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Eyes in the shadows

india Updated: Sep 13, 2011 23:14 IST
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For five-year-old Suresh, the 28th of February, 1998 was an ordinary school day. At 1pm, his mother Jayshree brought him back to their home in Peenya, an industrial district of Bangalore.

It was just the two of them — Suresh’s father had died of cancer when he was three. That afternoon, Jayshree made Suresh his favourite meal, Maggi noodles, and after lunch, Suresh went out to play cricket with his friends.

He usually played until his mother dragged him home. That day the match ended, and Jayshree didn’t come. “I knocked on the door, but no one answered,” Suresh recounts. He walked around outside for half an hour, killing time.

When Suresh approached the house again, a stranger came to the door. “My name is Uncle Venkatesh,” he said. “I’m a friend of your mother’s. She’s sick and I’m leaving to fetch a doctor.”

From the corner of his eye, Suresh saw his mother lying on the floor, tied up and strangled. Her limp body was covered with multi-coloured saris. Blood seeped through the light fabrics, flowing between her bare feet.

Suresh reached for the stranger: “Don’t go,” he said, “I’m scared.” The stranger told him not to cry. After an hour and a half of quietly comforting the boy, the killer stood up and left.

Why he didn’t harm the boy, the witness who would finally identify him as the murderer, remains a mystery.

By all accounts but his own, Umesh Reddy is a monster. If his lust-murders had taken place in the American Midwest, he would have become a grotesque media star.

Reddy, however, committed the majority of his crimes in his home state of Karnataka during the late 1990s, when sensationalist reporting was less common in India.

So despite being given the death sentence for serial murder and rape — some of which allegedly also involved necrophilia — Reddy’s story remains shrouded from the public eye.

The exact number of women Reddy raped remains unknown, as do the number of murders, perhaps due to the stigma of coming forward in such cases, as well as Reddy’s careful selection of women without social attachments and the strong possibility of “faceless” prostitute victims.

What we do know is Reddy’s crime spree began in 1996, while he was working in the Central Reserve Police Force in Kashmir. Fellow officers remembered him as a “lone wolf” who possessed a “highly introverted soul”.

Six months into the position, Reddy brutally raped his commanding officer’s teenage daughter and then fled back to his hometown of Chitradurga, where, incredibly enough, he managed to get another job in law enforcement, this time with the District Armed Reserve police force.

Reddy’s familiarity with the hilly interiors of his birthplace made it fertile ground for the perpetuation of his crimes.

Nine months into the new job, he was identified by a high school girl while marching at the Republic Day parade — she claimed Reddy had recently raped her and that she’d managed to escape death by pummelling his head with a brick.

Other women soon came forward with similar stories of abuse.

Reddy was arrested and charged with the death of Roopa, a 16-year-old girl who was found dead after disappearing while on her way home from a local flourmill. Reddy claimed he had been framed, and then escaped while being transferred by bus from Bellary to Bangalore.

It was one of five times he broke free from capture during his reign of terror.

In the two or three months following the bus escape, Reddy was implicated in a white-hot flash of rapes, assaults and murders of the type that resemble few crime sprees in recent memory. He rented a flat in Bangalore, where he sexually battered five women.

After that, he darted through Mysore, where at least two similar cases became attached to his name.

He then shot up to Gujarat, where he rampaged through Ahmedabad and Baroda before drifting down to Mumbai, where he committed at least three other rapes.

With the Mumbai Police hot on his heels, Reddy eluded arrest again. He then completed a geographical circle, returning to Bangalore. There, he rented a room in Peenya, the town where he committed his final crime, the brutal rape and murder of Jayshree.

The massive grey walls of Belgaum Central Prison, which houses Reddy today, are covered in giant beehives.

The peeling death-row complex is home to some of the deadliest criminals in South India. I was made to wait at the gate while a group of prisoners were ushered out at gunpoint.

A panel of murmuring authority figures reviewed my permission letter with scepticism. “Why do you want to meet Umesh Reddy?” one official asked incredulously. “Don’t you know he’s a maniac?”

I was led through a dreary, rainsoaked field by an aging guard who had missing teeth and no gun. He ushered me through a medieval wooden door leading to a cluster of prison cells, and then left me alone to go fetch Reddy. A group of unkempt men dressed in white gathered around and began lobbing questions at me: “Who are you and why did you come here?” one asked. “I’m just a visitor,” I explained.

“Nobody comes here unless they want something from us,” another man insisted. “I just want to talk to Umesh Reddy,” I stammered.

