The Alavandar Murder Case

Mar 19, 2012 - by Randor Guy

One of the most sensational cases that Dr. C. B. Gopalakrishna investigated from the Forensic Science angle was the history-making Alavandar murder case. Even though more than half century has passed since the murder and its trial that shook South India, it is still being talked about and discussed as excitedly as it was 50-plus years ago. This writer wrote a TV serial based on this case in Tamil, which was produced by the Dhina Thanthi Group-owned TV Division, and telecast over Doordarshan some years ago. The serial turned out to be a major success.

by Randor Guy

The noted Madras morning daily, The Hindu, carried a short news item one morning during August 1952. It had a sensational headline that caught the reader’s attention at once. "CITY BUSINESSMAN MISSING!"

A complaint had been made at the Law College police station in Esplanade, Madras that a person named Alavandar was missing, and his whereabouts were unknown. The complainant was a well-known businessman of the city, a big dealer in fountain pens and the owner of the noted firm Gem & Company, M. C. Cunnan Chetty.

Who was Alavandar? A man in his early 40s, during World War II he had worked as sub-divisional officer at the Army Headquarters at Avadi near Madras. He belonged to the Hindu Vysya community to which M.C. Cunnan also belonged. Known as "Komati Chettis," the Telugu-speaking members of this community are traditionally businessmen and many of them wealthy. But Alavandar was not. After his discharge from the British Indian Army service he looked around for a living and chose to have a small business of his own. Plastic goods.

The age of plastics dawned in India, soon after the World War II and caught the fancy the Indian consumer. The articles were colorful, light, and not so expensive. Plastic articles became the fashion of the day and Alavandar thought that it was a good line of business. His fellow Vysya, Cunnan Chetty, kindly gave him a small space in the frontage of his pen company for him to display the goods and conduct his business. Gem & Company drew many customers and it seemed a fine venue of business for the novelty of the day.

Alavandar also had another line of business. Selling saris on installments. The installment business was something new in Madras during that period. With its easy terms of payments and possession of the goods it found ready acceptance and took firm roots. Though some criticized it as "buying on the never-never," it found its place in the economy of the country and the world too.  (According to law goods bought on the installment plan never really belonged to the user until and unless the last installment was paid. Until then the lessor was the legal owner and he had right to seize the property at any time for default in payment. That was why it was called buying on the "never-never" system of purchase because the article never legally belonged to one until the end.)


Alavandar the Playboy and Opium Addict

Although Alavandar had a wife and two children, his interest in other women never abated even with passing years. He believed himself to be a stud and sex athlete and he had undergone circumcision.  (There is a mistaken unscientific belief that circumcision improves the amatory prowess of a male. Medically it is incorrect. Alavandar’s circumcision played a minor but significant role in the murder baffling men of Forensic Science and cops. An interesting sidelight in a grim case of murder.)

Alavandar was also an opium addict. Again, there is a belief that opium is an aphrodisiac. But according to medical science there is no known aphrodisiac. As they say it is all in the mind.  However according to his doctor, Alavandar took opium to relieve him of the frequent attacks of asthma. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

Mrs. Alavandar waited for her husband at home and as he did not return even after daybreak she went to Gem & Company and made enquiries. The pen company staff told her that her husband had gone to meet a friend in Royapuram and he did not return to the shop afterwards. (Royapuram is a seaside area of Madras City and for a long time it had a high Christian population. Indeed the name is derived from Saint Peter who is known as "Royappa" in Indian languages like Tamil. )


Alavandar and Devaki

Whom did he go to meet? A woman. Her name was Devaki.

Devaki, a native of the Kerala State on the West Coast of India, was an attractive young woman. College-educated, she lived in Madras and involved herself in social service. During one of her visits to the pen company she had met Alavandar and the two became friends. Soon they were having a red -hot affair. To the plastic-dealer playboy she was just one more point on his scoreboard. (A close friend of Alavandar told this writer that he often boasted that he had gone to bed with 400-plus women of all communities in India.)

Alavandar went into the sale of saris on installments mainly to get close to women. His customers were mostly nurses, students staying in hostels, spinsters, working women, vain housewives, and such. When his clients failed to pay the installments he insisted on payment in kind and found many were willing to agree to his terms. He took his women to a lodge on Broadway close to his place of work. Invariably he registered under a fake name and address.

