Tihar turned out to be a very big turning point in my life... a positive one. I would recommend jail for anyone who wants to make sense of their lives.” Flippant perhaps from someone else, but surprising, even poignant, when it comes from the high-profile Bina Ramani, who spent three days behind bars in the aftermath of the 1999 murder of Delhi model Jessica Lall.
Ramani is a familiar name — so much was written about the celebrity owner of the tony Tamarind Court Café where Jessica Lall was murdered. She was a key witness and remained in the spotlight during the seven long years of the trial which saw the accused Manu Sharma being acquitted by a lower court, only to be convicted later after relentless media and public pressure forced the police to challenge the acquittal in the high court.
Ramani was alleged to have flouted rules (for serving liquor without having a licence) and tampering with evidence (she wiped blood from the murder site, it was claimed). Though the high court quashed the allegations — indeed praising Ramani and her husband Georges Mailhot for having the “guts” to chase Manu when other guests had slunk away — the negative image has stuck. The 2011 Bollywood film No One Killed Jessica was unsparing too.
Now, Ramani hopes to set the record straight with her upcoming memoir Bird In A Banyan Tree. It was during her three-day incarceration in Tihar Jail in 2006 that she began to pen her thoughts. “I had a kind of epiphany, a spiritual experience. It opened up amazing inroads into what life can hold for one,” Ramani says, sitting tall and straight-backed in a tasteful cream sari in the open-air sitting area of her New Delhi home.
Ramani’s account — corroborated later by the courts — is that she came on the scene soon after the shots were fired, confronted Manu, called the police, and took Jessica to the hospital. She also says that she identified Manu when called upon by the police as the man who shot Jessica. And yet, she was vilified by the media, police and legal authorities because of a campaign by the politically powerful families of the accused boys to malign and discredit her testimony. Manu is the son of powerful Haryana politician Venod Sharma.
“Their anger was directed at me because they felt that their son was innocent and I was responsible for putting him in jail. They had bought out all other witnesses but I came in their way,” she says. There was even the threat of physical harm. Ramani writes in the book about someone flinging a projectile at a car she was travelling in, shattering the rear windscreen.
The result of the ugly controversy — all her businesses were forced to shut down because of cases filed against them; her passport, and that of her daughter and husband, were taken away; her savings drained out in lawyers’ fees and her time taken up in daily visits to the police station for gruelling interrogation sessions. Not to mention most of her friends being driven away.
But the Jessica Lall case is only one chapter in a roller-coaster life.
“Heavy-duty history,” is how Ramani labels it. When the Jessica case happened, she recalls, it occurred to her that this was not the first time she was going through such pain. Born to a Sindhi refugee family that emigrated to Britain, becoming one of the richest Indians there, Ramani was the much-loved youngest of nine siblings who named their business — Binatone — after her.
She had an unhappy first marriage with an Air India executive posted in New York. They were divorced 13 years on, and there was a long-drawn, ugly custody battle with her husband kidnapping her daughters and taking them to India. Ramani shifted to India in the ‘80s to be near her daughters and was looking for a place to set up a fashion boutique. She had been designing jewellery and garments in the US tweaking traditional Indian crafts to appeal to Western tastes, when she stumbled on a quaint, historical structure behind the Qutub Minar. She took a long lease on it, christening it Qutub Colonnade — this was where she set up Tamarind Court Cafe.
Today, vindicated by the courts, Ramani says she feels stronger, bolder and more ready than ever to fight for justice. Of late, she has begun working with a social worker helping child victims of sexual abuse. Then there is art, which her husband encouraged her to pick up, which will result in an exhibition of painted photographs sometime next year by the budding artist.
Despite newer directions, the trauma has clearly not faded. Ramani still prefers to keep out of the limelight. And as for friends who ditched her in those dark hours, “They get a curt smile.”