On an October morning in 2006, on a foot overbridge close to Mumbai’s Marine Lines station, a lifeless body was found. The deceased, later identified as a taxi driver named Vijay Gaud, had been beaten to death. The incident didn’t get much notice. It was mentioned in a few newspapers, a vague investigation was carried out, and it was forgotten before long.
A little more than two months later, on the morning of 14 December, another body showed up. This time, it was close to Churchgate station, the next stop after Marine Lines on the same local railway line. The victim, a male, was assumed to be a homeless vagabond. Oddly, an empty Kingfisher beer can was found beside the body.
Over the next few weeks till 13 January, corpses kept turning up in the vicinity, and with increasing regularity. In all, seven bodies were found during this three-month period. Either stabbed or clubbed to death, in narrow lanes or foot over-bridges, all of them close to or between Churchgate and Marine Lines stations. Many of the victims were undressed waist down, indicative of sexual assault.
Now there was alarm. A serial killer seemed to be on the loose. The police launched a manhunt, but the killer eluded them. Although only two victims were found with beer cans next to them, newspapers were quick to dub the serial killer the ‘Beer Man’. The cans, we were told by these reports, was his signature.
On 22 January 2007, he was caught. As his pixillated photograph appeared on newspaper front pages, he looked menacing. A taqiyah (skullcap) on his head, a scruffy long beard that reached his chest, shoulder-length hair… The face was grim and bony. Ravindra Kantrole, alias Abdul Rahim, 35 years of age, looked every bit a killer. The Beer Man.
And then the rest of the story began to unspool, bit by bit, newspaper item by item, in ghastly and often contradictory ways. He wasn’t a homosexual, as previously thought; he hated homosexuals. Having recently converted to Islam, he believed the practice was against his faith and had taken upon himself the task of eliminating such ‘deviants’. He hadn’t killed seven people, according to one report—he had killed at least 45 people before that, all in South Mumbai, and flung most of their bodies into the sea. In some while, another theory was doing the rounds—he had killed them not because of their sexual orientation, but so he could take their blood to a cemetery near Marine Lines, where a tantrik would use it for black magic.
The trial, as always, took its time. The police charged him with three murders, having gathered what it believed was strong evidence in those cases. In January 2007, a sessions court found Kantrole guilty on one count of murder (the evidence in the other cases wasn’t good enough), and sentenced him to life imprisonment. It was greeted with relief across the city. The Beer Man had been locked up forever.
Not quite. In September 2009, the Bombay High Court overruled the lower court. It declared Kantrole ‘not guilty’ of the killings.
Cafe Excelsior at Fort, like most Irani cafes in Mumbai, is at a corner facing two streets. Opposite New Excelsior theatre, the café’s ceiling and wall fans creak with age. It was established in 1919, as a board outside says, and has a lazy feel to it (except during lunch hour). Today, three tables are occupied—a group of loud collegians at one, an old couple who hardly look up from their tea cups at another, and two chatty gents a little further away. A fourth table is taken by this reporter and the subject of his interview.
The third table’s occupants—they look in their fifties—notice us after a while, hold a quick consultation, gulp their tea down, leave their food half finished, and rush out with long strides and newspapers rolled under their arms into the rain.
My companion does not notice this, or if he has, seems to ignore it. He has been busy with an expletive-ridden monologue about police atrocity. And then, he suddenly switches strains to say, “I miss my wife. I miss my daughter.”
It is easy to believe Kantrole when he says that. He is among those on the ‘margins of society’, as the phrase goes. “Born in Cama, living in Azad Maidan,” he says, describing how he was born in Cama & Albless Hospital, and spent much of his youth visiting the Azad Maidan police station just down the block on Mahapalika Marg.
Kantrole was born to a family of washermen, living in an illegal tenement in Dhobi Talao. When it was razed, his gambler father moved into his mother’s house in Mahalaxmi, and he, in with his father’s relatives in Pune. But within a few months, he was back in Mumbai, an impressionable 14-year-old living in friends’ houses and sometimes on the streets. “Rather be the raja (king) of the street than a ghulam (slave) in someone else’s house,” he says, explaining how he felt at his mother’s maternal home; his uncle’s taunts got to him. Still in his teens, he joined the Dashrat Rane gang, where his job was to extort money from hawkers and illegal establishments that were selling country liquor.
When he wasn’t spending nights in the Azad Maidan lock-up, he would be in brothels having sex. One day, in a brothel in Kennedy Bridge, he met a girl in her twenties and fell in love. She had been brought from a village in Madhya Pradesh and sold to the brothel. After a year of courtship, he raised Rs 25,000 to pay the brothel its unrecovered investment on her. He rented a small house for the first time in his adult life, and moved in with Anjali. They got married, and she bore him a daughter, Deepa.
Jail stints of varied lengths, however, were still part of his life. When he returned from prison on one occasion, he had given up crime and embraced Islam, having met a devout Muslim in prison. Kantrole was now Abdul Rahim. He quit the gang and earned his livelihood doing odd jobs like running a streetside vada pav stall in South Mumbai. He was also a police informer and his record was considered ‘clean’—till he was arrested on suspicion of being the Beer Man.
Kantrole’s life has changed dramatically since he was labelled the Beer Man. While a taqiyah still crowns his head, he wears his hair short; and all that remains of his facial hair is a healthy moustache.
