The Sukumara Kurup Story
What could have possibly motivated a young man hailing from Kerala doing well in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s and 80s perpetuate a massive crime to orchestrate an insurance fraud? In one word: Avarice.
Sukumara Kurup’s sense of adventure, which worked for him on earlier occasions, had gone one step too far this time around. According to Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, the ability of your opponent is a factor in any case and, Kurup greatly underestimated the capability of the Kerala Police.
Part 1: Flashback
Born Gopalakrishna Kurup in a Nair household in Cheriyanad, Alappuzha in 1946, Kurup was just another regular man who failed pre-degree and was subsequently sent off to the Indian Air Force to straighten out, only for the young man to never go back after a vacation. Yet, Kurup saw to it that he wasn’t classified as a deserter by faking his death and influencing the local cops to certify it. His life in Bombay in the Indian Air Force in the swinging sixties was eventful to the extent that he fell in love with Sarasamma, daughter of the maid once employed at his maternal home, and studying to be a nurse. Gopalakrishna Kurup married Sarasamma in Matunga’s famous Sri Ram Mandir in Bombay and took off to the Persian Gulf as an early bird in 1970 assuming a new identity as Sukumara Pillai, swiftly rising in hierarchy and social status there. Sarasamma too found a job as a nurse and the couple settled down to a lavish life and regular social gatherings.
Kurup’s popularity in his hometown also grew as he would spend lavishly on friends and family during his trips back home, and his circle of friends expanded from Cheriyanad to Alappuzha in no time. He went on to buy a plot of land at Vandanam in Alappuzha to build a house which, during those days, would have been a huge mansion upon completion. Kurup’s friends invited him to invest in various businesses in Alappuzha but he wasn’t saving much due to his opulent lifestyle and the under-construction house exhausting his savings.
His impatience was also fuelled by a minor recession in the Gulf in the early 1980s which saw a lot of companies lay off senior staff. That’s when he devised a plot to pull off a massive insurance fraud inspired by such plots in western movies and novels. In October 1983, Kurup applied for a life insurance worth eight lakh which, in case of an accidental death would be much higher. Having successfully faked death once, Kurup was certain to get away again with his large circle of friends and relatives providing him cover.
The Gang of Four
Kurup divulged his plan to Shahu, an office boy employed in Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company along with him for five years, to gauge his reaction. Shahu was bought in by Kurup’s crazy idea and in a coordinated move, both of them wrote to their families to wire telegrams of their parents being sick asking them to be home. Kurup also wrote a letter to his brother-in-law Bhaskara Pillai detailing him about the plan and got him to buy an old Ambassador car. Sarasamma had some misgivings but had no choice but to support her husband. Kurup and Shahu landed in Thiruvananthapuram on 5 January, 1984 and Shahu took a train to his native place Chavakkad promising to be back in a fortnight to execute the plan. Kurup’s Man Friday Ponnappan, who drove a taxi Ambassador (KLY-5959) owned by his master, was also quickly on board. Initially the plan was to source a dead body from Alappuzha Medical College and later it was improvised to dig out a freshly-buried dead body from a grave but neither worked out. Kurup then came up with the idea of bumping off someone roughly his size and age.
The plan was to be put into action on 21 January when Shahu would board a train from Chavakkad to Chengannur to join the trio that evening. Bhaskara Pillai and Ponnappan waited for Shahu at Navaratna Hotel in Chengannur where the latter was supposed to meet up and Kurup instructed them to join him at Kalpakavadi Inn at Karuvatta in the evening at 8. Meanwhile, Kurup had got his mother with a weak heart admitted to the NSS Hospital in Pandalam assuming she might not withstand the shock news of his death, and went to visit her that afternoon before joining the rest of the gang at Kalpakavadi Inn. After many rounds of booze till 10 PM, the four took off in two cars from Karuvatta. Ponnappan behind the wheels of the taxi car with Bhaskara Pillai and Shahu in the back and Kurup following them in the other Ambassador car.
