The Alavandar case

A case that shook Madras in 1953, all for a pen……

The Telugu Komati Chetties had been trading in Madras for a long time and were pretty good at it, holding privileged positions with the British in the pre independence days, well located in the (China town) Parry’s corner and Broadway environs of old Madras. The kothwal market or the Kothachawady was something which owes its origin to them, so also many of the old businesses and shops, which old timers frequented. But this is about an unsavory character of their lot, one Alavandar who traded in pens, plastic goods and sarees and his timely demise, if I may term it so. This Alavander, a namesake of the great Vaishnavite philosopher, was no good man, but a philanderer, often preying on young women. As it transpired, in the autumn months of 1951, he chanced upon a young girl of 22, named Devaki Menon, who visited the shop he worked in (it still exists) called Gem and Co to buy a fountain pen. Such pens were much treasured in those days and had great value. In this peculiar case, that pen sale was to start an amorous affair of sorts and eventually result in the murder of this Alavandar.

The story came out in bits and pieces, during the early months of 1953 when the case came up for trail in the hallowed Madras High court. Newspapers feasted on the lurid, morbid and sleazy details. It was certainly tricky, for the jurors, the judge, the police, the lawyers and the others who assisted with the investigation. You must now remember that the scientific facilities we have today were not available to the rudimentary medical team in Madras during that period. X-rays, fingerprints, autopsies and so on were not so advanced and conclusions not too easy to reach. Much of the information on the happenings came out from the confessions (sometimes coerced) provided by the accused and the co accused and the juries made their decisions based on those, after the presiding judge had made his summary and opinion of the case.

The accused was Prabhakara P Menon, husband of the co accused Devaki Menon and they lived in Royapuram. Prior to their marriage in June 1952, Devaki was a social worker imparting Hindi tuitions and lived with her parents in Adam Sahib St. Prabhakara Menon was an insurance clerk at the Premier insurance Co and had since then taken up a position as the editor for the newspaper Freedom. After marriage they settled down in a house rented from one Yusuf Mohammed, at 62 Cemetery Rd Royapuram. The hornets’ nest was stirred (or so it seems) when Menon wanted an advertisement in his paper and his wife offered to help by getting an advertisement from Gem and Co. Menon accompanied Devaki and met Alavandar who seemed overtly friendly with his wife thereby raising suspicions in Menon’s mind about his wife’s fidelity. In fact if he had asked around, Menon could have been more definite in his conclusions, for Alavandar did have many such conquests to boot.

Alavandar, then 42 years old, was not debonair, but dressed nattily, used to work in the Military department at Avadi and had taken up to the businesses mentioned above, after premature retirement. I would assume that he saw greater opportunities in business and soon found out that he could easily bed many a woman he desired by offering pens, sarees and plastic vessels and accepting their bodies in lieu or as part payment for the pens or vessels sold.

On 29th August 1952, Inspector Ramantha Iyer was faced by a worried looking woman claiming to be the wife of the said Alavandar, complaining that her husband had not come home. The press took up the issue announcing the case of a missing businessman, the following day. Iyer checked up with Kannan Chetty the owner of Gem and Co and talked to Venkatarangan an aspiring politician, who had been around as well as other employees who all mentioned that Alavandar was last seen talking to Devaki Menon on the 28th August, the previous day, before noon.

Meanwhile, on the same day, the 29th, at about noon time, a ticket examiner boarded the 3rd class compartment of the Indo-Ceylon boat mail at Manamadurai, a station some 60 miles from Madurai, only to be accosted by irate passengers who complained of a stink from a section of the compartment. Hastening to the location, he found a green steel trunk under the seat as the source of the offending smell, with nasty blood pools around it. The station police and station master were summoned and the box opened. The contents were nothing short of macabre, it comprised a human body sans its head, severed arms and legs, all swiftly rotting in the hot and humid weather. The police were perplexed, whose corpse could this be? It decidedly originated from Egmore station in Madras, with the train. 

A quick postmortem revealed injuries to the left side of the chest, a circumcised penis, a black waist thread, and green socks on the feet. The police surgeon concluded after an X-ray that it belonged to a Muslim male aged 24. As we can see, it was a deduction far from reality. The body was moved to the local burial ground and a watch kept, just in case, for this bit of horrid news also hit the papers.

