Till the afternoon of August 27, 1968, when he was found walking with a wet umbrella in an otherwise dry stretch in Bhendi Bazaar, the Bombay police were still hunting for a motive. In the run-up to the arrest, men, women, children were being killed across the northern suburbs, their heads battered, their jaws broken, all the leads pointing to one assailant on the move.
The man with the umbrella, later identified as the serial killer, Raman Raghav, is back this monsoon — fortunately only on a movie screen, with the release of Anurag Kashyap’s film Raman Raghav 2.0.
Unknown to sub-inspector Alex Fialho, the police officer who arrested him, the city had just found its first big-ticket serial killer, one who ticked all the boxes: a dual personality, a mind that craved crime and sex, who was driven by his “inner voice”. That voice gave only one command: go kill.
A dog barked. A torchlight followed and went across the wall, but the killer stayed hidden in the shadows. At Raywalpada, on the northernmost tip of old Bombay, milkman Laxman Jetha had been alerted by his dog. But when he heard nothing more, he retreated. The killer, a habitual thief and a former mill hand, waited for the dog and Jetha to fall asleep.
In less than an hour, as the colony slumbered, his crowbar picked a target and went to work. On the fifth strike, Jetha’s relative and fellow milkman, Devram Bharwad, was a corpse on a charpoy.
With the silence of the night restored, the killer was in no hurry. He sat next to the body and silently polished off the leftover dinner: rice, rotis and buttermilk. He had mastered this routine — at four homes, he had eaten his victims’ dinner, sitting right next to their bleeding heads. He also took a matchbox, few bidis, two toe rings, and a silver ring from a bag hanging on the wall.
On his way out, he saw a woman, later identified as Shantabai, sleeping with her two infants on the pavement. He watched her intently for a minute before bashing her skull in. There were three straight strikes before she became motionless again, just the way he saw her first. He spared the babies.
“She had covered her body with a sheet of cloth, on removing which I found she was nude. I sucked her breasts, and found the milk so sweet that I drank as much as I could,” he would later confess to R M Devre, Presidency Magistrate on November 11, 1968. “Then I had sexual intercourse with her (corpse).”
The streets of Bombay had not seen such fear. In his book, Crimes, Criminals and Cops, the then Deputy Commissioner of Police, CID (Crime), late Ramakant S Kulkarni, described Raghav’s victims as those who “eked [out] a precarious living”. The book sketches a profile of Raman Raghav, a man who killed again and again, and without remorse.
It was the monsoon of 1968, and everything romantic about Bombay rains was being overshadowed by the movements of a serial killer. The victims were the poorest and they were attacked in their sleep — on pavements and in their homes. A young Kulkarni had just taken charge, and every morning his biggest fear came true. “Years later, in 1982, when he came to the IPS academy in Hyderabad to speak on how to gain ‘insight into a criminal mind’, he recalled how the motive for the murders remained elusive for a long time. He would go to bed, praying no fresh bodies should emerge. By morning, a wireless would only add to the body count,” recalls Datta Padsalgikar, current Mumbai police commissioner.
While the murders were spread over two months, there was at least one week in August, where a body was found every day. Sometimes, Raghav would kill a couple of people in one night. Or, he would target one person in a line of sleeping pavement-dwellers, the blow so swift and strong, that not even the person sleeping near the victim heard a whimper.
It was the first case which saw the Mumbai Crime Branch detection room use a full-size map of the city. The red dots, denoting the murders, spread across Malad, Oshiwara, Goregaon, Kandivali, Borivli and Dahisar. The bodies were recovered from slushy pathways, ramshackle huts and in crowded cattle sheds run by migrants from north India. Some were found on either side of the Bombay-Ahmedabad highway.
The victims were hit only above the neck, and the fatal blow was immensely forceful. In all the cases, the forensics found blood spattered across the hut walls, staining tin boxes, walls of stables, floors beneath charpoys, on slippers left on floors, or on the metal of migrant luggage boxes. The killer, everyone agreed, was one messy fellow.
As Raghav would later confess, his weapon of choice was a broken axle of a motor truck, which he had modified for a good grip. A second weapon, an octagonal crowbar from a construction site, was borrowed from a friend, and shaped into an L.
