You have to look past the cobwebs and 11 years of grime to picture how cosy the cottage could have been. The two-bedroom house stands on the far right of a sprawling, seven-acre plot on Richmond Road, in the heart of Bangalore. The teak furniture, grandfather clock and golden upholstery on the sofas speak of a glory that was.
A board on the gate says the property belongs to S. Khaleeli, and that trespassers will be prosecuted. Shakereh Khaleeli cared once, but no more. Fourteen years ago, they found her buried in the courtyard of the cottage.
Last week, the killer ' Shakereh’s second husband, Swami Shradhananda, once known as Murli Manohar Mishra ' was sentenced to death. But the story of a woman who gave up everything for love is not an ordinary romantic triangle gone awry. It is a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which are still falling into place. “The deceased trusted, loved and married the accused,” said the judgment. “He misused her confidence. He buried her alive.”
This was the story of the rich girl who loved the poor boy ' a theme that Bollywood has celebrated since time immemorial. Only, unlike in Hindi cinema, no one lived happily ever after.
Shakereh Khaleeli was the grand-daughter of the Dewan of the erstwhile Mysore state. Her first husband, high-profile diplomat Akbar Khaleeli, served as the Indian high commissioner to Iran and Australia. Those who knew her say her height and sharp features gave her an aristocratic air.
| CALENDER ENTRIES
|1964 - Shakereh marries Akbar Khaleeli.
1985 - The couple divorce.
April 1986 - Shakereh and Shradhananda marry at the Bangalore sub-registrar’s office.
1987 - Shradhananda gets general power of attorney over Shakereh’s property.
May 28, 1991 - Shradhananda buries Shakereh alive.
June, 1992 - Shakereh’s daughter Sabah lodges a missing complaint at the Ashok Nagar police station in Bangalore.
March 28, 1994 - Shradhananda is arrested by the city crime branch.
March 30, 1994 - Shakereh’s body is exhumed from the courtyard of her Richmond Road residence.
1998 - Trial begins at sessions court.
May 21, 2005 - Shradhananda is sentenced to death.
Murli Manohar Mishra was the son of a small-time school teacher in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh. He dropped out of school and finally ran away from home. Mishra rechristened himself Swami Shradhananda, boasted of tantrik powers, and started working as an errand boy with the royal family of Rampur. He was short, stocky and had a rough voice.
Mishra and Shakereh made for an unlikely couple. “But Shakereh shunned her family and social norms to marry Shradhananda. Why she did that remains a mystery,” says special public prosecutor C.V. Nagesh.
Shradhananda’s game 'murdering his wife for her money ' was cracked by the city crime branch (CCB) in 1994. When he stood there in the Bangalore court as the judge ' the eighth to hear the case ' called the murder a “rarest of rare case” and sentenced him to death, the 60-year-old betrayed no emotion. All Shradhananda’s counsel said was that he would appeal against the verdict.
Shradhananda met the Khaleelis in 1982 when he was looking after the Rampur royals’ property issues. Akbar Khaleeli got him to Bangalore to sort out some property disputes of his own. The diplomat then left for a two-year stint to Iran.
When Khaleeli returned to his family in Bangalore, his wife asked him for a divorce. “When Khaleeli refused, Shakereh went to a mosque in Chennai and pronounced herself single,” says CCB inspector C. Veeraiah, whose team solved the case.
Shakereh’s family threatened to disinherit her, but she didn’t care. “She handed over her four daughters to Akbar Khaleeli,” says Veeraiah. Six months later, in April 1986, Shradhananda and Shakereh, then in their early 40s, were married at the sub-registrar’s office in Bangalore.
Shradhananda says Shakereh married him for a son. In his confessional statement, he claims he promised Shakereh a male child through tantrik powers. “He says Shakereh was desperate for a son,” says Veeraiah. Shradhananda also maintains that Shakereh gave birth to a still-born boy.
But the police stress that Shradhananda’s story cannot be corroborated. And Shakereh’s version can only be pieced together from the statements of family members and the two domestic workers, Raju and Josephine. The two were witness to Akbar Khaleeli’s long work-related absences. This, they said, irked his wife, and the couple quarrelled often.
Shradhananda made capital of the situation. “He confessed that he poisoned Shakereh against her husband,” says Veeraiah. She bought every word the errand boy uttered. Having interrogated Shradhananda at length, Veeraiah can vouch for his glib talk. “He is a smooth-talker. He can also talk big,” he says. When he was arrested, for instance, he threatened that he would get Buta Singh ' the then home minister ' to bail him out and fix the police officials. “It turned out to be tall talk,” says Veeraiah.
Sycophancy was another of Shradhananda’s traits. He always sat at Shakereh’s feet. He called her ‘Amma’ ' even after they wed. Once, his hands accidentally brushed against Shakereh. “He reportedly went into spasms of guilt. He asked Shakereh to throw him out of the house,” says Veeraiah. The docile conduct continued after marriage. He remained Shakereh’s errand boy. At 10 every morning, he would bring her tea and the newspaper in bed.
Life was a bed of roses. Shakereh gave Shradhananda a general power of attorney over her property. He was made joint holder in all bank accounts and lockers. She sold chunks of the prime land that she owned and the couple took off on a year-long world tour. “Records show they travelled first class and lived in seven-star hotels,” says Nagesh.
Trouble began when Shakereh accidentally bumped into her daughter, Sabah, at the New Delhi airport. Through Sabah ' who worked as a model in Mumbai ' Shakereh re-established contact with her children. She attended her daughter Esmath’s wedding. According to Sabah, her mother said she would fund her education in London. “Shradhananda took objection to this. But Shakereh brushed him aside,” says Veeraiah.
Josephine told the police the couple had a show-down in early 1991 over the daughters. Shakereh reportedly hit her husband and threatened to evict him. “She even wrote to the State Bank of India, Queens Road branch, asking for cancellation of Shradhananda’s name from the joint locker,” says Veeraiah. That is when Shradhananda panicked. “He thought Shakereh would return to her family and he would get nothing,” says Nagesh.
May 28, 1991, started on a usual note. Shakereh downed her tea and was half-way through the newspaper when she felt drowsy. Shradhananda, the police said, had dissolved sleeping pills into her tea.
|(Top): The place where Shakera was buried alive; (above) daughter Sabah
A six-foot by two-foot wooden box on wheels, made on the pretext of exporting antique furniture, was lying in the out-house. An eight-foot deep pit ' dug on the pretext of constructing an underground water tank ' waited in the courtyard.
After the sleeping pills had done the job, Shradhananda put Shakereh into the box and then nailed the lid on. The police say he wheeled the box into the pit and covered it with sand.
The next day, he got the courtyard covered with stone slabs. And then he planted a tulsi plant over the pit.
Shakereh died ' but on paper she lived for four more years. In 1991, Shradhananda floated a company ' Shakereh Shradhananda (SS) Finance Ltd ' whose records showed her as an active partner. In 1992, he told a visiting census officer that he lived with his wife. Josephine says she often heard him talking to Shakereh over the phone. But Sabah caught on, and filed a missing complaint in 1992. And the cops took two years to crack the case.
But Shradhananda is not yet ready to call it a day. When the judgment was read and Nagesh offered his apologies to Shradhananda, he brushed him away. “This is just the beginning of the battle,” he said.