Ramanatha Iyer reading the news the next day somehow felt that the body in the trunk was related to the missing Alavandar. He had in the meantime tracked down the residence of Devaki Menon in Royapuram only to be told that the house had been vacated and the occupants had left town. He entered to see an empty house, but with a number of blood stains on the walls and the kitchen. Iyer was quick to round up and question a number of people in the neighborhood and slowly the scene was recreated. A rickshaw puller Arumugam informed that the occupant of the home, PP Menon had hired his rickshaw, was seen carrying a pumpkin like object, which he had tossed into the Bowekuppam at the Royapuram beach.

Iyer deducted that this tossed object must be the missing head of the headless corpse, but then again, the head was still missing. Proverbially, Jayarama Iyer a constable, walking along the beach chanced upon this very head, as a wave brought it in at 4PM on Aug 31st. Ramanatha Iyer quickly had the torso brought in to Madras and the combination was handed over for further analysis to a medical team headed by Dr KC Jacob and Dr CP Gopalakrishnan. They were able to establish that the head belonged to the body after seeing that the cervical vertebrae matched at the cut and the finger prints from the severed hands matched those of Alavandar (which were available since he was in military service). Also the height of the body after combining the torso with the head came up to 5’5” whereas the service record mentioned Alvander’s height at 5’4.5”. Alavandar’s wife was called for identification and she identified him based on his two holed right earlobe, his black overriding upper canine tooth, his waist thread, circumcised penis and the green socks. It also transpired during the case that Alavandar had gotten circumcised and consumed opium, both attributed to greater sexual prowess by the press. The stomach analysis revealed opium which Alavandar was known to take.

With this the case took a new turn, to the investigation of the homicide of Alavander and the tracking down of the missing assailants, presumed to be the Prabhakaran and Devaki. The police soon traced the servant boy who worked for the Menon’s, a Coimbatore lad of 13 named KT Narayanan, who had run away from home some months ago and come to Madras. After questioning him (and perhaps Devaki’s father Raman Menon), they learnt that the couple had left for Bombay via Mysore. Ramanatha Iyer drove to Bangalore and flew to Bombay and located Prabhakara Menon at one Subedar Major Nair’s house, with Bombay police’s help. Devaki Menon had in the meanwhile suffered an abortion and was hospitalized. Menon was arrested on 13th Sept and Devaki later after she was discharged from the hospital, on the 22nd. Both were brought back to Madras.

I cannot but feel astonished at the efficiency with which all this took place, can you imagine, in 1952, when police departments had small budgets, less staff and depended on the ingenuity of its officers. Just imagine - they could resort to air travel, they worked well with Bombay police and even moved suspects by air!!

The police continued with its investigation, and identified some 50 persons who could provide circumstantial evidence about the movements of Alavander and the Menon’s. The police uncovered a watch and a pen from Menon which they believed were Alavandar’s. They also found a knife in the belongings of Devaki and traced out her blood stained sari and the Malabar knife used to sever the head of the deceased. Menon later showed the police a location near the beach he had hidden clothes and underwear belonging to Alavander. But the police had no eyewitness or clinching evidence linking the Menon’s directly to the crime except for a bloodstained palm print purporting to be Menon’s at 62 Cemetery rd. The police tried hard to get Devaki to become an approver in return for a full pardon if she could affirm that Prabhakaran had committed a premeditated murder, but she would not budge and continued to support her husband who she said acted to save her honor. All the court had was their statements, some obtained under police pressure, but which were used in the court during a trial by jury and headed by a senior judge.

What is even more interesting is the group of people who came together in this pursuit for justice. The presiding judge was A S Panchapakesa Ayyar, from Palghat, a stentorian individual, while the public prosecutor was Govind Swaminathan (brother of Lakshmi Sehgal) from Palghat (later Calicut). The lawyers for the defense were BT Soundararajan and S Krishamurthy. The case was soon readied and the much talked about trial was held at the great hall in the Madras high court, just a few months later, in March 1953. A number of people were questioned, a number of items were introduced as evidence and a number of findings were revealed to the public, and events were replayed in the interest of judicial correctness and for the jury to take a note of. The arguments hovered around whether the case was justifiable or culpable homicide, or a case or premeditated murder. It was very important to have this right for each of them carried a very different sentence, in severity.

