didn’t even know if she felt wounded or relieved. She had to be strong through this trial… she could pick up the broken fragments of her heart later. There would be lot of time for her after that to wallow in self-pity… She walked back inside only to see the court had broken for a recess. They had half an hour before the trial resumed and they were not allowed to leave the premises or contact anyone. She got back into her seat looking down at the floor as Keith came to sit next to her.
“You…Ok…?” He asked her as she sniffed back tears not lifting up her eyes.
“…Keith… if you are worried about my testimony… don’t… I am definitely going to side with the truth… I am not … going anywhere before I do…”
“…So… you believe all that crap that Khandagale just said…?”
“…What does it matter Keith…? Its not my concern… who…who am I…? Just an employee whom he cared for… that’s it… So, I am going to do my duty… don’t worry… I am right here…”
“…Let it go Keith… I don’t want to talk to anyone…please leave me alone…”
Keith stood-up and walked ahead while she kept looking down tears blurring her vision, folding her arms even as she felt the pair of eyes on her. The eyes which held an ocean of secrets and she feared she would drown in them… with no shore in sight.
The court resumed on time and Khandagale stood up. “Your honour I call upon the complainant Swara Sawant in the witness box…”
Ria watched as Swara clad in a crisp cotton salwar kameez a far cry from the clothes she wore after changing from the hospital uniform. Her head was covered completely as she stood on the witness box. Swara looked around her eyes lingering for a while on Gaurav who showed no emotion as usual and then she looked up making eye contact with Ria. Swara frowned in surprise and looked away…
“…Ms. Sawant, I know this is difficult but could you please give an account of the events that transpired on the night of 29th of July…?”
“Swara looked down at her clasped hands and spoke. “…uh… actually that night there was a party for the office folks… but I didn’t go… I was unwell… I have the doctor’s prescription to prove… And … I left early from work as well… I was sleeping at home around 9PM or so when Gaurav sir rang the doorbell… It was pouring heavily and I wondered who it was… But when I opened the door he barged inside and demanded a drink… saying he was stranded in the flood… I was unwell… feeling very week and didn’t know what to do…I had a bottle at home which I gave him and retired to bed telling him to shut the door on his way out… I slept in my room and the next thing I know he had broken open the lock and he was all over me… I… I fought and almost lost consciousness… as … as he did the deed and collapsed on me… I pushed him aside and decided to teach him a lesson… So…I..I clicked his pictures and saved the condom he had used… Its been terrible for me to go back to work after that and …I waited for a few days to recover physically and then filed the complaint…” Swara was sobbing by now…
All Ria wanted to do was rush to the nearest washroom and throw up as a heavy bout of nausea claimed her…
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