3 years

Crime

Maria Susairaj: The Return of Lady Macbeth?

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Maria Susairaj, an accused in one of Mumbai’s most sensational murder cases, is now a con artist

IT WAS IN 2014, when Suresh Dodia was visiting his factory in Khopoli, an industrial outgrowth of Mumbai, that he first heard about a group of investors who were building a big five-star hotel in the town. “A lot of people, the sarpanch and many other locals, had signed off their land,” Dodia recalls, “Some were even putting in their own money after selling off their jewellery to be part of the project.”

Unlike the locals, however, Dodia wanted no part of it. He was in need of money. He runs Rushabh Centering Accessories, a firm in Mumbai that makes and supplies construction material and equipment, and for several months, he had been unsuccessfully trying to procure a loan to expand his business. So he began courting those investors. There were two of them, Dodia says, a woman named Paromita Chakraborty and another called Maria. Over successive meetings in Khopoli and Mumbai, he learnt that they owned a few travel companies and were now investing in upscale real estate projects. He would meet the two at fancy restaurants in Thane, where they had an office, and sometimes at cafes, close to their home in Powai (they appeared to live together, he says). They were both very dignified. They always tipped the waiters well, and if pleased with a meal, they would even request the chef to come over to their table for them to thank him, often with a monetary token—if he was willing—of their appreciation. Sometimes, they would even take Dodia along to their business meetings with real estate companies. She and Maria would speak with each other in fluent English, but whenever Dodia was around, they would always politely switch to Hindi.

Dodia was impressed. As a member of a conservative mercantile community in the all-male rough and tumble of construction, he had never dealt with such a swish set. “The two were very rich and sophisticated women,” he says. “They used to say they are looking to invest their money in some businesses which are run by good people.”

After some persuasion, the two agreed to loan Dodia Rs 30 crore at an annual interest of 10 per cent. The only thing odd was that they wanted the first year’s interest paid right at the start. They gave him a demand draft worth Rs 30 crore, and he paid them Rs 3 crore as interest.

When he went to the bank, the draft turned out to be a forgery. The two began to avoid him and his phone calls. And when he persisted, a man dressed as a policeman showed up at his office and threatened him. Back in Khopoli, the situation wasn’t any better. The hotel was never built and all its investors appeared to have lost their money. Dodia had been conned.

Online, he discovered countless reports of cheating cases lodged against Chakraborty in Gujarat and Mumbai, filed by travel agents, builders, and even a former landlord of hers in Mumbai. She had various aliases, it turned out, from Paromita Chakravarty and Paromita Bhattacharya, to Paromita Banerjee and sometimes even Andria Asim Banerjee. But perhaps the biggest surprise was her soft-spoken companion. “It was Maria Susairaj,” he says, mimicking his shock when he first discovered her identity. “Had I known earlier, I would have never got into business with them.”

EVEN THOUGH DODIA does not follow the news very closely, he says he was vaguely familiar with Susairaj’s full name in connection with a well-known crime. Maria Susairaj, once dubbed ‘Lady Macbeth’ by the press, was involved in one of Mumbai’s most sensational cases of homicide, the Neeraj Grover murder case. In 2008, she was an aspiring Kannada starlet in her late twenties looking for a break in the Hindi entertainment industry. She was engaged to a naval officer, Emile Jerome Matthew, but also having an affair with a producer, Neeraj Grover, who had apparently promised to help her get a role in a TV show. As media reports and court proceedings tell the story, Matthew showed up at Susairaj’s flat one morning, got into an altercation with Grover, who had stayed the night over, killed him, cut his body up and then disposed of it with Susairaj’s help.

Matthew, who was found guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, is currently serving a 10-year sentence in jail. Susairaj, after three years of imprisonment for destruction of evidence, was let off in 2011. Ambition, sex, betrayal, blood, the case had the ingredients of a potboiler. Much of its shock value was in the details: the initially misreported fact that Grover’s body had been chopped up into 300 pieces (it was far fewer); the fact that after Susairaj and Jerome had sex twice after the killing, once in the same room as the corpse, and then after the body had been dismembered; the calm manner in which they went about disposing of it, shopping for knives and suchlike at a nearby mall, using shopping bags for body parts. It was a media feeding frenzy. Articles were written, films were announced, and there was even talk of Susairaj being invited to participate in Bigg Boss on her release. Balaji Telefilms, where Grover once worked, was reported to be thinking of a film, but Ram Gopal Varma beat her to it with Not a Love Story. When I met Varma back then for an interview, he showed me an image of the film’s poster on his phone; it had the two lead actors walking out of a house with shopping bags, of which the filmmaker asked my opinion. “Should it be visible, right in front of the characters, or behind them?” he asked, arguing that not everyone might be so well clued into the case. “I will let the bags be visible,” he ruled, “I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know about the bags.”

