“Now the woods will never tell
What sleeps beneath the trees
Or what’s buried ‘neath a rock
Or hiding in the leaves
‘Cause road kill has it’s seasons
Just like anything…
Now a lady can’t do nothin’
Without folks’ tongues waggin’
Is that blood on the tree
Or is it autumn’s red blaze
When the ground’s soft for diggin’
And the rain will bring all this gloom
There’s nothing wrong with a lady
Drinking alone in a room
But there was a murder in the red barn.”
—- “Murder In The Red Barn”: Tom Waits
A Surrealistic Journey!
The scenic journey along the Mumbai-Goa highway, in the Raigad district is always a memorable and enriching experience. Most of the tract of the district is noticeably hilly, rugged and in places precipitous with a wide slope from east to west. The Western Ghats form the mountain range here, running north to south, forming the eastern boundary of the territory. The other significantly rugged belt of hills running along almost the whole of the west of the district ends only by the rivers which flow through to Mumbai harbour and the Arabian sea.
At an average elevation of about 2,000 feet, the whole area is covered with thick foliage. Forests are situated mostly on the higher slopes and spurs of these hills and scattered on the lower slopes and flatter tops of the hills are invariably cultivated lands or malki and inam forests. Leaving the claustrophobic city of Mumbai on a long weekend trip to the hills or the sea , you cross Vashi to reach Panvel and then take diversion to Mumbai-Goa highway. Soon you reach the Ghat section of Karnala bird sanctuary , the Toll Naka on river bridge – the Pen town –and then the Wadkhal Naka …here you take a left turn to be on the Goa highway, if you keep going straight, you will ultimately reach Alibaug.
Khopoli here is the railhead and the last station on Central Suburban railway route and is a major access point to local getaways to places like Duke’s Nose, Rajmachi Point, Tiger’s Leap, Kalote, Durshet, Pali, Ashtavinayak temple circuit and the now famous, Imagica theme park on Khopoli – Pali Road.
Just a 90 minutes drive from Mumbai and Pune both, Khopoli is situated in the Sahayadri Mountains. Any time of the year, specially during the monsoon and winter, this municipal town is awash with lush greenery, breathtaking views of Sahayadri and the valley beneath.You may see ladies washing clothes on the banks with kids swimming around, all the while you drive down this scenic highway. Adlabs Imagica is one of the main attractions in Khopoli. Spread across an area of around 300 acres, this theme park transports you into a different world. You can experience some thrills, go back in time and even have a tryst with Bollywood. Imagica also has several, varied F&B outlets that cater to diverse taste buds.The Patalganga river at Khopoli is always gushing, keeping the area green.
A Mumbai-Pune hop wasn’t just a hop till recently, when the superfast expressway was not built. Along the old road, It used to be a gastronomic odyssey. A stop at Khopoli, for Ramakant’s Vada Pav shop, the Lonavla Chikki or tea at Ramakrishna, and roasted corns in the Ghats in Khandala, any old timer will remember.Toda y there are countless midway hotels, guest houses, farm houses, multi cuisine restaurants and food plazas that scattered along the road, to cater a large number of tourists to longer distances or the one day outing crowd. From Khopoli, Lonavla is just 20 minutes drive and Matheran is barely 45 minutes away.
A Mother’s Journey With Her Daughter!
The purported last journey of a bright young college girl, Sheena Bora took place on this stretch of road dotted with motels, midways and family restaurants one early morning ,three years back. The same road stretch, where cars full of happy kids and their contented parents usually stop during their holiday trips from Mumbai to the Alibaug seaside or to Goa, or on the thoroughfare to Lonavla or Pune.
According to police sources, on the early morning of April 25, 2012, Media honcho Indrani Mukerjea’s Opel Astra too carried a mother and her daughter as it darted along this route. The daughter Sheena, 23, was travelling within a large suitcase in the boot, allegedly murdered the previous evening in the same car! And this is according to the police version of what the driver, Shamvar Rai, had informed them. If the car driver Rai’s account is correct, the journey was smooth across the lush cultivated fields flanking the road and stretching to the hills afar.
It’s the journey’s first leg, a 20-25km drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway. it was darkish dawn. The sun was yet to come out from behind the hills. The mother Indrani and one of her former husbands, Sanjeev Khanna, were the other alleged occupants of the car. The car needed to stop thrice to pay the highway toll – currently the price is curtailed significantly by the government. Somehow, no one ever suspected anything. Police sources believe that there was a recce. Apparently, the plan was to dump the body somewhere along the 25-30km stretch between Khopoli and Pen in Raigad district, where the dense forests along the road would provide an ideal hiding place. The car then sped towards a forested hillside. Police sources said that the girl Sheena’s body was set on fire inside a wooded place, and the burnt remains of the body were buried at a spot by the living three, about 1km from Gagode, the village where the Gandhian messiah Acharya Vinoba Bhave was born.