The idea was to look for people who would wave for a lift towards Alappuzha and Kurup was to overtake the other car and wait at a pre-determined spot once the prey was picked up. At TB Junction in Karuvatta the unfortunate film representative Chacko turned out to be that prey. Chacko was seated in the back between Bhaskara Pillai and Shahu and he was soon given a drink, which he refused but gulped down when Pillai’s voice got stern. Laced with poisonous ether, Chacko soon fell unconscious and Pillai and Shahu strangled Chacko with a towel and drove up to Kurup’s car, waiting ahead.
To ensure that the face of the dead man was disfigured beyond recognition, Kurup and the gang drove to Smitha Bhavan, his wife’s home next to the railway underpass at Cheriyanad, and took the body to a bathroom in the premises and burned the face. They left for Kollakadavu close by and pushed the older car down Thannimukkom field with Chacko’s body placed behind the wheel and set it on fire with a can of petrol and escaped in the other car.
The Burning Car
It was passers-by in another car traversing the deserted Mavelikkara-Chengannur road in the wee hours that initially saw a burning car on the edge of the field near Kunnam and informed Radhakrishnan Ashary in its neighbourhood. Ashary quickly alerted the Mavelikkara police after spotting a man burnt beyond recognition behind the wheel. Mavelikkara sub-Inspector got to the spot in quick time and was soon joined by Chengannur Deputy-Superintendent of Police (Dy-SP) PM Haridas by 5.30 am. The police found a matchbox, rubber slippers and a glove and spotted footmarks on the field after initial inspection – leading to suspicions of foul play. Alappuzha Medical College Professor Dr B Umadathan who conducted the spot post-mortem also concluded that the man was dead before being set on fire.
The Ambassador car’s (KLQ-7831) whereabouts revealed that Sukumara Kurup was supposedly behind the wheel and, his family, unbeknownst of the plot hatched by Kurup, demanded that his body be handed over to cremate. Since Haridas had a hunch that the body wasn’t Kurup’s, despite the similarity in the age and height of the dead body to the former, the body was handed over with the condition that it be buried and not cremated.
Bhaskara Pillai was summoned to the police station and spotting flash burns on his face, DySP Haridas made him roll up his sleeves to reveal multiple flash burns on his hands but, in a bid to save Kurup, Pillai cooked up one story after another without ever revealing what actually happened.
Meanwhile, Ponnappan was sent off to get updates on the case later that afternoon by Kurup from Aluva where they had escaped to after executing the plan. Just as Ponnappan parked the taxi car at Kurup’s Cheriyanad home, people milling around after the burial caught hold of him before being saved by Velayudha Karanavar, a relative of Kurup’s mother. Ponnappan revealed to Karanavar that Kurup was alive. That evening Ponnappan left for Alappuzha and promptly sent a telegram to Sarasamma in Abu Dhabi as instructed by Kurup: Sukumara Kurup is no more. Leave immediately.
Kurup in Alappuzha: 23 January
Early morning on 23 January, Ponnappan reached Aluva and narrated what had transpired to Kurup. Despite being fully aware of the risks involved, Kurup immediately left for Mavelikkara with Ponnappan and went straight to his mother’s place in Eerezha. Karanavar sent for him and promised legal help through his relative, Maheshwaran Pillai, renowned criminal lawyer in Alappuzha.
Says Bhanu Vikraman Pillai, retired Superintendent of Police (SP) and son of Velayudha Karanavar: “My father persuaded Sukumaran to surrender but he was convinced by relative Radhakrishna Kurup not to”. Kurup and Ponnappan left for Kollam and went to Bhutan from there where his relatives lived. Kurup and Ponnappan furnished their names as Venugopal and Sathyan respectively for the entry permits to Bhutan as recounted in PM Haridas’ notes.