The media chased the story breathlessly. Once the judgment was declared, Susairaj held a press conference. One reporter landed up at her family’s house in Bengaluru, where they had moved from Mysore after the case, and reported watching a delivery boy drop a food packet to the home with the door opening only partially to receive it. Eventually, the story and her name faded from public memory.

Nearly a decade later, she had reappeared in Mumbai, reborn as a con artist. As he began to ask around, Dodia discovered that Susairaj and Chakraborty had left a long trail of victims cheated out of their money in various cities of Gujarat and Maharashtra. “We have found more than 10 people with complaints against them in Mumbai alone,” says a policeman on the case in Thane’s Anti-Extortion Cell, “But I think we are just beginning. Every few days, some new person turns up.” People have been duped of sums ranging from a few lakh to several crore. According to the policeman, one of the complainants is Susairaj’s former domestic help who had sold her jewellery and given Susairaj about Rs 2.5 lakh on the promise of a bigger sum as a loan.

The Susairaj case was a media feeding frenzy. Articles were written, films were announced, and there was even talk of her being invited to participate in Big Boss

SUSAIRAJ HAILS FROM a fairly affluent family in Mysore. One of her uncles is a former corporator in the local municipal body. Her father runs a construction firm. Raised in a religious family, with church institutions on her father’s client roster, she was inclined to the performing arts even in school. She pursued dancing and singing, and dreamt of a career in showbiz as she grew up.

In her 2011 book on the case, Death in Mumbai (Random House, 2011), Meenal Baghel portrays Susairaj as a somewhat conflicted personality: vain, affable and sexually manipulative, with a string of good-looking boyfriends, but also emotionally distant, with a propensity to harm herself. The author talks of welts hidden by her bangles that run the length of her forearm, and describes how she once slit her wrist after her family pressured her to meet an older divorcee for marriage. Susairaj was ambitious enough to move out of a small town for her showbiz dreams, but never driven enough to do the usual struggler’s rounds of the offices of directors and producers. She flitted between Mysore, Bengaluru and Mumbai, between small town life, a career in Kannada cinema and the high glamour of Hindi entertainment.

She also moved between the idea of settling down with a good boy from her hometown, Matthew, and dating the dashing Grover, who had suddenly reappeared in her life (the two had met and flirted before) with a key to possible stardom. At one point in the book, a former lover of Susairaj from Mysore recounts what she had once told him about herself: ‘When everybody was walking, I was on a cycle, when people were on cycles, I was on a bike, and when people were on bikes, I was riding in a car.’

At the time of the murder, Susairaj was caught in an inner conflict. Although she was in a relationship with Matthew, his parents disapproved of her and their marriage. And Grover, who seemed to suggest he had clout within Balaji Telefilms, was courting her. She had even auditioned for a Balaji tv show that Grover claimed he had influence over.

We know of what transpired on the morning of May 7th, 2008, only through Susairaj’s recorded confession to a magistrate. As Baghel notes, Susairaj had phoned Grover the night before, at 9.28 pm and then again at 9.55 pm, asking him to come over. Call records confirm this. Susairaj had also spoken with Jerome several times that evening and night. By 9 pm, 28 minutes before Susairaj first called Grover asking him over, Jerome had phoned a friend asking for the latter’s credit card details so he could get onto a 3.45 am Air India flight to Mumbai. Writes Baghel: ‘Had she and Emile already planned something, as the prosecution alleged, or was it, as Emile later told Vasanth (a friend of his), that he had to go to Mumbai because Maria had given him an ultimatum? If Emile did not make up his mind about marrying her, he would have to choose once and for all between her and his parents. Then why, when she knew that Emile would arrive the next morning, did Maria invite Neeraj over? This mystery was at the unfathomable core of the events that followed.’