Ayilam Subramania Panchapakesan Iyer had come a long way from that small village in Palghat and had risen up the ranks to be the first ICS officer from Madras.  After education at Oxford, he became an eminent and outspoken judge. He was author of so many interesting books such as The Layman's Bhagavad Gita, Three men of destiny, and his novel Baladitya is possibly the first historical romance based on Indian History. He was never popular with the British, whom he derided often, and they denied him promotions, keeping him as a district judge for long years. Finally, after Independence he got his much deserved elevation as the first permanent Indian Chief Justice of the Madras High Court.

Govind Swaminathan on the other hand, was born into an influential family, son of Dr S Swaminathan, a leading barrister of Madras who specialized in Criminal Law. Govind’s mother Ammu was a leading social activist later becoming a member of the Constituent Assembly of India and an MP. Govind had two sisters one of whom was the eminent dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai and the other the well-known INA Capt Lakshmi Sehgal.

Not much is known about the defense counsel, perhaps they were court appointed.

So let us now go to the High court at the Parry’s corner, a few hundred feet away from the pen shop where Alavandar had worked, and see what happened, as we reconstruct the events of 28th August 1952. The judge ASP Ayyar is smartly clad in a black suit and covered with his judicial crimson robes, the sheriff sits on his right wearing a white-laced black gown holding a spear in his hand and to his left sits the Commissioner of Police. The Sergeant would bellow, just as the court was to begin, mightily, “Oye! Oye! Oye!” With that the court belonged to Ayyar, and perfect stillness would descend in the court. The hallowed halls built of teak from Indonesia and furniture of rosewood from Waynad were filled with people looking on….

The hearing revealed the following

The 22 year old Devaki daughter of Raman Menon lived with her parents at Adam Saheb st, and first met Alavandar in August 1951 when she went to Gem & Co to buy a pen. They met frequently and it appears that she was seduced by Alavander a month later at a Broadway hotel, perhaps The Crown. In May 1952, she met Prabhakara Menon, then working as a clerk at the Premier insurance company. He had a reasonably good job and a company car, but soon changed jobs and became an editor at a newspaper named Freedom. They got married in June 1952, a month later.

A few days later, needing an advertisement, Menon meets Alavandar who compliments him on his marriage, but raises the suspicions of Menon who sees too much familiarity in Alavandar’s references to his wife Devaki. Soon they move into new lodgings at 62 Cemetery road and employ Narayanan mainly for cooking and carrying water upstairs. It is perceived that Alavandar has been pursuing Devaki even though she was married. He apparently demands compensation for the advertisement and takes Devaki to the Mercantile hotel for sex, but she manages to escape, and Alavander is incensed. On that particular day, Menon’s suspicions increase as Devaki reaches home late and he accosts his wife and asks her if she is carrying on an affair. She initially denies it, but admits to the previous affair with Alavandar during a movie they go to see at the Minerva Talkies, on 27th August. The furious Menon storms out of the theater and later at night asks his wife to bring Alavandar home so that he could finish him off (according to the statement of Narayanan who overheard the outburst in Malayalam – seems the boy woke up and went to pee).

A day later the Menon’s world is turned upside down by the events which occur in rapid succession, and in a surprisingly orderly and planned fashion, all brought to light by a quirk of fate, when the wave carried Alavandar’s lifeless head back to shore, depositing it at the feet of Constable Jayraman Iyer.

According to the public prosecutor - Menon plans the act of finishing off Alavandar. He asks Devaki to bring him home on 28th August. He absconds office that day and orders a large knife from Khader Moideen (or another man) which is picked up around 9AM. He asks Narayanan to go elsewhere that day and then leaves home at 10AM, well dressed, he is said to have walked up to the nearby shop and purchased two bottles of Vimto sodas (why Vimto – because it was crimson red?).

