Auto Shankar’s Reign of Terror: The incomplete story of the man who shook Madras

Once upon a time, the posh neighbourhood of Thiruvanmiyur was a haven for sex work, arrack and murder. The man responsible for it knew untold stories, but no one wanted to hear them.
Auto Shankar’s Reign of Terror: The incomplete story of the man who shook Madras
Auto Shankar’s Reign of Terror: The incomplete story of the man who shook Madras
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Just past the Tidel Park traffic stop on the busy road towards Thiruvanmiyur in Chennai, a lane beside the canal makes a sharp drop into Periyar Nagar. There are no boards welcoming you into the humble neighbourhood, and it is a world away from the swanky beach-facing apartments a few lanes away. Amidst the dilapidated homes, open drains and small shops stands the house of Gauri Shankar alias Auto Shankar, the dreaded criminal who was hanged to death in 1995 for six brutal murders. “Periyar Nagar was his kottai, the home base for his criminal enterprise,” recounts a senior crime journalist who reported on his case. Shankar’s family still lives in Periyar Nagar.

Auto driver. Notorious criminal. Serial killer. Sleazy womaniser. Influential pimp. Hooch runner. Doting husband and father. Nice guy-next-door. There are many alternate realities about Auto Shankar, all of which come together to create shades of grey which are not easy to discern. For the rest of the city, Shankar was the mass murderer of Madras, but in the by-lanes of Periyar Nagar, he remains liked and respected. “In this area he has a good name. He was good to all of us and helped us,” says a woman resident who has lived there for over four decades. No one contests, however, that he brutally murdered at least 6 people. 

Lane leading into Periyar Nagar in Thiruvanmiyur.

On a hot summer day in July 1988, Madras woke up to be introduced to Auto Shankar on newspaper frontpages. The initial public reaction was one of shock, fear and anger, for the early skeletons that tumbled out of his closet had lot of flesh sticking to them (quite literally), narrating a story of sleaze, debauchery and savagery. “But in many ways, his story is one which has not been fully narrated. We still don’t know, perhaps never will, about the influential politicians linked to him,” senior journalist Babu Jayakumar says, and adds with a cynical smile, “If he was alive today, perhaps he would have been a minister.”

Criminal mastermind, sleazy womaniser

Shankar’s reign of crime and terror in Madras was at a time when mobile phones belonged to the realm of science fiction and the East Coast Road was perhaps on the drawing board of some town planner. Madras, a less bustling metropolis, ended with Thiruvanmiyur, which itself was seen as a remote suburb and not in the city police limits. Between Thiruvanmiyur and Mahabalipuram were tiny fishing hamlets connected by narrow pot-holed roads that meandered through the coastal terrain, lined with palm trees along the scenic coast.

The villages were distillation dens for illicit liquor and the palm trees offered scope for toddy brewing. Shankar plied through the battered roads of these villages in his autorickshaw, carrying the liquor to the interior lanes of Madras. “They also used to smuggle liquor around in cans on fast bikes,” a crime journalist says.

While transporting liquor, he was introduced to the sex work trade that thrived at that time in Mahabalipuram. The women had to travel between the city and the coastal tourist town, and his auto was used to ferry them. Soon, he figured out the nuances of the trade and set up his own business. He ran brothels in Thiruvanmiyur area – one from a lodge in LB Road and another from the huts of Periyar Nagar. He prospered as his client base expanded, and included police officials and politicians.

The brutal crimes that shook Madras

As an operator of the brothels, he did not mind mixing pleasure with business, thus indulging in all that the trade threw up. He was a regular at the Pals cabaret near the Devi theatre complex on Mount Road. It was there that he saw Lalitha, a performer he fell for and who later became a victim in his macabre killing spree that ultimately took him to the gallows. His gang had become so ruthless that they had killed three persons with whom they got into a fight over taking a girl from the brothel in LB Road. Those bodies were buried in a ground or sealed in walls, and later recovered.

Lalitha, who Shankar fell for, eloped with his friend Sudalaimuthu. An angry Shankar brought them back to his den and killed them. Lalitha’s body, which was buried in a plot in Periyar Nagar, was exhumed later by the police. “We went snooping around before he was arrested, and found that a widowed lady was paying a rent of Rs. 150 and living in the house built on the plot where Lalitha was buried,” recounts a senior crime journalist.

A scene from ‘Auto Shankar’ on ZEE5

Sudalaimuthu was burnt and his ashes strewn into the Bay of Bengal, a method of extermination that he reportedly adopted with nine young girls who went missing from their homes mysteriously, waking up the police in 1988 to look for a possible serial killer. The truth about those girls was never brought out, though Shankar just prior to his death had confessed that the girls were abducted to satisfy the perverted requests of some top politicians.

Who were these politicians? We will never know, although names of top leaders of a major political party did emerge in those days. “He had video tapes and images of his influential customers, perhaps to blackmail them,” says Babu Jayakumar. Another journalist says, “He had a lot of pornographic material, naked images of the women who worked for him and of his lovers. Cops confiscated this, and it was all perhaps destroyed.”

By the time law caught up with him, he had built a house in Periyar Nagar to live with his wife and sons, and was surrounded by a powerful gang. Several police officers and politicians had graced his house-warming ceremony and Shankar had recorded the entire event on video. Today, Shankar might have been lording over a thriving underworld empire as a 64-year-old Mafioso, or as a prominent politician, if not for the change in the political climate in 1988.

This article was produced by TNM Marquee in association with ZEE5.

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