Calm before the storm
It was the year of our Lord 1988. Sweltering flames lit up an otherwise dingy Madras (now, Chennai) neighbourhood, as Sudalai’s burning body rose up in smoke. Perched upon this dark Periyar Nagar rooftop, facing the ablaze corpse, stood a harrowing presence. This was a man plagued by an ever-burning rage. Devoid of any compassion, his heart knew no morality and allowed him to fear no consequence.
The infamous ’80s, were when the West licked its wounds, following almost half a century of cold conflict with the Soviets. Even back home, the fog of uncertainty that had sprung from the national emergency and a terrifying decade of Indira’s tyranny, seemed to slowly dwindle. This anti-climatic era was a welcome relief relative to the country’s tumultuous ’70s. After all, the riled up populace witnessed for the first time, a modicum of transparency in politics and progressive reforms in criminal justice. Blinded, however, by this relative tranquillity and atmosphere of reform, the entire nation lay oblivious of the evil brewing down south.
An evil so appalling that when it would be brought to light years later, it would leave the nation gasping in horror. Evil characterised by years of corruption, gruesome killing, police brutality, countless abductions, mindless slaughter and unthinkable atrocities against women. This is the bone-tingling tale of Auto Shankar — a troubled man, who’s loathsome crimes, when read about, will make your skin crawl.
In order to understand what prompts a man to renounce humanity and take innocent lives, we need to go back to the very beginning.
A Youth Full Of Scars
Akin to several acclaimed serial-killers, Shankar’s odyssey of violent crimes, lust, perversion and brutality, too had a humble origin. Born in the remote village of Kangeyanallur, Tamil Nadu, Gowri Shankar’s childhood, was an unsettling rollercoaster. As a young boy, he saw his father steal their family wealth and elope with another woman, despite having two wives. His childhood trauma, however, wouldn’t end there. Another sorry sight that scarred teenage Shankar was watching his mother elope with her employer. Some say that negligent parenting, a lack of guidance and childhood trauma are often traits shared by sociopaths.
Following a distressing childhood, marked by odd-jobs and an obscured family life, Shankar finally moved to Madras, in the summer of ’74. Young and passionate, with a head full of dreams, Shankar came to Chennai hoping for a better life. A zealous artist, young Gowri Shankar tried his luck working as a painter, with the aspiration of eventually finding work in the blooming Kollywood scene. Young Shankar’s inceptive desire was to make an honest man’s living. Fate, however, had other plans.
Close to the end of 74’, still unemployed, impoverished and destitute, Shankar struggled to feed his family and make ends meet. Knee-deep in his plight, a petty brawl erupted with a shopkeeper, when Shankar requested some rice on credit to feed his hungry family. Upon the former’s denial, an enraged and starving Shankar beat the daylights out of the merchant and ransacked his shop. Petrified of this desperate young man, the shopkeeper neither retaliated nor filed a complaint. Emboldened by the fact that he could successfully instil fear in others, Shankar switched lanes and chose to tread a path he could never turn back from.
The Rise of Auto Shankar: Smuggler And Influential Pimp
Back in the prohibition era Chennai, Arrack and bootlegging trades were a cash cow. Drawn towards this life of transgression, Shankar chose to milk it. Mahabalipuram, the centre for illegal manufacturing of Arrack among other liquors, was connected to Madras via shoddy, meandering roads laden with potholes and rundown settlements on either side. Cell phones and modern logistics were still a figment of imagination at this point in history, hence, all consignments of Arrack or hooch would have to be transported manually by road. Seeing an opportunity, Shankar began smuggling Arrack, disguised as a rickshaw driver. An auto-rickshaw would hide easily in plain sight and nearly no one would suspect a seemingly ‘lowly’ rickshaw driver to be dealing in Arrack. Within a matter of months, his prominence as a bootlegger swelled.
During these exploits, Shankar quickly took notice of Mahabalipuram’s booming flesh trade. To widen his profits, he began ferrying sex workers to brothels and clients in Madras, using the same ‘savaari’ (ride) he would smuggle the Arrack in. This was the inception of his infamy as ‘Auto Shankar’ and the ride of terror he would go on to bring in Madras. In the years to come, he would gain notoriety as an influential pimp, womaniser, bootlegger and cut-throat Kingpin, besides occasionally being regarded as an endearing husband, devoted father, and a philanthropist within his Periyar Nagar community.
