Rattle and hum: Of a man who murdered his wife with a cobra and the danger of fetishizing money

·9-min read

India, in the eyes of the West, is the land of tigers, elephants and snakes. It's also a religious country that follows the system of arranged marriage. It's the kind of cliché that makes metropolitan Indians bristle with indignation.

On Monday, the Additional Sessions Court in Kollam found a man, Sooraj, guilty of killing his wife, Uthra. The elephant in the room was dowry in an arranged marriage. The murder weapon was a snake. Religion and superstition played a role too. All the Western stereotypes stand reinforced. It turns out that last year, while the world was in turmoil because of a strange new virus, a man in Kerala was obsessed with vipers and cobras.

It's a story that has captivated Kerala. When the judgment was delivered even the corridors of the courthouse were packed. It's a story that no author can cook up. The case has entered the annals of Indian criminology and is now taught as a case study.

Sooraj has found his way into the history books.

The first lesson we learn from this is that when an Indian man wants to kill his wife, he does not think of tried and trusted ways like taking out a supari or staging a road accident. He thinks out of the snake charmer's box.

Sooraj must have had strange dreams in the lead up. Should I use a tiger (getting one out of the Periyar sanctuary would be well-nigh impossible); why not an elephant from the local temple (too difficult to organise a stampede); how about a camel (the Gulf is too far).

In the end, he settled on snakes, and, in the process, he also got a nice old snake catcher implicated as well. Sooraj, it must be mentioned, liked animals. His menagerie at home included rabbits, dogs and goats.

Suresh, the snake catcher (from whom Sooraj purchased the snakes), led a quietly ambitious life breeding cobra hatchlings. Growing up he showed no signs of becoming a doctor, engineer, plumber or electrician. Suresh was different from the others. He had a way with snakes. One of the positives of this story is that the nation now knows the going rate of a cobra: Rs 10,000. Come to think of it, it's not that much. I'm surprised that more people don't buy cobras for company.

The case has a neatness that is rare in legal India. All the fascinating pieces of this jigsaw fit together. There is no lingering uncertainty, and the voyeur's lack of closure, like in the Aarushi case. The evidence was put together by a team of experts drawn from diverse disciplines.

Sooraj made two attempts to kill his wife, the first using a Russell's Viper. What Sooraj did in here is the truism that snakes don't fly. Vipers are ground-based snakes that don't even climb trees. Then how did it make its way into an air-conditioned room on the first floor? Someone must have brought it there. Uthra survived that attempt.

She was bedridden for more than a month and underwent plastic surgery. After this botched attempt, Sooraj bought a cobra. One must salute his never-say-die spirit. Thrifty Sooraj was kicking himself. If he had known that he would need two snakes, he would have negotiated a buy-one-get-one-free deal.

Further investigations revealed that even the cobra cannot make it to that height using its slithering powers. Sooraj's mother claimed that the cobra had made its way from a branch outside the window. The neighbours said they had seen Sooraj pulling the branch towards the window, a clear attempt to stage the evidence.

A post-mortem showed that there was nothing in the cobra's belly, meaning it had been kept hungry in captivity. Usually the remains of the prey stay in its belly for days. Anyway, Sooraj had more fire in his belly.

Later, the police, displaying remarkable efficiency, also found the jar in which the cobra had been kept. The DNA traces found in the jar matched that of the bite of the offending snake. A snake-bite victim is unable to sleep after the bite. According to Sooraj, the wife continued to snore.

Her post-mortem revealed that she was given cetirizine, an anti-allergic that makes one drowsy. There was also the question of the size of the bite. An experiment with a dummy showed that the oversized bite on Uthra's neck could only have been made if someone was gripping the cobra's neck.

It has been said that modern life begins and ends with a Google search. With so many animals being involved, it could well have been Duck Duck Go. When the police investigated Sooraj's search history, it clearly showed that he had researched the viper days before the first attempt.

The success of the second attempt was preceded by similar research on the cobra. The searches always stopped after the act had been committed. It turns out that Sooraj was a venomous man who could handle snakes but not the snake within.