Alvandar always dressed well and was rarely seen without a necktie or bowtie. He used perfume liberally and every time he took a woman out for a cup of coffee he doused himself all over.  He was a regular visitor at the YMCA, Esplanade, opposite the Madras High Court. (Here, this writer, then a student and a member of the YMCA, had seen him.  He had a smile and a wave for everyone whether he knew him or not.  He was then living in Nattu Pillaiyar Koil Street, George Town, a crowded area of street houses.

Meanwhile back at Madras…. another newspaper headline hit the city with a loud thud sending waves of shock and terror among the citizens. Madras, at least during 1950s, was a quiet city and life rolled along at a placid pace. Indeed the city was still small townish it its attitudes and social mores and modes of life and living.


A Bad Odor Aboard the Train

The Indo-Ceylon Express train which left the Egmore Railway Station at Madras the previous night steamed into the Manamadurai junction down south on its way to Dhanushkodi on the Bay of Bengal.  (The Indo -Ceylon Express, also known as the Boat Mail, ran from Madras to Dhanushkodi and provided direct link to passengers taking the boat to Ceylon. Hence the name. In that era there was considerable traffic between India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Later the name of the train was changed to Rameswaram Express. Dhanushkodi was almost totally washed out during a storm in 1950s. Rameswaram is a sacred island town associated with Lord Rama)

During the leg to Manamadurai, passengers aboard the train complained about a bad odor coming from under a seat; a steel trunk seemed to be the source of the stink.  Also noticed were stains of some foul-smelling fluid that had oozed out of the metal box. The box had no claimants. At last a complaint was made to the railway police and the compartment was detained at Manamadurai.  The local cops took out the box which was opened in the presence of independent witnesses. The contents shocked even the small town cops.

The steel box contained a decapitated human nude male corpse.  It had green socks on the feet and its penis was circumcised. There was also a thick thread round its waist. The Manamadurai cops sent the corpse to the district headquarters at Madurai for the autopsy or post-mortem. (Manamadurai was then part of the Ramnad district with its headquarters at the famed temple city, Madurai. Indeed Madurai was the principal town for two districts, Madurai and Ramnad (now Ramanathapuram).  The two sets of courts functioned at the historic Thirumalai Nayak Palace. (In recent years districts in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere have been divided and sub-divided mainly due to political considerations and as vote-catching devices.)

The autopsy was performed at the Erskine Hospital by District Medical Officer Dr. Krishnaswami, a radiologist. He took X-rays and worked on the corpse and submitted his report. Unfortunately his conclusions were not quite right. He opined that the corpse belonged to a male of 25 years of age. Normally the fusion of two bones at the lower back takes place at that age and hence he thought along those lines in arriving at the age of the corpse. This discrepancy was later cleared at the second post-mortem done at Madras.

There were other wrong conclusions arrived at by the small town cops. The circumcision and the presence of green socks on the corpse’s feet misled them to think that it belonged to a Muslim male. Muslim males, like Jews, are obligated under their religion to undergo circumcision. It is done at a very young age as a religious ritual called “sunnat.” Green is the favorite color of Muslims. Both conclusions however proved to be wrong.

The body had around the waist a thick thread. It was usually worn by Hindus males in the bygone days. It was intended to hold the loin-cloth in its place. This custom has almost vanished today. One wonders how the cops overlooked the presence of the thread and decided that the corpse was that of a Muslim.

Meanwhile back at Madras, Alavandar’s wife had called on Devaki’s house on Cemetery Road in Royapuram. When she knocked on the door, Prabhakara Menon, Devaki’s husband, answered her.  He told her that her husband never came to his house and he had not seen him. It was only then she requested Cunnan Chetty to go to the police. In acting on the complaint a police officer attached to the Esplanade Police station bicycled to Royapuram where a surprise awaited him: There was a lock on Devaki’s door.

He made enquiries and found that the couple had left for Bombay (now Mumbai).  Somewhat intrigued by this disturbing information, the policeman cycled his way back. In Royapuram, the road takes a curve close to the sea and while he was riding on that stretch of the road a curious sight attracted his attention.