Within just a few revolutions around the sun, Shankar had gone from being an Arrack-smuggling commoner to rising up the ranks in the flesh trade. By the early ’80s, he had successfully set up two bustling brothels. The first one functioned out of a lodge on LB road and the other one out of a hut in Periyar Nagar. Both of these saw the likes of influential politicians, local policemen, and even some lesser-known Kollywood stars coming in. Boasting this proud clientele at his brothels didn’t turn out sufficient for Shankar’s perpetually-growing appetite. To fulfil the perverted requests of certain politicians, or at times his own insatiable lust for flesh, Shankar began a horrifying string of abductions.
A Darker Turn: Kidnapper And Serial Rapist
A little while later, he embarked on a spree of chilling abductions of various cabaret dancers, prostitutes, and sometimes, innocent young girls from his neighbourhood. Posing as a harmless auto-driver, he’d dupe girls by offering them a free ride from one place to another. Before the girls could sniff the danger, he’d already have brought them to one of his ‘safe-houses’ spaced across remote locations in Chennai. It was here that he’d force the women through unthinkable atrocities ranging from rape to sodomy, often resorting to violence and brutalising the girls who tried to resist.
A source closely linked to Shankar reported in the Nakkheeran magazine that some of the girls reported missing were abducted at the request of local politicians that would take turns raping the girls, only to eventually murder or silence them. While never confirmed officially, Shankar confessed to nine such abductions in his serialised biography that Nakkheeran published. Despite being a cold-blooded rapist by night, by day, he’d live a grand life, revered and loved by both the women who worked for him, as well as his wife and neighbours — all of whom he is said to have prolifically helped.
A Ted Bundy-like Duality of Persona
This duality in his persona is what makes Shankar an interesting figure — comparable almost to the Western world’s mixed perception of Ted Bundy. Physically and socially, he fit the bill too. Good-looking, well-spoken, and powerfully connected according to the standards of his time meant he could continue his night-time spree of savagery, lust, and debauchery, unhindered. His influence peaked during the mid-’80s, and so did the ever-burning rage within him. He committed unforgivable crimes during the decade, all the while being right under the nose of the law enforcement in Madras. However, this did not mean that he was not being doubted upon. Unsolicited rumours regarding the abductions had sprung up by 1987 and private investigators had begun to begun links between him and a motley of gruesome murders reported across Chennai.
A slave to his ways and still wrapped up in his bubble of influential connections, Shankar was about to go on a splurge of unforgivable killings, from which there was no coming back. This path would also serve as the final nail in his coffin.
A Serial Murderer
A sleazy womaniser by nature, his love for cabarets was widely known. A dancer at the Pals Cabaret by Mount Road, by the name of Lalitha, mesmerised Shankar. He made several attempts to woo her, but she instead chose to elope with Sudalaimuthu, one of Shankar’s trusted peers. Enraged by the betrayal, Shankar tracked them down and brought them back to his kotai (kotha / base). According to an accomplice, he hacked Lalitha to pieces and buried her remains under the floor of a housing plot in Periyar Nagar. Sudalai, however, is said to have been burnt alive on a brothel’s rooftop, after which his ashes were scattered in the Bay of Bengal, a ritual common back in the day. Sudalai’s screams of anguish and the rising smog from his burning body marked the end of Shankar’s last shred of humanity.
Entering a drunken stupor in the days to follow, Shankar’s temper would only get worse. Already having brutally murdered two of his acquaintances, his patience was growing thinner. One night, a brawl broke out between him and three other men who tried to take a girl away from his LB road lodge. Along with his gang members, Elden and Shivaji, he rounded them up and chopped them down mercilessly. Digging up a hole in an empty flat’s wall, Shankar buried the three mutilated corpses inside the wall itself, only to seal it back later.
Duels With The Law
A complaint filed by woeful parents of one of the dead men made directly to Tamil Nadu’s then-Governor, P.C. Alexander led to a subsequent enquiry that blew the lid off Shankar’s sinister flesh trade and abduction racket and cast light on the complacent Thiruvanmiyur Police. Under instruction from the Governor, Jafer Ali, the deputy general of police, initiated a witch hunt to arrest all of Shankar’s associates. A year later in 1988, the discovery of Lalitha’s body underneath the very floor of an old widow’s home made for nerve-wracking headlines that left Madras in shock and horror. Soon, the three rotting corpses were also dug out alongside documents and images of social events where eminent Tamil politicians and policemen were photographed by Shankar’s side.