Kurup in Alappuzha: 10 February
Running short of money, the duo left Bhutan for Madras after a fortnight and stayed at Newland Lodge overnight before Kurup left for Cheriyanad on 10 February. After sourcing some money through Sarasamma, Kurup met his lawyer Maheshwaran Pillai in Alappuzha who advised him to surrender. Says Advocate PJ Mathew, then Pillai’s junior who had a designated office room at Pillai’s residence, “Pillai sir persuaded Kurup to surrender and promised that he would get him exonerated and that the latter would only have to serve 90 days in prison but Kurup wasn’t convinced.” Kurup had misgivings about the surrender as his relative and local Congress leader N Gopalakrishnan revealed to him how Home Minister Vayalar Ravi was directly in touch with Maheshwaran Pillai to facilitate Kurup’s surrender to save his face.
Kurup left for Madras from Kottarakkara the next evening. By the time he reached Madras a restless Ponnappan had already left for Kerala. On 12 February Ponnappan was caught near Alappuzha when some acquaintances identified him and handed him over to the police. As Ponnappan sang like a canary in custody, Bhaskara Pillai too admitted to the crime with no recourse left. Ponnappan’s statement led to Shahu’s capture in Chavakkad and by that time DySP PM Haridas had identified the dead man to be Chacko. Kurup was revealed to have taken life insurance and the case was solved in three weeks but Kurup remained absconding ever after.
Trial and Conviction
The case went to trial in December 1990 and the verdict was delivered on 14 February, 1991. Forensic Surgeon Dr B Umadathan writes in his memoirs: “Maheshwaran Pillai argued that the police did not follow due procedure (Section 53 of CrPC) while interrogating Bhaskara Pillai before his arrest and this was a major lapse by the prosecution. All the lawyers practicing in Alappuzha court had turned up to witness my cross examination by Pillai. He argued that the super imposition of Chacko’s skull and recreation of his feet weren’t clinching and while this was accepted by the court, the verdict was in prosecution’s favour.” Bhaskara Pillai and Ponnappan were given life sentences and Sarasamma and sister Thankamani were let off as their involvement in the case couldn’t be proved beyond doubt. Shahu turned approver.
An appeal against the conviction was heard by the High Court bench of KT Thomas and PA Muhammed on the plea that it wasn’t proved beyond doubt that the dead man was Chacko but it was dismissed summarily by the court. Ponnappan died a year after completing his sentence.
Part 2: The Survivors
With Kurup absconding – if he were still technically alive today – this writer decided to meet with the family of Chacko, Shahu, Bhaskara Pillai, Sarasamma and DySP PM Haridas to document their present and carry the story forward. More importantly, with many falsehoods and half-truths flying around, a fact-check seemed to be in order.
The Family of Chacko
The man who unwittingly became the victim of the plot hatched by Kurup was Chacko – survived by his wife Santhamma and son Jithin, who was in his mother’s womb when the crime unfolded. Santhamma is still scarred from the incident and Jithin believes Kurup is still at large. There is a large photograph of Chacko hanging at the drawing room of their home in Alappuzha as one enters it.
In 2018, there was a much-publicized retreat covered by the media where Santhamma was supposed to have forgiven Bhaskara Pillai. After much prodding Jithin stated, “Our family is very close to the church and we were asked to come to the retreat when we came face-to-face with Bhaskara Pillai and the rest was a reality show. What is the point in claiming to forgive someone without meaning it?”
Shahu: The Approver
Shahu makes a living selling fish today. Getting track of Shahu is no easy task as he doesn’t want to meet anyone from the press following the notoriety gained after giving a byte during the release of the movie, Kurup. At Chavakkad, he is identified as ‘NH Shahu’, after the film loosely based on Kurup made in 1984 titled NH-47.
After being chased from Chavakkad to Pavaratty where he sells his catch till the fall of the night, he finally agreed to talk. He bemoans how his life was turned upside down by one bad call and how he still has to work hard to eke out a living. Asked why he never tried to go back abroad Shahu says, “I was scared that Kurup would try and finish me off before the trial as the case rested on my statement. And the safest place on earth for me was my hometown where it was unlikely that I could be harmed.”
Bhaskara Pillai and Thankamani
For some reason Bhaskara Pillai is assumed to be dead. One reporting error from a respectable publishing house can often lead to a vicious cycle but it’s unclear who initiated it. Pillai suffered a stroke about a year ago and despite mobility issues, he can speak clearly. Thankamani is pleasant but she is not keen to speak about the case.