He saw a packet bobbing on the sea being pushed by the rising sea waves towards the sandy shore. His curiosity fully lit, the cop went up to the sands and picked up the package wrapped in a brown shirt.  The cop was astonished when he saw what was inside. A human head. (This shirt was later identified as Alvandar’s.)

The head had been obviously buried in a shallow pit in the sea and the tide had brought it up and washed it ashore. If a crime writer had written it in his novel it would have been dismissed as fanciful fiction but it was all true.

The discovery of the head made headline news in the press and the city sat up with alarm. The severed head was sent to the Madras Medical College Forensic Department for analysis.  Dr. C.B. Gopalakrishna, then the assistant professor of Forensic Medicine, performed the post-mortem. Meanwhile the headless corpse at Madurai was also brought to Madras and handed over to Dr. CBG.

Dr. C.B. Gopalakrishna was one of the authorities in Forensic Medicine in India and he had been hailed as “Sir Bernard Spilsbury of India.”  Sir Bernard is a legendary figure in the forensic science world. An Englishman, his evidence in many cases had sent the guilty to meet their fate in courts. A similar role in India was played by Dr. Gopalakrishna. He underwent training in England under the renowned pathologist and authority on Forensic Medicine, Sydney Smith (of the best-selling book Mostly Murder fame). Dr. Gopalakrishna was one of the favorite students of Dr. Smith.

Dr. Gopalakrishna worked as the Police Surgeon, Madras for many years and was the consultant for many states in India and also the Indian Army. His services were in heavy demand from all over the country for many years. His evidence in courts sent the guilty to prison and saved the innocent from being wrongly punished. Many universities claimed his time and talent to be the examiner in the oral tests and written examinations in Forensic Medicine. He had performed over 8,000 autopsies during his long and distinguished career and had given evidence in many sensational and important cases around the country.

Dr. Gopalakrishna set to work on the corpse and head. The head was slightly decomposed and revealed a deep cut, the apparent result of an attack with a sharp weapon like a knife.  The head had been severed at the cervical vertebra. A bone had been cut obliquely and a piece was missing. Two teeth had peculiar formation, over-riding one on another. The right ear-lobe was pierced in two places while the left had only one.  Mrs. Alavandar visited the mortuary and identified the head as that of her husband’s. Besides she identified the teeth too as her husband’s.

The examination of the corpse revealed that the person was between 42 and 45. (Alavandar was 42.)

When the head and trunk were placed together, the two parts fitted perfectly. Thus Dr. Gopalakrishna came to the inescapable conclusion that they were of the same body. However he wished to prove that the body was Alvandar’s beyond all doubt. The records at the Avadi Army Headquarters gave the final answer: Fingerprints. The army records had the dead man’s fingerprints and the two sets matched. No doubt, the body was Alvandar’s.

The noted forensic expert also found opium in the stomach. It meant that he had taken the stimulant some hours before he met his death. It raised many interesting questions.

The Gem & Company staff told the police that Alavandar left the shop around noon soon after Devaki came and met with him. Did he take the opium at that unusual hour as an aphrodisiac? Did he go in an auto-rickshaw to Royapuram at that hour to have sex with her? Medical evidence proved that Devaki was then pregnant. If then why did she not tell her lover about her condition? Did she lure him not to have sex but to do away with him?  Was there a conspiracy between her and the husband Prabhakara Menon to murder the Chetty Casanova?

The police went round meeting with neighbors of Devaki and Menon. Many had seen Alavandar going up the steps and knocking on the door. But nobody saw him going out of the house. Obviously he was a familiar figure in that neighborhood because of his frequent visits to the house.  Now he was missing.  His body had been found cut into two. The couple, Devaki and Menon, had vanished from Madras   and gone away to Bombay. The city cops put two and two together.


The Arrest of the Menons

The scene now shifted to Bombay. The Madras city cops travelled to Bombay and with the help of the Bombay police they traced the relatives with whom the Menons were staying. Devaki had undergone an abortion and was resting at home.  Menon had gone out and the cops traced him to the famed Chowpatty sands. Here the Madras cops spoke to him. One of them noticed a pen in his pocket and he took it out. It bore the initials of Alavandar. The cops also noticed that Menon had shaved off his mustache. Why? To avoid identification? Obviously. But the clean shaven face did not fool the smart Madras city cops. When they questioned him about Alavandar, Menon tried to run away. But the Bombay cops lay in wait for him and they grabbed him easily.