I later learnt that these men were members of the mass-murdering Dandupalya gang and the group that plotted Bangalore’s 2000 serial bombings. It’s fair to say that Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs played a large role in forming my mental picture of serial killers in captivity.

In that film, Hannibal Lecter is locked behind an impenetrable polyfibre wall. The death-row inmates of Belgaum Central Prison, however, are permitted to wander around the confines of the facility, unhinged.

The guard returned with an athletic, paranoid-looking man with greying hair and a moustache — I immediately recognized him as Reddy from mug shots I’d seen. Reddy was flanked by a wild-eyed man, also dressed in white, who claimed to be an ayurvedic doctor.

“Why you want to talk to Reddy?” this man asked. “I’m writing a magazine article about him,” I explained.

Reddy looked at me with suspicion, but said nothing. “What you want to write about him for?” the man demanded.

I explained that no reporter had actually spoken to Reddy, and redirected my attention to the man in question. “Mr Reddy, my name is Michael. I’m a writer. Do you want the opportunity to tell your story?” The words sounded empty.

Reddy whispered something to the “doctor”. “He doesn’t trust the media,” the wildeyed man explained. It was clear he was acting as Reddy’s advocate. It was only after 20 minutes of wrangling with this other inmate that Reddy finally agreed to sit down and talk.

The rest of the death-row inmates gathered around a small table to listen to our conversation. Reddy took out a large file of court documents and clippings from his trial, and dropped it on the table with a thud.

“I’ve been wrongfully accused,” he said, pointing to a newspaper clipping from The Indian Express with bullet-points describing him as a sexual fetishist, a necrophile and a transvestite. “All of these accusations here? All false,” he grabbed my arm to convey the urgency of his words.

“What about Jayshree?” I asked. He swallowed the tension in his throat and muttered two words: “False witness.”

Reddy’s upbringing seems no different from a vast majority of India’s poor. Still, it was unnerving to hear this man who murdered and raped so many young women, and left a young boy orphaned, look back on his own childhood with idyllic sentimentality:

“It was just me and my parents in Chitradurga. I had many friends and was always playing.”

If he faced any emotional or psychological trauma during this period, the kind that might inspire a misogynistic rage inside of him, he refused to admit it to me. Reddy never killed a man.

Lonely women were his only targets, and he treated them with as much compassion as you might treat a mosquito.

Because of the sexually obsessed nature of his crimes, I asked him about his relationships with the opposite sex. Reddy claimed he had been in love once: “Swaroopa and I were part of the local police force and trained together,” he said. “She was very beautiful.”

He then went on to describe Swaroopa as manipulative and deceptive. “She told me she was wealthy, from a good family and of high birth,” he said. “But I followed her and discovered that she was living in a generator room on a farm. She was one of three sisters, and the three of them used to play a game with the men of their village. They used their charm to get money from innocent guys, and then ran it back to their father, who put them up to the whole thing.”

The story, fictional or not, bears similarities to Reddy’s own. According to Vinay Madgav, the crime reporter who originally broke the case, Reddy’s mother was “complicit in his actions”.

Reddy often gave the loot he stole from his victims over to the care of his mother, who stored it proudly behind her stove. Reddy’s mother, a woman for whom he has an intense devotion, has appealed for presidential pardon — the outcome is likely to be a long way off.

Reddy told me that he feels “terrified of dying” and that “every night he cries himself to sleep, hoping his mother will be OK.” Shackled or not, death row is clearly trying on the human psyche.

Suresh, the surviving witness of Reddy’s most publicized attack, does his best not to think about his brief tangle with the man the Times of India called “India’s Jack the Ripper”. The only people at Jayshree’s lonely funeral were Suresh and Commissioner (then Inspector) Nyamgowda, the man who eventually apprehended Reddy.

Suresh was immediately placed in a foster home, a period he calls “the most depressing of his life”. Six months later, he was moved to a new family, with whom he lives today.

The 10-minute walk from the death-row compound to the gallows where Reddy is set to be hanged is enough to frighten anyone. It’s not particularly difficult to imagine the kind of mortal terror he might feel as he takes these, the final steps of his life.

But it’s 10 minutes of peaceful contemplation that Reddy didn’t give Jayshree before she was killed. And it’s for the memory of Jayshree, and of the other innocent women both named and nameless, that a man lurks deep in the shadows of Belgaum Central Prison, waiting to die.

(The article appears in the current issue of GQ India.)