Shankar was eventually locked in owing to testimony by countless witnesses. His death sentence eventually followed. Appeal after appeal was rightfully rejected by the High court and Supreme Court in light of the inhumane nature of his crimes. When locked up the first time, he managed to make a daring escape enlisting the help of a female guard, having wooed her with his charm. The euphoria of his brazen prison-break would quickly vanish as the police caught up with him at Rourkela steel city, Odisha. He was returned to Chennai’s maximum-security prison.
Robin Hood Of The People Or Reckless Vigilante?
The next seven years Shankar spent awaiting the gallows would offer a key insight into his life and troubled persona. During this time, he’d narrate what his tragic childhood and growing up with dysfunctional parents, was like. He spoke against issues like classism, reservation, and corruption that plagued prohibition-era Chennai and subsequentially his early life too. Time and again, he’d cite tales of his doleful youth and how hard it was for a struggling artist like young Gowri Shankar, to make an honest living in a city smeared in squalor and dirty politics. When questioned by the media, he’d often speak profoundly about how smuggling and flesh trade were somehow his twisted way of helping needy women and providing a source of living for destitute men in his neighbourhood. He spoke vehemently to Nakkheeran magazine during his biography-interview about his way of living as a form of waging war against the rotten system. During his final years, Shankar is said to have adopted Christianity and quoted the Bible on multiple occasions during the listing of his biography.
Later revelations about his personal life, childhood, and struggles struck a chord with people across Tamil Nadu, who despite being agitated by his brutal crimes, began regarding him as a revolutionary of sorts. Another striking resemblance to how Ted Bundy’s persona and ‘struggling law student’ story found became a voice among the masses, almost overshadowing his wrongdoings. The law enforcement and journalists of the era however ardently slammed his sensational narratives of being some kind of suburban-Robin Hood. His stories were discredited for they knew his true intention was to fish sympathy in hope for a pardon that, of course, never came.
Shankar’s prominence among Thiruvanmiyur or Periyar Nagar locals has never been contested. Almost every source confirmed Shankar’s connection to some of the most powerful figures of 80’s Madras. A retired officer went on to quote that if Shankar were alive today, he’d have been an influential minister, owing to his overwhelming popularity among the lowly working masses who looked, as well as his links to Chennai’s Elite. Right until he drew his final breath, he clung on to the hope that some politician would call in a favour and bail him out the very last minute. Alas, the noose tightened around his neck, and Shankar drew his last breath on 27 April, 1995.
Seeing The World Through the Eyes Of A Sociopath
As grand and sinister as it is, Shankar’s tale and rise to prominence pose more questions than answers. The fundamental one being — what prompts a working man to take up a life of crime and unimaginable violence? Also, are a traumatic childhood, a struggle-strewn mid-life, and acts of philanthropy in his later life, justification enough for a lifetime of murder, rape, and abductions? Perhaps not.
What fascinates most is how perfectly Shankar blended in. The duality of his life is proof that serial killers, sociopaths or disturbed individuals look no different than the average Joe. Contrary to the unsettling stereotype of unkempt, hillbilly-looking men that films portray, serial killers often dress well, speak fluently and carry themselves with elegance. Even an acute observation of their persona and everyday activities is seldom enough to look past their façade of decency. Their ability to hide in plain sight is what makes modern killers more mortifying.
Hence, to truly unveil the malice that lurks in the mind of a serial killer, we need the ability to reason like one. Surprisingly, once most people are able enough to think from their shoes, they realise that a single wrong turn, psychological scars, and the inability to seek guidance at an early age are often lead causes for individuals to tumble down the alley of delinquency.
Safe is to say that nearly 40 years later, we live in a country where genuine conversation is being had surrounding mental health and we as a society have made constant efforts to reform troubled individuals. We’re using progressive education and therapeutic learning as instruments to aid children enslaved by circumstance. Whether this ensures that the world will have no more Ted Bundys or Auto Shankars is still left to conjecture. While there may still be such demons in our midst, relief lies in knowing that our morality as a race has evolved and so have our methods of exorcising them.
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