Devaki and Prabhakara Menon were taken into custody.  A Bombay City Magistrate remanded them to custody. Both were charged with the murder of Alavandar and other connected charges and were brought to Madras. Their arrest created a sensation in the city and state and newspapers went to town in covering the murder and its aftermath. Madras City had not witnessed such sensation since the famed Lakshmikantham Murder Case in 1945.

With the now infamous couple in prison, the Madras City police began to investigate the case in order to gather the evidence to support the prosecution at trial.  A team of top police officials worked on the case assisted by Dr. N. Pitchandi and also Dr. C.B .Gopalakrishna. During this period the state prosecutor was the renowned lawyer of great fame and success S.Govind Swaminathan. One of the leaders of the Madras Bar and the son of the legendary Dr.S.Swaminathan and the Congress party leader, parliamentarian, ardent social worker and patriot Mrs. Ammu Swaminathan, Govind Swaminathan was educated in England and became a barrister. He had enjoyed a long successful career as lawyer.

Pitchandi visited Devaki’s house (it was the upstairs portion of an isolated house in lonely side-lane. The forensic specialist was accompanied by then City Police staff photographer, the expert lensman Babu Kumaresan. The two went around the upstairs residence with the proverbial fine toothed comb. Babu took numerous photographs, one of which was of a blood-stained imprint of a human palm on the kitchen wall. This would later be identified as that of Prabhakara Menon.

Also in evidence in the residence were drops of water under an old-fashioned stone grinder. When it was lifted the water was found. It was reddish in color.  Pitchandi conducted on the spot a chemical test on and found that the stains contained human blood. As there was no blood sample of Alavandar, it could not be conclusively proved by Pitchandi that the blood under the stone grinder was that of the murdered man.

Meanwhile the Madras City policemen had enough cause to pat themselves on their backs for the fine detective work done in nabbing the culprits and the finding of the body with all the sensation and press coverage. The top bosses were understandably eager to get the maximum punishment for at least the first accused: Prabhakara Menon.

The police attempted to make a deal with Devaki Menon. She would be given a state’s pardon for her role in the murder if she would go into the witness box and give evidence against her husband. As there were no eye-witnesses to Alavandar’s murder, the police felt compelled to make such an offer to guarantee Menon’s conviction. But Devaki, like a true wife, flatly turned down the offer. She said that her husband killed to save her wifely honor and she would not let down such a fine and protective husband. (Under English Law a wife may not give evidence against her husband.  In Britain there are some cases of murder in which the killer married his mistress after the murder of the wife and before being caught so that she could not give evidence against him!  This does not exist in India law. )

Interestingly Prabhakara Menon denied it all in his statement to the police. He said that he had nothing to do with the death of Alavandar.

The accused retained B.T. Sundararajan and S. Krishnamurthy to defend them.  Both were barristers.  Mr. Sundararajan was one of the top criminal trial lawyers of his day with extensive practice in two states, Madras (now Tamil Nadu) and Mysore (now Karnataka). He had appeared in many important sensational criminal cases in the two states and enjoyed a long successful inning at the Bar.

The Menons had a servant, a young boy who stayed on the premises. He told the cops that at nights the husband and wife would discuss Alavandar and their plans to get rid of him.  Lying on the floor near the bedroom he could and did listen to their talks and plan of conspiracy. He had also heard Devaki sobbing sometimes.

According to the boy, Menon had pestered and pressured his wife to bring Alavandar to their house and he would then do the rest. On the day of the murder, Menon had given the boy some spending money and asked him to go round the city and enjoy its sights.  He was new to Madras and felt delighted that he had a kind boss.


Planting the Seeds of Suspicion

How did Menon come to know that his wife had been intimate with Alavandar?

According to the police, Menon and Devaki went to Gem & Company soon after their marriage.  When Alavandar congratulated Menon for marrying such a lovely young woman, he planted the seeds of suspicion in the husband’s mind that Alavandar had known Devaki quite well. He felt that there was more than that met the eye.

