He was a loner, a man of few words. He helped his mother with her task of herding goats. He was determined to help his family lift itself out of their grinding poverty, almost obsessively cutting out newspaper announcements for exams or scholarships for which he and his two younger sisters could apply.

No one in the sleepy village of Meenakshipuram, 10 kilometres from the bustling Tenkasi town in Tamil Nadu’s southern Tirunelveli district, imagined that their 24-year-old neighbour Ramkumar would one day appear on the front pages of those newspapers.

But that’s what happened last week, when the police on Friday evening arrested the aspiring engineer, accusing him of hacking to death a young woman named Swathi early in the morning of June 24 at Chennai’s Nungambakkam railway station. The murder has seized the imagination of the entire state, uncorking anxieties about public safety, especially of young women. Ramkumar had allegedly been identified from CCTV footage and was captured after an intense manhunt.

In Meenakshipuram, though, there is complete disbelief about his involvement in the crime.

“Anna [elder brother] is very quiet,” said Ramkumar’s sister, 23-year-old Madhubala. “He won’t speak more than a few words with anybody.”

A hard worker

Though the family has shunned most requests for media interviews since the tragedy, Madhubala agreed to chat with Scroll.in. From the conversation emerged a despondent portrait of an unassuming young man, desperately struggling to create a better life for himself and his family.

Ramkumar was known to say often that he wanted only a “periya velai” (a big job) – he did not want to do “chinna velai”, or small jobs, like goat herding.

Ramkumar is the eldest child of the family of five. His younger sisters, Madhubala and 22-year-old Kaleeshwari are both graduates, the first members of the poor Dalit family to get college degrees. Ramkumar should have been a graduate too – but he still has some financial arrears to clear before he gets his engineering degree from the Einstein College in nearby Alangulam.

Their father Paramasivan is a contract employee with telecom firm BSNL, who digs roads to lay cables. When BSNL has no work for him, Paramasivan, a sixth standard dropout, works as an agricultural labourer and a coolie. Paramasivan is the sole breadwinner of the family, earning Rs 13,000 a month from these jobs. Ramkumar’s mother Pushpam herds goats and makes some money cleaning ponds and lakes as a labourer under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme.

Agriculture and goat herding are the main occupations of the 500 families who live in Meenakshipuram. The village is composed of around 410 Pallar families – Hindu Scheduled Castes, many owning small pockets of land nearby. The other 90-odd families are Muslim, once Hindu Pallars themselves, who in 1981 converted en masse to Islam in a rebellion against crippling caste discrimination.

Distraught mother

Since Ramkumar’s arrest, Pushpam has been distraught. She has barely eaten since the police took her son away and simply stares into space, refusing to speak to anyone. None of their relatives knows where Paramasivan has been since the day his son was taken away by the police.

“All our hopes were on Anna,” said Madhubala, tears welling up in her eyes. “Anna always used to tell us – I will clear my arrears, write some exams and become an IAS officer and then I will take care of all of you. I will get you both married off and mother will never have to work again.”

Madhubala pointed to a raised area behind the house, over which a makeshift shed had been constructed. “That is the second room that we started building but we stopped with the foundation because father ran out of money,” explained Madhubala. “Anna used to tell us often that he would finish building that part of the house once he got a good job.”

Ramkumar, the first-born male child of the family, was the one the family hoped would make it big. His father, shunning free school education provided by the state government for Dalits, sent Ramkumar to a private school in Mangalapuram, about 15 kilometres from home. From the time he was in the ninth standard, Ramkumar shifted to the Sengottai Government Boys Higher Secondary School, as he did not like the food provided at the government Adi Dravida hostel in Mangalapuram.

Cutting class

But it wasn’t go to be easy to take the leap. Madhubala recounted how Ramkumar, a topper up to the 8th standard, began to see a decline in marks as he entered high school. While pursuing his engineering degree, Ramkumar, a usually diligent student, began to cut classes and stayed at home for long periods.

“Once, after he took leave for two days from college, his principal sent word asking Ramkumar to meet him,” recounted one of his aunts, who declined to divulge her name. “Kumar asked me to come along as he was afraid the principal would yell at him. When we both met him, the principal only said – why don’t you at least go and watch a film at a theatre by yourself? You have no friends and you don’t go out with anyone or talk much to anyone. At least watch a film and relax, he suggested. Still Kumar did not do any of that. Even if any of us asked him a question, he would not even lift his head to look at us. He would answer while looking down at the ground. He has been that way since he was a child.”

Added Madhubala, “Anna did not drink or smoke and he never spoke to any girls. Whenever I used his mobile phone, I would scroll through and there was never even one girl’s name. He simply did not talk to anyone.”

A little more than four months ago, Ramkumar appears to have decided that he must make something of himself and shook himself out of his lethargy. “Anna himself decided to go to Chennai,” said his sister. “He told us that he was wasting his time sleeping at home or herding goats instead of studying to clear his arrears and also to prepare for competitive exams. He said he would go to Chennai and prepare for the exams there.”

She added: “It was his own decision, no one told him to do that.”

A sudden reappearance

The Paramasivan family was not expecting to see Ramkumar when he arrived without warning on Sunday, June 24. He told his family that he came back as he needed money to pay for his “mess bill” or food expenses.

On the evening July 1, Ramkumar was detained by the police, who had zeroed in on him after an exhaustive investigation. Identifying him from CCTV footage that showed him rushing out of Nungambakkam railway station after Swathi was hacked to death, the police closed in on the Choolaimedu neighbourhood after obtaining footage from a private CCTV camera that they claimed had established that Ramkumar had been in the area. A door-to-door search led them to the home in which he had been living, the police said, and alleged that they recovered blood-stained clothes from there.

Those revelations have left Meenakshipuram in shock. One of their quietest, most polite boys, is an alleged killer.

“When I saw him herding goats in the week before his arrest, I asked him – Kumar, so you have come back?,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, a neighbour of the Paramasivans. “Typically he did not even look up at me and mumbled something back. He is such a nice boy. There appears to be a bad planet over him. It is a very bad time for him. What else can one say?”