Koodathayi/Kattappana, KERALA — Earlier this month, the narrow lane leading to Ponnamattom, the Thomas family’s two-storey home in Kozhikode’s Koodathayi village, was lined with curious onlookers. As the police took Jolly Amma Joseph on an “evidence collection drive” to the house where she had allegedly poisoned and killed her husband Roy Thomas and his parents Annamma Thomas and Tom Thomas, some men in the crowd started heckling her.
“The shrew who sullied the village’s name,” they shouted. Others yelled out “Kattappana”, “high-range”—sexual innuendos disparaging women like Jolly who have migrated to Kerala’s north from agricultural families in the south. Jolly hails from Kattappana, a village in Idukki district nestled in the high ranges of the Western Ghats.
Apart from the Thomases, Jolly is suspected to have killed three other members of their family. The alleged murders took place between 2002 and 2016.
As Jolly was taken from room to room, a neighbour remarked, “Oru pennirunna veedaanu” (this is a house where a woman lived) – an apparent dig at the poor maintenance of the home. A few others agreed that Jolly was not the best at running a home.
The women were kinder with their words. Fathima Beevi seemed in awe of Jolly as she called her the “woman who was brave enough to kill six”. Jameela, in her 40s, referred to Jolly as “Nallol”, a good woman. Suhara, who lives in the neighbourhood, said, “She [Jolly] was always kind and welcoming. Very social. You would find her at all sorts of public gatherings and marriages, interacting gracefully with people.”
More than 271 km away in Kattappana, where Jolly’s family lives, there were similar murmurings among residents about their now infamous daughter. When HuffPost India spoke to Jolly’s younger brother Chottayil Nobi and his neighbours, many more faces of the 47-year-old woman dubbed the “cyanide killer” emerged – caring sister, pampered daughter, bright student, extravagant woman.
Loving sister, beloved daughter
Jolly was the fifth of six children born to CC Joseph and Thresiamma. The Josephs were among the many families in Kerala’s south who had migrated to the foothills of the Western Ghats to cultivate the land there. CC Joseph had moved to Kattappana from Pala, Kottayam, in the 1950s. When Jolly was a young girl, her family made a comfortable living growing pepper on two acres of land near Kattappana town. They also operated two ration shops under the government’s Public Distribution System.
“Among us siblings, she was the only one no one fought with,” Nobi told HuffPost India, in his first interview to the media since his sister’s arrest on October 5. “As a child, she never said anything that would lead to a fight. Neither did she create trouble for anyone. She was very caring.”
Jolly was the first in her family to pursue higher studies. “She was a bright student. That is why Chachan [father] decided to send her for higher studies,” said Nobi.
Jolly attended a government school till Class X and pursued a pre-degree (Class XI-XII) in humanities at the Muslim Educational Society college in Kattappana. She then got a BCom degree at a private college in Pala. “She told us she wanted to study further and we enrolled her in a parallel college in Kattappana for MCom,” Nobi said.
Jolly dropped out but lied to her family that she had got her Masters degree as well, her brother said.
When Jolly met Roy
It was around this time that Jolly met Roy. “She went to Koodathayi for the house-warming ceremony of our relative, Manjadiyil Mathew. There she met Roy and fell in love with him,” said Nobi.
Mathew was CC Joseph’s brother-in-law and Roy’s maternal uncle. The police now suspect Mathew was murdered by Jolly in 2014 because he suspected Roy’s death in 2011 was not of natural causes.
After that first meeting, Jolly and Roy spoke for hours on the phone, according to Nobi. He also said it was the Thomases who approached his family for a marriage alliance between the two, refuting claims to the contrary made by Roy’s brother Rojo Thomas and sister Renji Thomas earlier this month.
Mathew was against the wedding, Nobi said. “Mathew was close to our father and he did not approve of the alliance because Roy was unemployed,” he said. “He also said Roy did not have good eyesight.”
But the family gave in when Jolly insisted on marrying Roy, he added. The two married in 1997.
Web of lies
By most accounts, Roy and Jolly’s marriage seemed to have been built on a bunch of lies.