The seeds began to grow in the fertile soil of the doubting Menon. One day the couple went to a late night show at the popular cinema, Minerva in the Broadway area. During the show they argued and Devaki confessed to her husband about her intimacy with Alavandar.  The angry husband and the sobbing wife had no more interest in the movie and they walked out during the show.

The police also unearthed important evidence from the neighborhood in Royapuram. The auto-rickshaw driver who dropped Alavandar at Devaki’s house that ill-fated day was traced. His statement became a strong link to prove that the murdered man was last seen alive entering the woman’s house.  He was seen afterwards only in two bits at different places in the state.                      

A shopkeeper hiring out bicycles near Devaki’s house also spoke about Alavandar going upstairs on that day.  From the man’s evidence Alavandar had been a frequent visitor that house.

The city cops also traced the porter at the Egmore railway station who carried the steel box with its grisly contents about which the poor man was blissfully unaware. He identified Menon from the photograph and later in the court during the trial.


The Trial

After the usual committal proceedings at the magistrate court the trial came up for hearing at the Madras High Court Original Criminal Sessions before Mr. Justice A. S. P. Iyer. Frankly this judge hearing the case was the luckiest break for the accused.

Ayilam Subramania Panchapakesan Iyer was a brilliant person and an erudite scholar.  A member of the Indian Civil Service he was also a barrister. He opted for judicial service and served as District and Sessions judge at many districts in the old Madras Presidency before his deserved but delayed elevation to the High Court.

At the Madras High Court there was a special court hall – known as the 4th Court – reserved for the hearing of Criminal Sessions cases. The dock in which the accused stood with police guard had a concealed door in the floor. Through this door the accused was brought in and taken away after the hearing each day by armed security cops.

The police also traced some more material objects to strengthen the case: the blood-stained sari worn by Devaki at the time of murder.  According to the police, Menon had thrown it in a park in Broadway on his way to Egmore Railway Station. The park attendant found it and he gave it to his mistress from whom the police recovered it.

A knife known as “Malabar knife” was also recovered. It was alleged to have been used to dismember Alavandar’s body. The shop where it was bought by Menon on the morning of the murder was also traced.

The trial was presided over by Mr. Justice A.S.P. Iyer sitting in full legal regalia of the day with crimson robes, with white wig.   Newspapers based in Madras in all languages reported the proceedings in extensive daily coverage, giving a blow-by- blow account. Large crowds gathered at the court to get a glimpse of the accused couple.

In the years gone by whenever there was a sensational murder case booklets appeared containing the facts of the case, some titillating gossip with a few pen sketches. Such booklets were best-sellers and hawked by boys around the city and near the court on the highway. The booklet about this case contained a pen sketch of a head floating on the sea. There were also songs about the case.

The trial by jury was then in force and a panel of nine jurors was sworn to decide on matters of fact. It consisted of some of the noted citizens of Madras.

S.Govind Swaminathan, then the state prosecutor handled the prosecution case while B.T. Sundararajan and S. Krishnamurthy appeared for the two accused. The two pleaded “not guilty” to the various charges including murder.

The learned state prosecutor built up a strong case of planned murder of Alavandar by the two accused. It was a case of the husband getting rid of his wife’s lover – the outburst of the most primitive emotion of them all. The primitive male killing the serpent which had strayed into his garden.

A shroud of emotionally charged silence enveloped the court hall when Mrs. Alavandar came to the witness box to give evidence. She burst into loud sobs when a glass case containing the severed head of her husband was brought into court and the prosecutor asked her to identify the head. Amidst rocking sobs she showed the over-riding teeth, the pierced ear lobes and confirmed that it was her husband’s. Indeed there were many moist eyes in the court hall.

The counsel for Menon, B.T. Sundararajan, raised the plea that the killing resulted by the sudden and grave provocation incited by the playboy trying to pressure his wife Devaki to have sex with him against her will. The defense version was that Alavandar had come home and made forceful overtures to Devaki and he was pulling at her clothes. Menon who was in the kitchen cutting vegetables rushed out with the knife in hand and was enraged by the distressing and degrading sight. Provoked, he attacked the villain and the two grappled. Menon had the kitchen knife in his hand and during the fight the knife had accidentally struck the man. There was no intention to commit the murder, the counsel submitted to the jury and judge.