During the court trial, Susairaj was lodged in Mumbai’s Byculla jail, and was let out when the judgment was pronounced for she had already served her sentence of three years. At the press conference after her release, she spoke of how she was going to start life anew. “The time I spent in jail was blessed,” she said, “I got close to God.”

“But that’s not the only one she got close to,” quips a police officer now, requesting anonymity. “Look, what I’m saying is she might have wanted to put all that happened behind her. But a case like that, and so much attention… I don’t quite think you can put something like that behind and lead a normal life.”

It was in prison that Susairaj made her acquaintance with Chakraborty, who was serving time in another case.

According to Rajkumar Chaumal, an advocate based in Ahmedabad who represented Susairaj in a cheating case filed in Gujarat, she returned to her family after leaving the Byculla jail. According to some, she got back to studies and acquired a diploma in banking. But later, once Chakraborty was released, the two resumed their friendship. “They are like best friends, very close to each other. They were even staying together at one time,” Chaumal says. “But as far as business goes, it’s separate. [Victims of fraud] might claim Maria was part of her company, but she might have just been accompanying her. Maria doesn’t work with Paromita. They are attaching her name only because she is well known.”

The cases are diverse. At one point, the current Speaker of the Gujarat Assembly Rajendra Trivedi, who had a law practice, was advising Chakraborty on a case registered against her in Ahmedabad. Last year, an associate of Trivedi’s, Sachin Shah, accused Chakraborty of cheating him and a friend to the tune of Rs 32 lakh. She had reportedly borrowed the money from him claiming her bank accounts had been frozen because of the law suits.

Chaumal began defending Susairaj after she was referred to him by a Kolkata-based lawyer named Shyamal Ghosh, who, it turns out, was introduced to her and Chakraborty by Suraj Jaiswal, an acquaintance of theirs who some litigants allege is part of the fraud ring. Contacted by me, Ghosh says that he had recommended a lawyer to Susairaj and lent the two women a sum of nearly Rs 20 lakh—through Jaiswal—that hadn’t been paid back. “They don’t take my calls or respond to messages. I am going to get my money back, its hard-earned money,” Ghosh says.

A few weeks ago, the Anti-Extortion Cell of Thane police arrested Chakraborty along with three alleged accomplices. Currently out on bail, she did not respond to my interview requests made to her through her lawyer Naveen Chomal. Susairaj is absconding.

How is it that so many people are being taken in by them? “They are really very smart, very smooth and charming,” says a partner in La Raib Tours and Travels who claims to have been cheated by the duo. “When you talk to them, you would never think what they are really doing is laying out a trap for you,” he says, asking not to be named.

La Raib, a Vadodara-based travel agency that focuses on the Hajj pilgrimage, was one of the earliest to lodge a complaint against the duo. The agency partner says they first made acquaintance with the two women in early 2014, when the latter were on a visit to Vadodara posing as directors of another travel agency called Parapan Group Travels and Tours. “They were very fancy, nothing like the people you see in Vadodara. They wore expensive clothes, stayed in a fancy hotel and went to grand restaurants, and spent so much money on shopping,” says the La Raib partner. “And then they also offered a very good deal to us. They were offering, like, Rs100 to Rs150 less on each ticket, compared to other agencies. We do bulk tickets, like 300 to 400 tickets in a week. That’s a lot of money for us.”

For the first six months, according to the agency partner, Parapan lived up to its promises. The two agencies then finalised a large deal of 1,200 Mumbai-Jeddah return tickets, all departures scheduled within three days of December. “Everything was going smoothly. We got the tickets too. But when the passengers reached the airport, they found out that all the tickets had been cancelled just that morning,” says the La Raib partner, “We had to rebook tickets for them. We lost a total of nearly Rs 5 crore.”

After Susairaj and some alleged accomplices were arrested, Parapan reimbursed the money over the next few months, with only Rs 8.5 lakh now left pending. Representing Susairaj, Chaumal does not deny the sequence of events in this case, but argues that she was not part of Parapan and was only accompanying Chakraborty on the Vadodara tour. According to him, Susairaj’s name has been dragged into a series of such fraud cases by a Mumbai-based former TV journalist, Iqbal, who had been a friend of theirs and even had financial dealings with the two before he fell out with them.

Contacted by Open, Iqbal denies the lawyer’s version of what happened. So what kind of financial deals were these? “You know, business deals,” replies Chaumal. “Paromita and Susairaj are very smart people. They know how to make money.”

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