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  By Shaheen Chander  
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  Mariakutty's murder  
  Truly a saint  
  A SENSATIONAL report awaited me when I reached M.S. High School, Ranny, on a day in June 1966: The body of a young woman with multiple stab wounds was found near a stream called Maadatharuvy. And when a classmate from that area described the scenic beauty of the place -- a tea garden nestling in the lap of a thick forest -- I decided to skip the afternoon classes and go there.

I knew the headmaster, a Knanaya priest, who traced his origin to Canai Thoma, a rich merchant who came to Kodungallur in the fourth century with 400 Syrian Christians, had eagle eyes and would not spare me for bunking classes, not very common in schools those days. So I and a friend hired bicycles at 25 paisa per hour and set out for Maadatharuvy, on the other side of the sacred Pampa, that afternoon.

Pedaling at break-neck speed -- to reduce the rent and to return in time so that no suspicions were aroused at home -- we realized it was quite an adventure. We were sweating and fuming when we reached Mannamaruthi, about six kms from the school. From there we took the narrow "katcha" road that led to Maadatharuvy.

Soon we reached a small tea garden, a classic case of step cultivation. The road ended where a small stream of crystal clear water flowed. On the other side of the stone-filled stream was a thick forest. There was no dead body to be seen. It had already been buried after postmortem. A passerby showed us the burial spot on the edge of the forest. An eerie silence, broken only by the sound of the flowing water and the chirpings of birds, pervaded the area and we decided to return to school.

Dusk had fallen when we reached the school. The journey cost us over a rupee, not a small sum those days when pocket money was unheard of. By the time I reached home, about 3 kms from the school, by foot, darkness had already set in. While I got away with a simple lie, I was not so lucky with the headmaster when I turned up at the school the next day. He gave a spanking little knowing that he was punishing a journalist in the making.

While the Malayala Manorama we subscribed to had the news about the murder at Maadatharuvy, a more colourful report appeared in 'Thaniniram' (Real Colour), a broadsheet scandal-monger edited by Kalanilayam Krishnan Nair, who many consider as the father of yellow journalism in Malayalam.

'Thaniniram' had something new to report on the murder every day. Its circulation went up by leaps and bounds, though few brought the paper home, for it was not considered a "family paper". I would go to a barber shop to read the paper. Later in the evening, during discussions at home, I realized that my father, too, was reading 'Thaniniram'. I did not have the courage to ask him why we should read it surreptitiously when we could have subscribed to it and read it openly. He might not have taken it kindly.

In any case, the reports in 'Thaniniram' were the points of discussion in all get-togethers at homes, shops, markets and everywhere at Ranny. Initial reports that the body was that of a college student were proved wrong when it was revealed that the murdered woman was Mariakutty, a 43-year-old widow and mother of five children. The murder became more sensational when it was reported that some people had "seen" Mariakutty with a Catholic priest in cassocks walking towards Maadatharuvi, hours before she was "murdered".

'Thaniniram's popularity soared when a week after the "murder", Father Benedict Onamkulam, who was then Manager of St. Joseph's Orphanage Press, Changanasseri, was arrested. Now, 37 years after I took up journalism as a career, I know how crime reports are prepared. But at that time I admired the investigative skills of the 'Thaniniram' reporter, who even named a dealer in coconuts, who saw a "disturbed" priest holding a three-cell torch, an umbrella and a blue bag immediately "after the murder".

The news of the priest's arrest, I heard later, made it to the front pages of newspapers all over the country. After a few days, news appeared that the priest would be brought to Maadatharuvy to recover the knife with which he had finished Mariakutty. Again, I took a bicycle and left for the place.

A large crowd had assembled by the time police brought Fr Benedict to the murder spot in a van. All I could get was a glimpse of the priest from a distance. The next day's report mentioned that the priest showed the exact spot where he had "thrown" the knife and it was "recovered". 'Thaniniram' also reported the reasons for the murder: Mariakutty had an illicit "affair" with the priest and when she pestered him for money, he decided to end the problem once and for all. It was also conjectured that her youngest child was the priest's.