At 400 PM, he hires a rickshaw and proceeds to throw toss a pumpkin shaped object into the beach dump. He also finds time to hide some clothes under a rock near the beach (though not noticed doing so by the rickshaw driver Arumugam).

At about 530 PM, Menon is seen again pedaling home on a cycle carrying a large green trunk. Narayanan who has returned by then notices that Devaki is washing some clothes downstairs, she declines offers for help. He is later summoned to help wash the floor upstairs and smells cut flesh. Later Menon proceeds to Egmore station in a rickshaw of one Kathavarayan, with the green trunk. At the station he declines porter help in carrying the box initially, but later does, with whom he deposits the object under a seat of the Ceylon boat mail ETD 800PM, stating that this was for a friend leaving by the train. The porter sees blood and Menon explains that he has cut his hand which indeed is the case, for his thumb and palm are injured. The porter is paid Rs 5/- and asked to keep mum. Menon comes back, shaves off his moustache and returns the Malabar knife to Moideen (actually there is an anomaly here for Menon in his confession explained that he got it from somebody else).

Next day as the trunk is opened up in Manamadurai and as Ramanathan Iyer is dealing with Alavandar’s wife’s complaint, the Menon’s busy themselves in vacating their 62 Cemetery Rd house, transferring the goods to Raman Menon’s (Devaki’s father) house. Later that evening they take the train to Mysore (where Menon tries to settle his company dues from his boss) and then Bombay, leaving the boy Narayanan behind.

The police follow the culprits to Bombay where Menon has started to work for BICC and is living with a relative Subedar Major Nair. Devaki seems to be pregnant and had taken ill. Menon surrenders to the Bombay police when accosted and inspectors Clark and Jaffer book a case of homicide on him. He is then handed over to Ramanathan Iyer who takes him back to Madras and gets him to go over the events, while at the same time unearthing the blood stained clothes of Alavandar.

Later the police rummage through Devaki’s possessions, find the watch and pen belonging to Alavander as well as a knife. She is also brought back to Madras by air after recovery, but is tight lipped.

Some more details come to light, that Devaki had visited Gem and Co at 11AM, had a chat with Alavandar and left around noon. Alavandar followed her in a motor rickshaw according to politician Venkatarangan, informing his staff that he will be back in an hour. It is said that Devaki reached home, and her husband opened the door. Fifteen minutes later Alavadar tapped on the door, which was opened by Devaki. Alavandar went in, the door was closed.

What happened inside 62 Cemetery road at 1230 PM on 28th Aug 1952 after which Menon left for Egmore with the green trunk leaking blood? A witness Anthony testified that he presumed Menon was home since he purchased the Vimto drinks from one Chotta Saheb’s shop and that he had seen Alavandar entering Devaki’s home after alighting from an auto rickshaw after noon.

According to the first theory based on the prosecutions deductions, Devaki invited Alavandar home where Menon was lying in wait in the bedroom. Alavandar arrived and proceeded to disrobe Devaki in the hall when Menon came roaring in. A fight ensued and in the process Alavandar got stabbed (Devaki did not witness the fight and was ordered out of the room by the enraged husband) in his lung and liver. During the fight, Alavandar bit Menon’s hand. The Menon’s then decided to dispose of the body and vamoose. So they hacked the body, dismembered the head and arms, as well as a leg. Menon went out, disposed off the head at the beach, then purchased the trunk and left it in the Ceylon bound train. They then washed the floor and kitchen with Lux soap!! The event was premeditated and well planned and death occurred from a frontal stab and not ‘by chance’ during a tussle.

According to Devaki’s and Menon’s statement, Alavandar followed Devaki home and tried to molest her and it was during that event that Menon arrived and knocked on the door. Alavandar opened the door and Menon and Alavandar had a fight which resulted in the events as above. The event was an occurrence by chance precipitated by Alavandar’s molestation attempt. The stabbing was by Alavandar’s own hand as they went down to the floor during the fight.

At 4PM Menon left in Arumugam’s rickshaw to dispose Alavandar’s head in the corporation dump near the Royapuram beach. The trunk was later deposited in the Indo Ceylon mail by Menon. Menon next went to Mysore, to settle their salary dues, then both fled to Bombay and stayed with Sub Maj Nair, a relative of Menon, after which Prabhakaran met up with KS Alva (for a job perhaps) and found employment with BICC British insulated cables.