Ganesh Dhene, who works as a wedding hall decorator in Raigad’s Pen Taluka, succeeded his father Laxman Dhene as “Police Patil.” That’s an honorary title generally given by the Maharashtra Police stations to serve people as the eyes and ears in the village of a stretched police force. On the morning of May 23, 2012, a year after Dhene’s father had died and almost a month after the alleged murder, Ganesh was passing by the Pen-Khopoli Road in his auto rickshaw, when by chance, probe of one of the murkiest murders in recent times, was set into motion.
“It was 10 in the morning and I was driving to Pen for a decoration when I smelled a foul smell coming from near a tree,” Dhene the Police Patil of Hetawane said. Stopping his auto rickshaw, Ganesh went inside to see further and a few feet into the shrubbery, he saw something like a human skeleton. “The body was decomposed. there was no way to tell whether the deceased had been a male or female.”
Dhene immediately went to the nearby Warsai Police Chowki in Gagode Budruk village and a constable rushed to the spot. Gagode Budruk is less than a kilometre from the site where the remains were recovered. The Warsai police Chowki in the village is usually has to be locked when its lone occupant, a constable, makes his daily trip to Pen police station.
There is another version too. Prasad Patil, one of the villagers who had possibly seen the body first, said, “On that day, several friends and I had gone to pick mangoes from the trees in the area. There was a foul smell in the area and we were sure that it was from a decomposing body, and we know, that was not the first time a body was found there. When news spread, many from our village gathered there.”The villagers informed the Police Patil, Santosh Parshuram Patil, of Gagode Budruk. He informed the local police, who came to the spot.
A local police officer however said, “When the police team had reached the spot, only the fingers were peeking out of the suitcase. There was something like nail paint on the fingers and the police could make out it was the body of a woman. When the suitcase was opened, the police realised that the body had been there for a month or so and it had been badly decomposed.” The current Police Patil, Dhamri Dhoodhuskar, said, “I still remember that the severely burnt and highly decomposing body of a woman was found near a mango tree in the forest area. However, the then Police Patil would know better what was done further on that case.”
A villager also added that things near the suitcase were also burnt. Leaves and plants were charred, perhaps a lot of petrol had been sprinkled on the body before burning it. The suitcase was also nearly charred. The accused perhaps thought that after the body and suitcase were burnt, whatever remained would be washed away off the edge of the cliff nearby and into the 50-foot deep gorge. It would happen had there been a heavy rain during that time, but luckily that did not happen.
Sheena Bora’s murderers were right in their assumption and had chosen the burial spot quite well. Gagode residents said that the Khopoli-Pen hillside was a known dumping ground of unidentified bodies and the local police were used not to conduct detailed investigation, if otherwise not instructed by their superiors.
According to an estimate, as many as twelve unidentified bodies have been recovered from the three kilometre stretch, in the year 2012 alone. Generally, “post-mortems” are done on the spot by a doctor, and the bodies are reburied thereafter. In this case also, Police had reburied it after allowing a doctor to take a sample for a perfunctory, “on-the-spot” investigation, the villagers said.
Sandeep Mongal, the owner of a tea stall in Gagode village says that he had helped to bring the suitcase to the Pen-Khopoli Road, which connects two satellite municipal townships, but does not know further, what the police did with it afterwards. Constables S D Magar and K K Mhatre, posted at Warsai, had been deputed with the duty of disposal. “They got some local tribal people nearby and tasked them to bury the body near the mango tree. It was covered with a white cloth,” Ganesh Dhene said. “I had a feeling then that something wrong must have happened , but I never followed the probe into it.”
“If you go digging, you’ll find many more bodies in this lonely stretch.” Informed a villager.
Ganesh Dhene the Police Patil is busy as usual, in his job and police assistance. He said that so far, since 2008, he has helped the Raigad Police in recovering eight dead bodies, including that of Sheena Bora. Dhene said that five bodies of drowning victims were recovered through his help from the waterfall of Hetawane dam area in Pen. “Also, in the recent Mumbai-Pune Expressway landslide at Adoshi tunnel in Khopoli, “I had assisted the police to recover bodies of the victims out,” he said.
At a turn in the vicinity of the place where Sheena’s body was buried, there is a muddy slope leading up to a desolate temple. For many years, there was a black stone idol that people of the Banjari community from Karnataka came to worship. Before some years however, a temple was built. The hilltop temple is deserted and mostly stays in eerie silence, disturbed only by trucks moving across the road. At some distance across the road from the temple, the crime spot is marked by a moss-covered rock in the middle of the trees.