The "story" was that when Fr Benedict was posted as a parish priest in Alappuzha, he and Mariakutty, who married thrice, became friendly. She left her third husband when he suffered from a paralytic stroke. She returned to her own house and worked as a housemaid in various houses. Fr Benedict knew Maadatharuvi well as he had once been posted in the area.

So on the pretext of giving her a job, he brought Mariakutty to Maadatharuvi and killed her in cold blood. That she had ornaments on her and clutched at a purse containing Rs 70, not a small sum those days, showed robbery was not the aim. It was a pure and simple, though calculated, murder.

When the case came up for hearing in the Sessions Court in Kollam, newspapers gave extensive coverage to the trial. Every day the Malayala Manorama published the full text of the trial -- all the questions to the witnesses and their answers -- often covering a whole page and more. Throughout the case, the priest said he knew some secrets but they were part of the confessions he heard and he could not, therefore, reveal them even if he was killed.

Two full-length feature films -- Maadatharuvy and Mainatharuvi Kola (murder) Case -- based on the case, though with a disclaimer, were released in quick succession to cash in on the sensational murder. To be fair to the producers of these films, they depicted the priest as an innocent, whose kindness for the poor and the helpless landed him in trouble. However, his experience with the police was quite different.

They tortured him, both physically and mentally, so that he would admit that he had murdered Mariakutty. But he stood his ground. At the trial, too, all he said was that he did not know how she was killed. As regards the secrets that he knew by way of confessions, he said as a Catholic priest he was duty-bound not to tell anyone about it. District Sessions Judge Kunjuraman Vaidyar gave him death penalty and five years of rigorous imprisonment. It was the first time a Catholic priest was found "guilty" of murder.

The church took up the case and went in for appeal to the High Court at Ernakulam. It engaged A.S.R. Chari, one of India's leading criminal lawyers, who, it was said, charged Rs 10,000 per case. A lady judge, who was a Catholic, preferred quitting the High Court job to hearing the case. Finally, it was heard by a two-member Bench consisting of Chief Justice P.T. Raman Nair and Justice V.P. Gopalan.

In a superb performance, Chari demolished one by one the citadels of evidence the police had built up against Fr Benedict. For effect, he argued that nobody could kill even a chicken with the knife with which the priest supposedly killed Mariakutty. He brought out the inconsistencies in the statements of witnesses with telling effect and asked: "If the priest had the intention of killing her, why would he travel with her in his religious dress?"

Even today it would be impossible for a priest to travel, even without a woman, in a village in Kerala without the local people asking him, "Where are you going, Father?" Now I know that the 'Thaniniram' reporter was getting his briefing from the police and it was the police which had fabricated the evidence against Fr Benedict. At the end of the days-long arguments, which too were covered by the Press in full, the judges found him innocent and he was freed of all charges.

Fr Benedict got back his cassock but the scar remained on him. He was not given any parish duty and he remained confined to a home for the elderly priests, near Kottayam Medical College, and spent time meditating on the Word like Saint Benedict, who started a particular monastic order in the Catholic Church in the sixth century.

Three and a half decades after the "murder", Fr Benedict had a surprise when K.K. Thomas and K.K. Cherian, sons of a doctor visited them. They told him that Mariakutty had died while their father was trying to abort her child, which belonged to the owner of an estate in the area. Later, the doctor's daughters also visited the priest and told him the same story.

What forced them to reveal the story was a series of mishaps in the family before and after the doctor died. In the meantime, the estate owner, who impregnated Mariakutty, had also died. Fr Benedict heard the story as stoically as a true man of God would have heard it. Of course, he could have called the Press and told the whole world about his innocence.

Instead, he kept the story to himself. Eleven more months passed when finally the family told the Press about what had actually happened. The world realised that he was innocent and the murder was "foisted" on him. A few days later, on January 11, 2001, Fr Benedict was called to eternal rest.

The priest was buried in the area earmarked for priests at St. Mary's Church Cemetery at Athirampuzha. The grave, which was reconstructed recently, has begun to attract the faithful from far and wide. The demand that he be declared a saint has arisen in the Church. Whether he becomes a saint or not, it can truly be said that Fr Benedict echoes Saint Paul's words, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness".
The writer can be reached at
Photo caption: Sheela who acted as Mariakutty in Maadatharuvi
  By  A.J. Philip  
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