The defense tried to attack Alavandar’s character, Antony’s testimony and Narayanan’s statements, but do not seem to have dented them or created any doubts in the mind of the jury. The judge, a stern moralist felt that Alavandar got what he deserved and made it clear in his summary. The jury settled on culpable homicide, not going for premeditated, and Ayyar sentenced Menon and Devaki to seven and three years of imprisonment respectively under IPC sections 201 and 304. The public it is said, felt that ASP Ayyar had sided with the couple because they were from Malabar, but failed to notice that the public prosecutor was also from Malabar.

It is believed that the couple went back to Kerala after release and set up a small business. Nothing more is known about them and the memories of the case faded. Randor guy (Madabhushi Rangadorai) wrote about the case, talked often about it and made a television serial based on this story. The medical analysis and its use in conviction ushered a new era of police forensics, while the jury system continued for another 6 years until it was disbanded after the notorious Ahuja – Nanavati case, which I had written about earlier.

In summary, it was diabolic and well timed in execution, for a plan made just the day before. Menon had approximately three hours between 1230 and 330PM to kill and dismember Alavandar, who had unwittingly walked into the trap (or as the court decided, into a crime of passion). The killing was done with a smaller knife puncturing the lung and liver though I believe Alavandar was not yet dead but was stabbed, in mortal danger and bleeding profusely. He was dead only after his head was loped off. To slice off one’s head with a cleaver is not easy, that too for a novice like Menon, but the cut was neat which is surprising (or else the forensic doctor would not have been able to match the cervical vertebrae). Then again it is very difficult to cut through sinew, bone and muscle if you were not a butcher. To remove two hands and a leg off a writhing body lying on a slippery blood pooled floor of the kitchen, while bending down, is very difficult, without expert help. It was not done on a raised dining table or there would have been knife and blood marks on it. Did somebody help?

The confessions make it clear that Devaki was not at the scene of the dismembering. It is 4 PM now. After this Menon had to go and get rid of the head and clothes (Royapuram and back 1 hr), get a trunk on his cycle (15-30 min), go to the Egmore station, some 6 miles away by rickshaw (45 min) and be there to load the truck into the for the Indo Ceylon mail by 630 PM. The trunk would have leaked blood from that point until departure at 8PM and nobody noticed or complained? Another question, why did Menon choose that train and that too Egmore when it was so far away, why not Central station which is nearer (perhaps to throw the police off the scent?) to Royapuram? Nevertheless, it was all carried out in clockwork precision by a cool headed thinker, if you ask me, which therefore leaves even more mystery behind.

I don’t know what make of pen entrapped Devaki, was it a hero or a pilot or a waterman? I don’t know if there were more nefarious activities goings on for it has been muttered that Alavandar was seen more often at 62 Cemetery lane, before the murder, even after Devaki got married. Questions have also been asked as to why all the people of the locality took little note of the happenings or failed to talk the police about it, but well, that’s how it was.

Royapuram continues to be a crowded place, though I am not sure 62 Cemetery road exists. The high court is still there but the glorious carved ceiling has been covered up with a false ceiling to support air conditioning. People still do things they should not, keeping the court and the people who work there, busy. Cases come and go, people are sentenced and acquitted, and Judges as well as advocates continue their arguments and sentencing. Common people no longer occupy the Jurors seats, for the system has been disbanded.

Ironically this would have been an ideal case for the Los Angeles chief medical examiner and coroner Lakshmanan Satyavagishwaran, who worked with complex cases like that of OJ Simpson’s. Lakshmanan, if you did not know, is judge ASP Ayyar’s grandson.

Famous murder trials – S Rajagopalan
Defense contentions in Alavandar Case – Indian express March 12th 1953
Randor guy (Alavandar Murder case) and TV Raj articles (Murder most foul) on the Alavandar Case
S Muthiah – Madras musings - Bodies in the trunk

Photos Courtesy Hindu, Indian express, Randor Guy, ASP Ayyar, Wikimedia

By Yoga Balaji - From a Digital Camera (Nikon), CC BY 3.0,