He was never as ruthless as Veerappan, the dreaded sandalwood smuggler and poacher. Yet Thangiah was a dacoit no less who stalked the halcyon hills of Munnar in the late 1950s, spreading fear among the tea planting community and earning quite a bit of notoriety as a rapacious highwayman. Some even tried to romanticise him as another Robin Hood who robbed the rich to help the poor.
Few had seen Thangiah though everyone had heard about him, including us children. His victims described him as dark, bearded and well-built. Armed with a stolen shotgun, he haunted lonely stretches of roads to relieve wayfarers of their money and valuables in well-planned operations.
Soon locals took to travelling in groups armed with billhooks and ‘lathis’, believing there was safety in numbers. Women stopped wearing jewellery outside their homes and few men ventured out after dark. The isolation of the sprawling tea estates aided Thangiah in his looting and getaways. He never killed or assaulted anyone, relying solely on sheer intimidation to get what he wanted. His cold, deep-set eyes and menacing manner left most men weak-kneed.
Once Thangiah did open fire in a bid to rob a British planter returning from the bank with estate funds; the latter, however, got away unhurt in his car. Thereafter many local planters carried a gun for self-defence. Not to be caught off-guard, we boys too kept our rusty old air-rifle well oiled just in case we ran into the bandit on our rambles.
When the ‘Thangiah scare’ was at its peak, a government official visiting an estate met a forbidding stranger en route. In the course of a casual chat he asked the man his name and was told it was Thangiah. No sooner was the word out of the man’s mouth than the official fled — never stopping till he reached the estate office breathless. It turned out the man was a harmless local teacher who just happened to be a namesake and lookalike of the dreaded dacoit. Such was the fear Thangiah inspired.
Many were the tales of the brigand’s resourcefulness. One memorable night Thangiah stopped a jeep packed with civilians — only to realise in the nick of time that it was a posse of policemen in disguise out to nab him. Quickly scattering a trail of sharp nails, he escaped under cover of darkness, leaving the cops stranded with a couple of deflated tyres.
Time and again police patrols scoured the tea estates in vain for the elusive fugitive. Many believed he was holed up in a hideout deep in the dense forests; others opined there were estate workers who sheltered him and shared his booty. Indeed, it was Thangiah’s liaison with a local woman that eventually led to his capture from a colony hardly two kilometres from a police outpost. He had been hiding, undetected, virtually under the cops’ noses.
Crowds thronged the police station at Munnar to get a glimpse of Thangiah. Many, who had imagined him to be a swashbuckling and swaggering hunk, were sorely disappointed to find a pathetic-looking scarecrow in shackles. Being constantly on the run had taken a heavy toll of the bandit physically. His saga now lives on in Munnar’s folklore.