“Anytime I walked into a street or a public place, there would be either a sudden hush or whispers,” he says, looking up between mouthfuls of mutton patties and coffee. “I knew they were talking about me. No one seemed to be bothered that I had been found innocent. So I trimmed my hair and shaved my beard. Now, fewer people recognise me.”
With the cloak of his wild beard now gone, one can fully see the smile that forms on Kantrole’s face every time he speaks of his family. When I ask him if I may speak with his wife for my report, Kantrole knows what his wife’s reaction will be like. So he switches on the speaker phone and dials her number. They chitchat for a bit, talking about a movie she had recently seen, and then he asks her if she would talk to me. “No, no. I can’t talk. I have a cold,” she says, her voice having suddenly acquired a rasp. “Naatak (drama),” he says. The voice on the other line laughs, and says, “Teri heroine jo hoon (Your heroine that I am).”
Anjali and Deepa live in Raipur, Anjali’s native village in Madhya Pradesh. He sent the two away after he was picked up on charges of being the serial killer. “Initially when my wife would come to meet me, policemen would pass crude remarks,” Kantrole says. “Then there were journalists who wanted to talk to them. My daughter was too young to even understand what was happening (she’s 13 now). I was afraid that harm would come their way. So I sent them away.” They haven’t returned to Mumbai since.
Having been acquitted, Kantrole is plotting a new life. For the past two weeks, he has rented a tenement in Dhobi Talao, Marine Lines. Here, along with a friend, he makes and sells sandwiches and other quick snacks. He has a second-hand fridge, a gas stove, and, as he says, a lot of heart vested in this place. With a security deposit of Rs 30,000 and a monthly rental that is still being haggled over (the owner has been asking for Rs 8,000; he has been offering Rs 4,000), he is in the process of buying a tava, apart from small chairs and tables to be arranged outside the stall. “I will make it like a restaurant. I have cooked and sold food before, but as a handcart operator. This is my first real restaurant. Imagine, my restaurant.”
Kantrole is also in the process of selling the house his wife inherited in Raipur. With the money from the sale and with the earnings of his restaurant, he intends buying a small flat in Virar, where he wants to live with his wife and daughter and hopes no one will recognise him.
This, he expects, will finally put a stop to the rounds he has to make of the Azad Maidan police station. “Every time there is a crime in the area, from a small theft to a murder, I am picked up for questioning. This, even though the court has acquitted me. For [the police], I am the serial killer who got away,” he says.
When three minor girls were recently (on separate occasions) raped and killed in Cuffe Parade, and the city was rife with talk of another serial killer on the loose, Kantrole was called in by the police for interrogation and a DNA profiling test. He has been cleared of these cases since.
But a police officer who’d been part of the Beer Man probe says that the cops had a strong case against Kantrole. Apart from his profile, that of a South Mumbai resident familiar with the area, there were eyewitnesses who had seen a bearded man close to one of the victim’s bodies and had later identified Kantrole as that man. He had also ‘confessed’ in a narco-analysis test forced on him (though such tests are considered unreliable and have been disallowed by the Supreme Court unless they have the suspect’s clear consent). “I can’t say if he was involved or not,” says the officer, requesting anonymity, “But yes, there was strong evidence against him and we presented it in court. He got a favourable ruling, and unfortunately, no one appealed against that verdict.”
Six years since the first murder was reported, the Beer Man case continues to be a story of varied layers. On one level, it is an unsolved whodunnit, of a serial killer in Mumbai who got away with a string of gruesome murders. It is also a half-forgotten story whose main accused-at-the-time continues to reel under the shockwaves it sent across the city. And at yet another level, it is a farce.
On the second floor of the rundown Esplanade Mansion, formerly known as Watson’s Hotel—where legend has it Mark Twain once took up residence, and Jamsetji Tata was barred entry, leading the indignant industrialist to build the Taj Mahal Hotel—a face emerges from a cloud of smoke, and says, “Serial Killer...The Beer Man. What a title for a movie!”
The building houses the tiny smoke-filled office of Sushan Kunjuraman, the lawyer who fought Kantrole’s case. So taken is he with the case that he has written a film script on it. Not only will he have to be paid for the use of his script, as his conditions go, he will have to be cast in the film as well. He wants to play himself, of course, the role of Kantrole’s heroic advocate.
The case, the 50-year-old lawyer believes, will give him his break in Bollywood as a scriptwriter and an actor. But it’s not just a story about the Beer Man. “No, that would be too tedious,” Kunjuraman says. The film will be a love story between a policeman and a journalist. While Kunjuraman will play the lawyer, the Beer Man story will serve as the context.
Several Bollywood bigwigs, he claims, have turned him down already—Vijay Raaz, Makarand Deshpande and Ram Gopal Varma, among others. The reasons have ranged from the inability to find a producer to his insistence on being cast in the film. “In the case of Ramu, I sent him an SMS, explaining the story. Ramu’s reply was only four words: ‘Who is Beer Man?’ Can you imagine? Someone asking who the Beer Man is?”
The lawyer also has another script, titled Twin Blast, based on the 2003 bomb blasts at the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazaar, a case he was involved in as the lawyer of some of the accused. This one has failed so far to enthuse any film producer, but his script of Serial Killer has been sold to a B-grade film producer. The project, though, has been in limbo these past two years for want of finance.
Met by three friends, he suddenly seems a lot less lonely. The four of them stand together outside New Excelsior theatre, sharing a couple of cigarettes. They don’t talk to each other. They don’t even look at each other. All they do is stand, smoke and look at people walking by. The people don’t notice them. Not even Kantrole.