In Search of India’s First Female Serial Killer

Pop Culture

In Search of India’s First Female Serial Killer

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

On December 31, 2007, the police arrested a middle-aged woman loitering near the Bangalore Interstate Bus Terminus. She was dressed in a traditional Kanjeevaram sari, flowers adorned her hair, and she wore a sweet smile. KD Kempamma, aged 45, appeared to be selling second-hand cell phones and the police had received an anonymous tip-off that there was something amiss about the woman.

Indeed there was. KD Kempamma had several aliases: Jayamma, Lakshmi, Santramma, and the one which she most commonly used, Mallika. She was also a cold-blooded murderess, who had killed six women by poisoning them with cyanide and then decamped with their jewellery.

The police dubbed her as Cyanide Mallika. India’s first female serial killer.

She languishes today in an anonymous prison cell in the women’s barracks near Mysore, Karnataka after a court ruling in October 2013 commuted her death sentence to life imprisonment.

I’m a writer and the character of Cyanide Mallika fascinates me. It compels me more than the bored, almost predictable psychosis of Ramanna in Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 or the countless male criminals in India who routinely kill out of desperation, sexual perversion, vengeance, or deranged machismo.

Criminality, of course, is not gender-specific. But Cyanide Mallika’s story and the reactions of disbelief that it throws up, uncover a larger myth within our social and popular culture: Women don’t kill. Unless they’ve been violated or abused or are trying to protect themselves or their children; they just don’t kill.

And cinema – with a whole lot of other fiction – upholds this tradition.

Remember the once-soft-but-now-angry-and-self-righteous Zakhmi Aurat of the late 1980s? The pitiful, gang-raped Phoolan went on to become the bad bandit – Phoolan Devi. Her persona unraveled on the big screen with Shekar Kapur’s Bandit Queen in the mid-1990s. Sure, these were gripping films with a strong message and they gave a reason to the audience to empathise with the woman protagonist. She was never evil for the sake of being evil. She was a goddess, channeling her inner Devi/Kali for some sense of justice, and in this way, the audience always rooted for her victory.

The same is true for the parade of hot female knife-throwers and sword-wielders in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga. It’s a sexy, wild feminist fantasy, with tough women declaring war on the men who have wronged them. The main character, The Bride, is avenging the massacre at her very own wedding party.

I remember a de-glam Charlize Theron as lesbian murderess Aileen Wuornos in the Oscar-winning crime drama Monster. Wuornos killed seven men between 1989 and 1990 and was executed by lethal injection in Florida State Prison in 2002. She claimed, right up to her end, that she was a victim of rape and sexual abuse and that the killings were all in self-defence. Somewhere, somehow, Monster’s Wuornos is justified. Right?

Closer home, a century ago, feminist Rokeya Hossain wrote Sultana’s Dream: A Feminist Utopia. Published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in Madras, 1905, the text spun a peaceful, but politically violent vision of the future. Here, there were no men, only women in a Planet Of The Apes kind of setting, enjoying full power, as was their right.

Of course, Sultana’s Dream – a pure, just, and crime-free universe – would have no space for Cyanide Mallika, a career criminal whose emotional journey was set within a world of sheer greed and inhumanity and nothing else.

A young Mallika was married to Devraj, a tailor from a village in Karnataka. She bore three children. But domestic life was not for an ambitious Mallika. During her confession, she said she was always looking for a “better life and material wealth”. After she was accused of fraud in a local chit fund scheme, Mallika abandoned her family. She worked in a number of low-paying jobs as a maid, then as an assistant to a goldsmith, and finally realised that committing murder would be a lot more lucrative.

Mallika dressed piously and hung around the temple complexes on the outskirts of Bangalore and Mysore in Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. Her modus operandi was to befriend distressed women devotees. Some were childless, some faced trouble at home; some were depressed, some ill. Mallika convinced each of these women that religious “cleansing” would ward off negative energies. For this ritual, the women would come dressed in all their finery. After the ritual, there were given a special prasad. This prasad was laced with cyanide, and a few minutes later, the hapless victims would fall dead. Then, Mallika would take off with their cash, expensive clothes, and gold jewellery.

The Cyanide Mallikas and the Gavit sisters of the world are real, not a fantasy, and it’s ironic that they exist, but have not become characters on celluloid.

Mallika’s sixth and final victim was a rich woman called Nagaveni, and her disappearance (and death) led to the police opening an investigation to hunt the mystery temple killer. Upon Mallika’s arrest, Dr Rajni, a prison psychiatrist, made a conventional observation: “Most women who commit murder in India have been married off before the age of 18, and have endured bad marriages, sexual abuse, violence, and poverty.”

And yet this is only the half-truth. Cyanide Mallika admitted that she wasn’t a victim of the above unfortunate circumstances. Killing and robbery was simply a means to an end.

In 1999, I co-directed a television crime series called Agnichakra. Our first story was on the infamous child murders of Pune, Maharashtra, masterminded by two of India’s most chilling female criminals, the Gavit sisters. Seema and Renuka Gavit abducted children between the ages of one and four and used them to divert public attention while they (the two ladies) committed robberies. When the children stopped being productive, the Gavits murdered them. In this way, they killed at least five children.

In 2001, the sisters were sentenced to death. They are the first women on death row in the country. Pronouncing the crimes as “most heinous”, a Kolhapur district judge said, “The sisters seemed to have enjoyed killing the children.” It seemed particularly shocking to the judge that these two women – themselves mothers – could go against their natural instinct of nurturing and protecting life, and be so brutal.

And yet, the Cyanide Mallikas and the Gavit sisters of the world are real, not a fantasy, and it’s ironic that they exist, but have not become characters on celluloid.

As a writer, I’m often told to make my characters more “likeable” – even the characters that are “bad” and that do wrong. This applies particularly to female characters. There always has to be a reason – whatever reason – for empathy.

Roxane Gay makes this point in her collection of essays, Bad Feminist. She writes, “The rules are different for girls. There are many instances in which an unlikeable man is billed as an anti-hero… he is interesting, dark, tormented, even when he does distasteful things… but when women are unlikeable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations. We need to uncover life, in all its possibilities. An unlikeable woman may or may not arouse empathy, but the question should be: Likeable or not, is this character alive? Is she real?”

To me, Mallika is real. She’s compelled by the same random motivations that murderous men are. She doesn’t think she needs a bigger reason or justification. Her overreaching ambition and mundane reality is more interesting to me than Raman’s stylised psychopathy. I’m waiting for the day we have the courage to make a Cyanide Mallika 2.0, that shows us exactly who she is, or was. I’ll be the first in line to buy a ticket and a bucket of popcorn.