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Women who kill: The story behind India's first woman serial killer

[Book extract] KD Kempamma, aka 'Cyanide Mallika', was motivated purely by greed and the desire for better material comfort.

 |  4-minute read |   10-01-2018
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The idea that women, who are usually only regarded as caregivers and nurturers, can kill in cold blood is difficult to accept in Indian society. Despite the belief that murders are mostly male-perpetrated, women are often also culprits, killing with the same heartlessness as a male killer. As is the case with other aspects of life, it is often seen that the motivations of women killers are different from their male peers. While a large number of male criminals are driven by sadism, sex, violence and lust, women's motivations are found to be mostly economic in nature. Motives that are common to both genders are greed and mental imbalance.

Time and again we come across crimes so heinous that it is difficult for the public to believe that women, who we often wrongly embody as only mothers, sisters or wives, ie, mostly in compassionate, care-giving roles, can be a part of them. Of course, the truth is that gender has nothing to do with a person's ability to commit crimes.

According to the cases that have presented themselves, women usually target people whom they know or who are primary caregivers too. Statistics the world over show that women mostly kill people they are close to, or will first get close to people and then kill them. Their crimes are also more carefully thought out and planned meticulously, which is why it becomes possible to often escape with less punishment by the judiciary.

trials-of-truth_011018022159.jpgTrials of Truth: India's Landmark Criminal Cases. [Photo: Penguin Random House]

Cyanide Mallika

In our quest to understand the motivations of serial killers, we cannot possibly ignore the motive of greed. KD Kempamma, India's first female serial killer, was one such person, motivated purely by greed and the desire for better material comfort.

Kempamma, a 45-year-old at the time of her arrest, was given the moniker “Cyanide Mallika” as she killed multiple people in and around Bangalore in cold blood using potassium cyanide.

Mallika preyed on vulnerable women, souls seeking peace in the city's temples. Often, these women were childless or facing marital problems, and were deeply religious, looking towards the divine for help. In a cruel twist of fate, their deliverance came in the form of death, dealt by the hand of a kindly looking, middle-aged woman who promised them that she could give them what they sought; she would claim to be skilled in the art of performing pujas and that she could make possible the miracles these desperate women were hoping for.

After gaining the victims’ confidence, Mallika would ask them to come dressed in expensive clothes and jewellery for the alleged rituals. The victim would then be taken to a desolate spot near the temple. Once there, Mallika would start the puja; she would ask her victims to close their eyes, forcibly pushing cyanide powder mixed with either food or drink into their mouths. Mallika carried out several such coldblooded murders over the course of nine years in temples across Bangalore.

When Mallika was finally nabbed at a bus stand, she was in possession of cash and jewellery taken from some of the deceased. She also admitted to being guilty when her plea was recorded.

cyanide_011018022234.jpgCyanide Mallika. [Photo: Indiatoday.in]

Cyanide Mallika is still a mystery. While we often try to justify the cruel nature of crimes by looking into the past to find something that went woefully wrong during the killers' formative years, the early life of Cyanide Mallika provides no clues, as there is little or no information about that time. However, on a bare reading of the facts surrounding the murders, one would think that the motivation for her committing the crimes was nothing but money. She asked her victims to come dressed in their best clothes and jewellery, which she would pocket after killing them and fleeing the crime scene. Even the police stated in Mallika's trial that she had committed the murders for the purpose of robbery and had no psychopathic tendencies.

As a young girl, Mallika was married to a tailor of modest means, but a simple life was apparently not her cup of tea. Deeply ambitious, she craved the luxuries of money and in her own words wanted a “better life and material wealth”. Even if Mallika's motive for committing the murders might have been the lure of wealth, her genesis as a criminal may lie in the early part of her life.

Prior to the killings, Mallika had a chit fund that failed after a short while, after which she left her family and worked several low-paying jobs as a domestic help and an assistant to a goldsmith. It was probably during this time that she realised that crime was a way into wealth. The economic difficulty of her situation might be construed to be a reason for her criminal acts.

Her last victim, Nagaveni, proved to be her undoing; the police went after the mysterious killer who was preying on women around temples, little realising that that killer was a harmless-looking 45-year-old woman.

This case was in direct contrast to our traditional thinking that women resort to gruesome crimes only when forced to, or under extreme circumstances that deeply affected the psyche. These cases seem to defy the traditional gender roles and the way we perceive them. The idea that women can kill seems to be a difficult one to digest for our conscience, but a mere look at these instances proves the opposite.

[Excerpted with permissions of Penguin Random House from Trials of Truth: India’s Landmark Criminal Cases; written by Pinky Anand and Gauri Goburdhan]

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Pinky Anand Pinky Anand

The author is a designated senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India and the incumbent Additional Solicitor General of India. She has also been a spokesperson for the BJP.

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