The takeaways from this grizzly story are plenty. First, the role of religion and superstition. When the viper bit Uthra, the neighbours explained it away as a matter of fate and karma. They blamed it on the supernatural phenomenon of 'sarpa dosha' or 'sarpa kopam'. The snakes are angry; it's your destiny. This can affect your marriage life.

Prayers have to be performed to get rid of the curse of the snake. Sooraj was taking no chances himself. Before carrying out the murder, he performed 'sarpa pooja' to keep the snake on his side. After the failed viper effort, he was not taking any chances.

Second, it's about how we Indians take a spider-and-the-fly approach to marriage (the snakes fit in later). The idea is to get the unsuspecting women home. Then, once she is imprisoned in the 'system', you start milking the cow. The institution of marriage begins to resemble an animal farm.

Three, it's about the casual cruelty that comes naturally to Indians, all this under cover of tradition €" like female foeticide. Sooraj and his entire family, including father, mother and sister, are implicated. They knew what was going on.

This makes one wonder: Does murder come naturally to us? It didn't matter to them that Uthra was leaving behind an 18-month-old baby. It didn't matter that she was differently-abled. These were not hardened criminals but they behaved like one. The Mexican mafia pales in comparison.

Underlying this is the practice of treating children like currency. Sons and daughters-in-law are investments for financial gain.

Four, it's about greed and avarice. In India, we believe in tolerating all manner of dubious practices, but with one caveat: Within limits. Dowry is acceptable, within limits. The front is that it's for the daughter's own comfort. She's the one who will have chilled sherbet from the fridge.

Corruption is acceptable too, within limits. We know that the help will steal onions and some cash occasionally. We tolerate it. We accept that if one marries outside caste, then honour killing is an instinctive reaction. But it's crossing the limits. We find it more acceptable that the family disowns the offending child and the community excommunicates her.

In this instance, Sooraj crossed the limits. He'd already received a heft dowry. It consisted of a spanking new car, property, Rs 10 lakh in hard cash and 100 sovereigns of gold. It wasn't enough. He and his family wanted more. The first installment of the dowry raises no eyebrows. It's in the natural course of things. To want even more, now that's going too far.

In Sooraj's case, his greed had become like the words in the Stephen Sondheim song 'More': "Never say when, never stop at plenty,/ If it's gonna rain, let it pour./ Happy with ten, happier with twenty/ If you like a penny, wouldn't you like many much more?/ Or does that sound too greedy?/ That's not greed, no, indeedy/ That's just stocking the store./ Gotta fill your cupboard, remember Mother Hubbard."

Five, it's about the stigma of divorce. As the demands and harassment went on increasing, Uthra could have gotten out of this marriage. But death, it seems, is better than the ignominy and loss of face that divorce brings.

Six, spare a thought for the hungry snake coiled up in a jar, far from its natural habitat where it would be happily hunting prey and generally doing cool snake things that snakes should be doing.

This tragicomic cautionary tale also makes us wonder about the fetishizing of wealth and material goods, none of which will we carry with us to heaven. It will be left behind here, when we undertake the final journey.

As the verse goes: "In the end, says Kabir/ We're like a gambler/ Who's lost his last penny./ Standing at the edge of the road,/ He wrings his hands./ Death has them in its sights,/ Both beggar and king./ Man's life is a dancing shadow,/ Amounting to nothing."

Money, ultimately, is an abstract idea. Our desire for money is also an abstraction. In Sooraj's case, the abstract meets the concrete, the earth meets the sky. After the murder, Sooraj's family pulled out her gold jewellery and busied itself burying it in the ground. It was later unearthed by the police. The pathos of this scene cannot be overemphasised. For them, money was a concrete thing, embodied in gold, which could then be buried, unlike one's conscience, always an impalpable.

Often in an Indian marriage, the woman serves two primary functions: Of being a bottomless ATM and being a womb factory that produces sons. Uthra had performed both functions admirably. She had served her function. It was time for her to go.

The writer is the author of 'The Butterfly Generation' and the editor of 'House Spirit: Drinking in India'. Views expressed are personal.

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