“Roy told us he was employed and earning Rs 25,000-30,000 per month,” Nobi said. “That was a lie. Despite Mathew’s warning, we never questioned him [Roy] because Jolly repeated the same story.” Roy was a Class X (SSLC) pass out.
He said Roy was also aware of Jolly’s false claims of working as a teacher at the National Institute of Technology in Kozhikode. The police say Jolly never worked there, nor did she have a BTech degree as she claimed.
In Koodathayi, residents wonder how she managed to fool the Thomases about her job for close to two decades. They ask where she went when she was supposed to be teaching at the NIT – a question the police don’t have answers to yet, though they suspect she spent time at local markets and a beauty salon. The police recently questioned a woman, believed to be Jolly’s friend, who ran a tailoring shop near NIT.
On the two roads connecting Koodathayi to the NIT 20 km away, HuffPost India spoke with shopkeepers and car mechanics. None of them had interacted with Jolly. Theories of a hideout, pushed by the media and police, also seemed unlikely as rubber plantations lined both sides of the roads.
Nobi believes Roy’s parents must have known of Jolly’s lie. This is because they had funded her BEd degree from a college in Pala soon after she married their eldest son, he explained. Nobi also said the Thomases had asked his family for Rs 2 lakh, which they said would get Jolly a teaching job in a private college. “We gave the amount but they did not pursue the job opening,” he added.
Could the Thomases have dropped the job pursuit after realising Jolly did not have the required educational qualifications? Nobi did not comment.
Jolly and Roy reportedly spun a web of lies that went beyond employment status and college degrees. “In 2008 [after Tom’s death], Roy claimed his father had awarded him and Jolly the Ponnamattom home and the land around it,” Nobi said. “Roy tried to convince us that his father did not leave the property to his brother Rojo, who is settled in the US, because the latter was earning well and did not require familial financial support. Though we did not believe this, it seemed possible at the time because my sister supported the claim.”
Rojo and Renji have questioned the authenticity of Tom’s will, which was presented to them by Roy and Jolly during the funeral in 2008.
No family support
So, what went wrong between a couple who apparently had each other’s backs?
The police suspect Jolly killed Roy by putting sodium cyanide in his food. According to Kozhikode Rural Superintendent of Police KG Simon, who is heading the investigation, Jolly killed her husband because she realised she could live on her own “without the help of a drunk who had no job”.
Roy’s death opened a can of worms. Rojo filed a police complaint in August this year, alleging foul play. He said the police had ruled Roy’s death as natural, disregarding an autopsy finding of sodium cyanide in his body. Rojo’s complaint led to the ongoing investigation into the six suspected murders – of Roy, Tom, Annamma, Mathew, Sily Shaju and Alphine Shaju. Sily is the wife and Alphine the two-year-old daughter of Shaju Skaria, Roy’s cousin, whom Jolly married in 2017.
“In 2011, Jolly told our father Roy had committed suicide,” said Nobi. “The rest of us were told it was a ‘silent heart attack’. Our father decided not to share the information with anyone as he feared for the family’s reputation and the future of Jolly’s children.”
Jolly has two sons with Roy. The oldest, Romo, is 18.
Nobi said he received a call from his sister when the investigation reached her doorstep. “I asked if she had committed any wrong,” he recalled. “She denied it.”
Jolly called him again on October 3, the day the police exhumed the remains of Roy’s family members for forensic examination. “I asked her again, ‘Did you sin?’ She said, ‘It happened’,” Nobi said. He added that he had shared the details of this “confession” with the police.
Clearly caught between his love for his sister and her words that day, Nobi said, “Whenever I made a mistake, she would advocate for me before others, asking them to forgive me for my ignorance. But in my conscience, her confession stands against her. In this case, I will not offer her any help.”
His statement was in line with his family’s decision to not extend any legal help to Jolly.
Another property feud?
While Jolly’s seemingly sheltered childhood and turbulent married life are aspects of her life that have come to the fore following her arrest, there is also her portrayal, by some in the media, as a woman from a poor family who loved the good life and schemed to get wealthy. This is especially in the context of her feud with Roy’s siblings for a share in the family property. But conversations with her family members and neighbours in Kattappana paint a different picture.
