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March 14, 1998


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Dial M for Murder

Collage by Sunil Krishnan The Bofors saga goes on endlessly. As for the bank scam, it is now a forgotten episode. Today, chief scamster Harshad Mehta writes newspaper columns advising people how to invest their money! The 'fodder' scam is in limbo.

But the common man finds it difficult to follow financial scandals. This is because even those who write about them do not seem to know what they were all about. Comparatively, sensational criminal cases are easier to follow. They deal with people, not shares, debentures or speculation.

A few days ago, the papers frontpaged the judgement on the 'ragging murder' case that rocked Tamil Nadu. The accused, a 20-year-old college student, was sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the brutal murder of a fellow student who resented being ragged. After the murder, the killer cut the body into pieces and disposed them. But when the suspicion focused on him, he confessed to the police.

Gruesome and sensational murders tend to linger in one's memory. As a school-going child in the late 1940s, I avidly read details in the Tamil newspapers of what came to be known as the Alavandar murder case. It all began when the police discovered a huge steel trunk at Madras Central station which contained a mutilated male corpse. Identification of the corpse was difficult, but the police finally managed it from the work done on its teeth. The corpse was that of Alavandar, who worked in a fountain pen making firm.

Some of the details are hazy today. But I remember that Alavandar had started an affair with a married woman, who was one of his customers. When her husband came to know of this, he planned a gruesome revenge. He induced his wife to invite Alavandar to their home, killed him, cut his body into pieces, packed them in the huge trunk and left it at Central station. Thanks to some brilliant detective work, the Madras police was able to solve the crime. Reading about the crime, I used to wonder if the fountain pen I used was made by Alavandar's firm.

For months together, the media highlighted details of the crime and the trial. Newspaper vendors at street corners sold their papers shouting, "Alavandar kolai case'! Madras, normally, was a peaceful city, and the violent crime with the element of sex thrown in fascinated them. The killer was sentenced to a long prison term. Once he was released, he and his wife disappeared into oblivion. There was no follow-up in the media.

The Nanavati murder case in Bombay during the 1950s was also much discussed in the media. R K Karanjia's Blitz carried all the details and actively campaigned for the release of young, handsome Commander Nanavati of the Indian navy who shot and killed his wife's paramour, Sindhi businessman Prem Ahuja. Ahuja had quite a reputation of seducing the wives of defence officers when they were away on duty. Blitz painted Nanavati as a hero, his wife Sylvia as an unfortunate victim of circumstances and Ahuja as an unmitigated scoundrel.

I used to sit patiently at the railway station book stall, awaiting the arrival of the Blitz. So did others. The trial in Bombay created nationwide interest. On the day the verdict was delivered, Nanavati's supporters (mainly Parsis) prayed openly for his release. The jury found Nanavati 'not guilty'. The judge disagreed and sentenced Nanavati to prison term. Ultimately the state governor, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, pardoned Nanavati who migrated to Canada with his family.

The Nanavati trail led to a Hindi movie, Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke, produced and directed by R K Nayyar. I also came across a remarkable book, The Anantomy of a Murder by Robert Weaver which dealt with a court trial on the same theme. An army captain's wife is raped by a local playboy. The captain shoots him down and stands trial for murder. His lawyer convinces the jury and the judge that the captain was seized by an 'irresistible impulse' and was not rational when he shot down the rapist. He is acquitted. This book was also made into a dramatic film featuring James Steward and Lee Remick.

There were fewer financial scandals in those days. The most prominent one was about Haridas Mundhra, a Delhi businessman, who manipulated the shares of the Life Insurance Corporation and certain other leading companies. The scandal involved the then finance minister, T T Krishnamachari, and senior LIC officials. TTK, as he was popularly known, resigned after the scandal was investigated by a commission headed by the then chief justice of Bombay, M C Chagara.

The scandal was of particular interest to me because L S Vaidyanathan, one the senior LIC officials implicated in the scam, belonged to Lakshminarayanapuram village in Palakadu which also happened to be my hometown. And H V R Iyengar, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India who also appeared before the commission, was the father of Indira, a leading table tennis player of the 1950s.

These days, whenever I travel by the 1 Ltd bus from Bandra to the city, I pass the huge firm of Richardson and Cruddas Limited, located in Byculla. My mind immediately goes back to the days of the Mundhra scandal. Richardson and Cruddas was one of the firms whose shares figured in the scandal. Today, it is a sick unit. Perhaps, Haridas Mundhra had a hand in it.

Collage: Sunil Krishnan

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V Gangadhar