The things he filched from the crime scene made the case trickier. A stove and an umbrella was missing from an Oshiwara hut; a wristwatch, a jar of ghee from the house of a mill hand at Hanuman Nagar, Kandivali, a pair of spectacles from a buff-polisher’s house at Parekhnagar, Kandivali.
He once picked a 10 paise coin from a body, and made off with boxes of Dalda and flour. In one instance, he waited for five days, keeping watch outside a hut in Malad, where a couple lived with their two-month-old son. A gold necklace worn by the woman had caught his fancy. On the fifth day, he entered the house and killed all three. When he went to a pawn broker, he was informed that the chain was fake.
The first forensic breakthrough came from Dhanjiwadi in Malad, where a woman and her infant had been killed. The killer had left behind an umbrella and an “iron rod shaped like the figure 7”, narrates Kulkarni. At the Parekhnagar hut of the buff-polisher, a print of the assailant’s left middle finger was found on a framed image of Shiva.
Then came the killing that went to trial. On the night of August 26, Lalchand Jagannath and Dular Jaggi Yadhav, two daily wage earners who worked at a cattle shed at Chinchivli, Malad, were found murdered. A 13-year-old witness testified seeing the killer “wading through a dirty nalla filled with dung, clutching something under his armpit”. This was the strongest case against Raghav — with eye witnesses, evidence, including fingerprints, and a straight confession.
Before he was caught, the fearful city fought off sleep. Vigilante groups filled with nervous men began picking on any suspicious-looking person lurking in the dark. Mob justice was harsher. As it was rumoured that the killer possessed supernatural powers, the crowd’s ire was directed at fakirs and sadhus.
“There was a fortnight-long English newspaper strike in the middle of all the killings which made matters worse. In the absence of factual news, rumours spread faster,” says police historian Deepak Rao. The homeless, who slept on pavements or ill-secured huts across the city, were reported to have begged for shelter from shops and hotels.
“Public imagination ran wild. At some places, he was spotted rushing into a bush, with a bird flying off from the swamp. In another instance, a dog was seen coming out of a hut where a murder had taken place. Soon, the rumours spread that he could change his form. He could become a parrot, a dog, or a cat. Some insisted that he had an alien presence about him, that he had supernatural powers,” says Sriram Raghavan, whose research on the killer resulted in a short docu-drama Raman Raghav, A City, A Killer.
In the midst of the police’s heightened desperation, a detective in the homicide squad, Inspector V.V. Vakatkar, made the first connection.
He recalled similar injuries in a set of cases from the city’s eastern suburbs. Between 1956 and 1966, in the “duct line cases” as they were called, nine people had died, with their skulls bashed in, and 10 others suffered head injuries. One of the suspects was Raman Raghav, a migrant to the city from Tamil Nadu, with aliases like Sindhi Talwai, Anna, Thambi and Veluswami. A career criminal, his fingerprints were filed away for dacoity and murder, among other cases. With no witnesses and zero evidence, he was externed from the city in 1966 for two years. (It was only during the trial that Raghav would reveal that he was in jail for a year and half in Wadgaon for a theft he committed outside Bombay limits.) When the CID reopened that file, they found a photograph and fingerprints that matched with the ones found in Parekhnagar.
With a face to search, wireless patrols spread across the city on August 19 with the photograph. On August 24, a woman in Poisar, in the western suburbs, confirmed she had spotted him: he was wearing khaki half-pants, a blue shirt and brown canvas shoes. He had an umbrella tucked under his arms. Three days later, sub-inspector Fialho found a man walking aimlessly in south Bombay. He was carrying a wet umbrella, when it hadn’t rained in Bhendi Bazaar. However, there had been showers in Malad the day before. Fialho walked up to him and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder.
He said his name was Raman Raghav. He admitted to killing 24 people: men, women and children.