Roy and Jolly’s wedding in 1997 was a grand affair, Kattappana residents recall. Joyi George, who has been the Josephs’ neighbour for 50 years, said the Thomases received more than Rs 2 lakh in cash, apart from gold. “In the late ’90s, this was a big dowry,” he added.
Jolly’s brother Nobi said, “We married her off giving more than her share’s worth.”
But Jolly received no land or property from her family. This is true for many women born in Christian, migrant, farming households in Kerala. “If there are sons in the family, no one offers land to daughters,” George said. He said Jolly and her married older sister had received no such privileges, but a third sister, who is disabled and lives with her parents, has a home registered in her name.
On the other hand, Jolly’s brothers Jose, Babu and Nobi are said to have received four, six and 10 acres of land, respectively. Nobi – who is expected by tradition to provide for his parents because he is the youngest son – has bought an additional three acres of land.
“The family is very well off,” said George. “Apart from pepper, they now cultivate cardamom, which sells for Rs 3,000 a kg. Their income has gone up three-fold.”
As the family’s wealth grew and Jolly continued to struggle with a husband with no earnings, it caused a rift between her and her brothers, said a neighbour who did not want to be identified.
This rift reportedly deepened in 2015 when Nobi bought a house for Rs 1 crore and his parents also moved into a new house worth Rs 85 lakh. “The property was bought from income earned from selling pepper,” said Tomy John, another neighbour. “A week before her arrest, Jolly Joseph came to visit her parents and I overheard her arguing with them for property.” Such property disputes are common in this part of Kerala, he added.
Asha Unnithan, a lawyer dealing with such property disputes, agreed. “In most Christian households, like in many Hindu households, female children are not given a share in the property,” she said. “If the parents die intestate, that is, without a will, often the female heirs are cut off from the family’s property. And if parents are alive, immovable property is often given to just the male heirs by claiming that the female heirs were given dowry.”
Unnithan added, “As per the Indian Succession Act, 1925, this practice is illegal.” This law advocates equal share in ancestral property for all children.
Nobi refuted the allegations of a property dispute with Jolly. He said Jolly had only requested the family for financial help, that too after Roy’s death. “We funded her children’s education,” he said. But he added, “We were worried she was being extravagant and hence used to remit the money into her children’s accounts directly.”
Jolly showed this “extravagant” streak even as a young girl, her brother said. “She loved to eat fish and meat,” Nobi recalled. “We could afford it but it was too extravagant to have such delicacies every day.”
Jolly was also the “modern” and “fashionable” one in the family. Growing up, she demanded trendy clothes and cosmetics and got what she wanted, Nobi said.
But to Nobi, who takes pride in his identity as a farmer, his sister’s ways were “strange”. He explained, “Even after her husband’s death, she claimed to have financial troubles but did not sell her car.”
He wondered if her “extravagance” could have led her to “commit the crimes”.
To her neighbours, though, Jolly wasn’t quite the pampered daughter and her marriage to Roy was her attempt to escape to a better lifestyle. “The Joseph family is known to be stingy,” said Joyi George. “The girl was different, wanted a better life. To get the money and comfort she was always denied, she may have adopted the wrong means.”
While the truth could be wedged between the contradictory claims of her family and neighbours, the police cited Jolly’s confession to say she had married her second Shaju Skaria in 2017 because “he had a good job”. Skaria teaches at a private school in Pulikkayam village near Koodathayi. The police say Jolly killed Skaria’s wife and daughter so that she could marry him. They have also questioned Skaria four times in the past two weeks in this connection.
Jolly’s family agrees that she married Skaria for financial stability. “She said she needed support from a husband,” said Nobi.
But it does not seem to have gone according to plan for Jolly. Nobi said she had repeatedly asked him and his family for money in the past year, claiming she had lost her job. She also said Skaria had refused her money. “Jolly claimed Skaria was stingy and that he cared only for his family,” Nobi said. “Her son Romo, too, shared this opinion.”
These different and often contradictory narratives may not have done much to bring clarity to the murder investigation but they have turned Jolly Amma Joseph into an enigma, not just in Kerala but across the country. Those who know her are now tired of the unwelcome attention she has brought them. “We do not open the doors to our house these days as many people just barge in to ask about Jolly,” said Nobi. “It’s all unbelievable and overwhelming.”