Between Gagode and nearby Wakrul village three kilometres away, there is absolutely nothing, no shops, no locality or people visible on the road. This makes that stretch very lonely, even during the daytime. Trucks pass through but no one stops there.
While a Station Diary at the Pen Police Station has a mention of the discovery of a burnt suitcase and charred remains of a body, reportedly no FIR or Accidental Death Report (ADR) was registered at either of the police stations, as is Protocol. Police sources said that, among those who were then posted are Senior Police Inspector Suresh Mirghe of Pen Police Station (currently not posted in Raigad district), Deputy SP Chauhan (currently not posted in Raigad district) and Superintendent of Police (SP) RD Shinde, who is currently posted in Mumbai as Additional Commissioner of the Central Region. PSIs and constables who were at the time posted at Pen and Warsai Police Stations have all been transferred in other PSs within the Raigad district.
Three Years Later
After three long years, a team of the Mumbai and Raigad Police, five forensic experts from Mumbai’s Kalina Forensic Laboratory (FSL) and labourers had walked into the forest on Pen-Khopoli road, early morning at 6 am after alleged revelations by accused driver Shyam Rai about how and where the body of Sheena was allegedly dumped.
It was a bit difficult for the team to locate the exact spot and after five hours of try, someone recalled to call the men who had helped in burying the remains the last time, in 2012. Ganesh Dhene, “Police Patil” of Hetawane and Constables S D Magar and K K Mhatre now posted at Vadkhal and Roha Police stations respectively were called.
“At first, it was very difficult to identify the spot, the place had changed quite a lot in three years,” said Dhene. “I remembered there was a mango tree when I had last been to the spot in 2012. I asked the police to dig beyond the tree,” he said. Sure enough, after an hour of digging, the police had unearthed a skeleton at noon. “It was right where we had buried it in 2012. The flesh had decomposed but the skeleton was intact,” Dhene said. The exhumed remains are now sent to Kalina Forensic Laboratory in Mumbai. To confirm that the body is of Sheena Bora, the DNA profile of the scanty remains should match with that of mother Indrani Mukerjea.
Gangode Village Maligned
Excessive and incessant national coverage and highlight of the case has brought Gagode village under the spotlight for some unwarranted reasons. Its 2,000-odd residents, proud of their association with Gandhian Vinoba Bhave, are deeply pained at their village has now being linked to the ghastly crime.
Vinoba Bhave’s 120th birth anniversary falls on 11 September and apparently no one seems concerned. The national media is too busy with sensational details. “We were known and honoured as Vinoba Bhave’s village but now it’s reputation being tarnished by a disgruntled rich family’s crime!” lamented a villager.
Vinoba Bhave, also known as Vinayak Narahari Bhave was born on September 11, 1895 in this village Gagode. His birthplace is now under the admin of local Sarvodaya Mission. Vinoba wrote about his childhood days: “My childhood was spent in the Konkan region of Maharashtra. Gagode was a small village of about eighty houses, in Colaba district. It had no school and most of its inhabitants were illiterate.
My grandfather was an Inamdar, a kind of landlord. We lived in quite a big house, with a spacious courtyard where there were a great many frogs of various kinds, which all night long kept up a regular Mandukya-Upanishad”.“During our holidays we used to go and stay with our grandparents at Gagode, but I had no more close contact with my native village, and a few years later I cut loose from my family also”.
Gagode (Budruk) is one of the 19 ‘Gramdan’ villages in Maharashtra where people have given up their individual rights to land and now cultivate it as a community. The 150-year-old house where Vinoba Bhave was born is still intact and looked after by Vijay Diwan, one of his followers. Some years back , at the government’s request, people allotted half an acre land for building a memorial near his house. There is an ongoing controversy on the Government’s upcoming project of building a dam nearby, but people are not protesting violently. They took it in a peaceful Gandhian way.
A former Village Sarpanch said, “In all my life in this village, there has never been a single murder or attempt to murder here.” “People fight after drinking, on petty things, abuse each other, some committed suicide in the past, but the people here are never cunning and vengeful, like those urban rich.”
Every other day a news reporter from Mumbai wants to know more. The scenic attraction of the area has now been forgotten. Over these years, many good works has been done in the village, applying Vinoba’s ideology and that of Gandhi, but no one is interested to know about them!
Anyone joyriding to destinations like Alibaug, Matheran, Lonavla, Pune and Goa would not be able to pass this stretch of wooded road without being reminding of the nightmarish episode. A beautiful and picturesque stretch of road has now turned into a memory of crudest human aberration!
By Deep Basu
Images by author