Under the Indian Penal Code sudden and grave provocation is a fitting answer to a charge of murder. Both counsel tried hard to take advantage of this exception.  But they did not succeed. The reason was the medical evidence.

Dr. C. B. Gopalakrishna went into the witness box as the main prosecution witness. Besides proving that the head and trunk belonged to the same person, he spoke on oath about the cause of his death.

The victim’s left lung and liver had been torn by a knife which had been used with a downward thrust in a right trajectory. It was this injury which had caused the death. The nature of the injury did not tally with the defense version of grappling and struggle.  The stabbing had been done with a sharp knife using considerable force with a view to cause irreparable damage. It was no accidental injury. It was cold blooded attack, the noted forensic science specialist said.

Dr.CBG had made a Plaster of Paris model of Alavandar with the help of the famed Gemini Studio, Madras.  In court he demonstrated using the model how the injury was caused. When the prosecutor showed the Malabar knife the witness agreed that such a knife could have caused the damage to the lung and liver.

Even though the prosecution put up a strong case there was one factor which played a major role in the outcome of the case:  Mr. Justice A.S.P. Iyer. Steeped in ancient tradition, he was a true blue Puritan.  In his opinion, Alavandar was a scamp and blot on society. Such persons deserved to be eliminated.  According to Justice Iyer’s daughter, Mrs. Asokam Easwaran, her father described the murder as “justifiable execution of an unwanted rascal.”

(Dr. Gopalakrishna told this writer an interesting anecdote in late 1980s. When he was in the witness box trying hard to explain medical facts to the laymen of the jury Mr. Justice A. S. P. Iyer leaned towards him and remarked in a stage whisper, “Doctor, why are you straining so hard?  That fellow deserved to die!”  When Mr. Iyer was at Madurai as the district judge Dr. CBG was the Assistant District Medical Officer and also the judge’s family doctor. That was how both were good friends for life.

(When this writer spoke to M.C .Cunnan Chetty during 1970s about this case, the leading pen merchant was most reluctant to speak about it.. “I told that fellow to concentrate on his business instead of chasing women... he did not listen.... he got what he deserved, I suppose!” He said pursing his lips.)

The judge’s summing-up to the jury tilted towards the accused. He supported the sudden and grave provocation theory put forward by the defense.

Despite the judge’s summation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty against both the accused.  Accepting the verdict, His Lordship sentenced Prabhakara Menon to seven years in jail and Devaki to three. The police top brass were disappointed for they expected Menon to hang. But the learned judge took a different view of the case and murder and viewed it all in the larger perspective of the interests of society and its morals.

Menon wished to go on appeal against the sentence. But B.T .Sundararajan rightly advised him not to take such a faulty step. He told his client that he had escaped with a light sentence thanks to the judge. If any other judge had heard the case he would have got a very stiff sentence. If he appealed, the state would go on appeal too for enhancement of the sentence and it stood a good chance of winning.  Menon saw the light and did not appeal.

The Menons disappeared inside a state prison and came out after a few years. They obtained remissions in their term due to good conduct in prison. They were released during mid-1950s.  Later after release they relocated in Kerala where they set up a small business. Over the years they prospered and built a hotel in a big town in Keral.  

Mrs. Asokam Easwaran told this writer an interesting happening. When she visited the town where the Menons had their small business she came to know that in their prayer room the couple had a photo of Mr. Justice A.S.P.  Iyer along with their household gods and goddesses. The judge’s daughter felt upset and sent a message to that effect.

The Alavandar Murder Case is one of the most popular and sensational cases in the history of crime in India. In 1995 a 13-part TV serial in Tamil written by this writer and produced by the Dina Thanthi newspaper group was telecast by the Doordarshan Kendra, Madras as a sponsored program. The serial proved a big hit even though it was not well made. It shows how famous the trial is and how deeply it is etched in public memory which is believed to be short.

Indeed Alavandar has achieved immortality in the social history of south India though for the wrong reasons.

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