“We have suffered enough on account of the case and we are done with the routine”. On being asked about the theory going around that he is dead, Pillai chuckles, “Let it remain so or else, the news channels will come sniffing around”.
Sarasamma: Kurup’s wife
Kurup’s wife Sarasamma is believed to be living in Kuwait. This was announced by a senior news anchor in Kerala when the film Kurup was up for release. But Sarasamma is very much living in Kerala in a place not far from Cheriyanad and spent the entire duration of Covid-19 here. Sarasamma had managed to obtain a fresh passport to go back to the Gulf post the trial and had been based in Kuwait before moving back three years ago. She had moved out of Smitha Bhavan long ago to stave off the press and wants to be left alone.
Curiously, there’s an under-construction two-storey house next to her house within the compound financed by her son who is currently based abroad. Sarasamma refuses to speak and stonewalls everything. Her plea not to be photographed is acceded to.
At his Kollam residence DySP Haridas is long retired and is now pushing 81, with his faculties intact despite occasionally struggling with recollection of dates, is nonplussed at all the brouhaha surrounding Kurup after the release of the film. On being asked whether the filmmakers came to meet him while crafting the story, Haridas nods in the affirmative. The Kurup case, or the Chacko murder case, was in many ways career-defining for Haridas. His daughter is married to Dr B Umadathan’s son proving how the case intertwined their personal lives. While many people have been milking the case to make a quick buck post Kurup’s release, Haridas prefers to stay away from the limelight.
Part 3: What actually happened to Kurup?
From Madras Kurup left for Itarsi near Bhopal on 13 February, 1984, and stayed with his relatives there for a while and then left for Mumbai where he met with relative Maniyamma apart from his former Abu Dhabi colleague Zak as tracked by the police in official records. Since Kurup’s whereabouts from Mumbai couldn’t be ascertained it was assumed that he fled the country through a ship. There is another theory that he exited through Nepal but either way it was likely that he was back in the Persian Gulf under a new identity when the chargesheet in the case was filed in 1987.
There are some theories about Kurup taking seriously ill by 1990. The Kerala police were inundated with phone calls and letters by nurses and others attesting that they saw Kurup but all of these turned out to be misleading according to PM Haridas. “I went to many states in North India after getting leads but came back empty-handed as none of these were reliable. For instance, I asked a Malayali nurse who was convinced that she saw Kurup on how she was so certain about it and I was told the man had a striking resemblance and that he was six feet tall. Then I proceeded to ask her how tall I was and she said, "Six feet. I would have to gain another five inches to be six feet!”
Recently, former Director General of Police (DGP) Alexander Jacob claimed that Kurup was apprehended around 10 February close to his under-construction mansion in Vandanam dressed as an ascetic but let off after assuming that it was someone else. However, this doesn’t find mention in the case diary. Says Jacob: “If it had become official, the officers probing it would have copped the blame and hence you won’t find it in the records. Yet, this wasn’t corroborated by any of the cops or others in the know of things back then. PM Haridas, who investigated the case, rubbishes the claim. “It would have been impossible to cover up such a sensational miss for so long.” Jacob was never directly involved in the case and he only studied the case in detail in the mid-nineties to take classes on the case at the Police Training College, Trivandrum.
Other interesting tidbits on the latter part of the investigation involved the Kerala police engaging a parapsychologist to track Kurup’s whereabouts. The cops continued their wild goose chase from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia but Kurup was always one step ahead. Today, Kurup’s incomplete and bare mansion at Alappuzha’s Vandanam stands as a testament of his greed and avarice that ruined many lives and had the Kerala cops in all sorts of trouble.
Tailpiece: If Dulquer Salmaan played the younger version of Kurup in the film adaptation till his disappearance at the age of 37, Mammootty could play Kurup in a sequel if he was to turn up today aged 74-75.
(Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post. He tweets @AnandKochukudy.)
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