It took two plates of murgi (chicken) and a bottle of coconut oil with which he massaged himself, before he told the cops: “Maardaars? Get a vehicle, armed police and two witnesses. I will show you my weapon.” Raghavan has a scene based on this input in his movie, where a young Raghubir Yadav, playing Raghav, is seen sitting on a stool flanked by six policemen as he rubs oil into his scalp. “This was exactly how it happened. Kulkarni and Vakatkar both described this to me in great detail and in between chuckles,” says Raghavan.
Through the trial, Raghav, a native from Tirunelvali, wore a “contemptuous disdain” on his face, according to Khushwant Singh, in his essay Portrait of a Serial Killer. Singh had reported the trial for The Illustrated Weekly of India. He wrote that, “hatred of women is a dominant aspect of Raman Raghav’s character. How he came to despise and at the same time crave their company is not quite clear.”
Through the trial, Raghav repeatedly asked the police, the court, his psychiatrist and the jailor for two prostitutes. One for sex, the other to take care of the first. He said his life was punctuated with betrayal by women: his first wife had slept with another man; a second woman, who he was about to marry, turned out to be a woman abandoned by her husband, and hence “another man’s reject”. He left his village as he felt his aunt was jealous of him. During the trial, he told the judge that he did not believe in god because “god was partial to women”.
With the barrister appointed as defence counsel informing the court that he suspected his client to be of unsound mind, the court asked the police surgeon and a psychiatrist from Nashik Prisons to examine Raghav. Both certified he was sane, with the prosecution arguing that the act of sexual intercourse with the body of a dead woman showed “depravity of mind”. A third diagnosis was called after it was found Raghav exhibited “confusing” behaviour — he insisted the names of his deceased be meticulously recorded, and he showed an obsession with decorum (he would get irritated when anyone folded his legs while sitting, or objected if a glass of water was served the “wrong” way). As Singh wrote, “He had his own notions of right and wrong”, and “he is finicky as a middle-class spinster when it comes to hygiene.”
Dr Anand Patkar, a psychiatrist, spent 80 minutes on August 5, 1969 with the accused, and concluded that Raghav showed homicidal tendencies as he suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia. He wrote to the court, “Over a number of years, the suspicious tendencies get exaggerated, organised and systematised and the patient tends to build up a suspicious world of his own.” Raghav had told the doctor that he wanted to kill a waiter for adulterating his tea. In most cases, he admitted having killed after he received a command from a “duniya wireless” inside his head. There are various references in the trial notes of Raghav stressing that the killings were his idea of “settling a debt”.
His “wireless” messages, which he kept referring to as kanoon, came to him as a “buzzing command” inside his head. The Bombay High Court in its order on August 4, 1987 observed, “The accused has thought, or has suffered from a delusion, that he was acting under the command of a law which was higher than the law of the land. He also regarded that it was obligatory upon him to follow the kanoon which told him to kill persons.”
Dr Patkar’s son Sachin, a consultant psychiatrist himself, has meticulously studied his father’s notes on Raghav’s “command hallucinations”. “My father spoke to him for over an hour and made a diagnosis on the first day itself. The inner voice Raghav believed was of Shiva. His biggest fear was of going impotent and the voice asked him to kill those who would turn him into a woman. He believed the killings of men and the rape of a dead woman was to protect himself. Every move of his was to protect his manhood. His only fear was turning into a woman,” he says.
While in jail, Singh reported that Raghav was furious after the barber shaved off his moustache (“I don’t want to look like a woman or a hijra,” he said).
Raghav’s delusions made him see ordinary men as adversaries, who turned into women and lured him to sleep with them, challenging his manhood. He had no option but to hack them down.
Sachin recalls his father speaking about a man who had his own sense of loyalty, his own kingdom inside his head, and his own idea of law. “Many people suffer from command hallucinations. Raghav’s story is different as he actually acted on them.”
Raghav was sentenced to death by the Sessions Court on August 13, 1969. Eventually, the Bombay High Court in its 1987 order reduced the term to life imprisonment. Raghav died in 1995 after his kidneys failed him.
Raghavan still has a last anecdote saved for us. “The Joshi-Abhyankar serial killers (the subject of Kashyap’s film Paanch) were also lodged at Yerwada Central Prison in Pune. Every prisoner was afraid of them, but they were terrified of Raghav. He evoked fear even when he was chained.”