The Bandit King

On July 30 of last year a notorious Indian smuggler and poacher named Veerappan kidnapped an elderly and beloved Indian actor named Rajkumar and squirreled him away in a forest hideout. The ransom demands were political—and unacceptable. The kidnapping roiled India and churned an American-style media frenzy. Then, suddenly, in November, Rajkumar was set free, under circumstances fraught with mystery

Illustration from book by R R Gopal

It was after midnight on August 6 when my plane landed in Madras, in southern India. On the cab ride into town the breeze coming through the window carried the scent of the ocean but also hints of coir rope, ganja, and jasmine. It was a complex fragrance, and it evoked an involuntary flood of memories, as if the olfactory cortex of my brain had roused the rest of the house. I saw clearly the faces of people I had not thought about in years.

One particular bend in the road, as we motored past St. Thomas Mount and the Officers Training College, brought to mind a one-eyed Anglo-Indian hooker named Blossom. It was my first time, and some upperclassmen at my college had taken me to a brothel. Blossom had been grinding chili in the kitchen when she was pressed into duty. I still remember the scent of chili wafting up from her hand as it lay motionless on the pillow. The rest of her was motionless too. "Hurry up, child, we don't have all night," she said.

I left Madras twenty years ago. Two marriages and three children later I am a different man from the one who left. My return visits have been sporadic. But there is great delight in a homecoming. Only one thing spoils it: the city's new name—Chennai—grates on my ears. A delayed postcolonial regionalism has brought many such changes; the state to which the city belongs is no longer Madras state but Tamil Nadu—land of the Tamils.

I played the game of the returning native—looking for familiar landmarks, seeing if I could recognize them behind the hoardings and billboards and new apartment buildings that have so altered the face of the city. My cabby was a dark, moustachioed Tamil who sat scrunched up against the door, his shoulder half out the window, addressing the steering wheel and pedals in a sideways fashion. His toes, curled around the accelerator, looked like carved ebony. I asked him if there had been disturbances in Madras, as there had been recently in Bangalore, with the news that Veerappan had kidnapped Rajkumar. (I didn't have to say "Rajkumar, the actor" or "Veerappan, the smuggler"; the kidnapping had been front and center in India for days.)

The cabby laughed at my question. "Riots?" he said in Tamil. "What for? What do we care about Rajkumar? He is nothing to us in Madras." And then he added, with a strange authority and confidence that I was to encounter repeatedly, and always from persons far removed from the story, "He will be released tomorrow. Definitely." He was satisfied with his pronouncement. He looked at me and gave me a don't-mention-it wag of his head.

When we pulled under the glittering portico of the Taj Coromandel Hotel, it was crowded with socialites departing from a gala. The bejeweled women rustled by in their chiffon saris, calling good-bye to each other in voices like myna birds'. I smelled Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, Bijan. The men were stoic, more Old Spice than Drakkar Noir; they stood holding open the doors of the cars the valets had brought around. I was embarrassed by my rumpled clothing, the stubble on my face, and my eau de travel. But more than anything it was my bare upper lip that bothered me. All the years I lived in Madras I had worn a moustache. Now that I was back, I saw a moustache on every male face. Without one of my own I felt exposed.

Moustaches were on my mind because of Veerappan and his trademark facial growth. His moustache is called a kattabomman, which has historically represented passion and fierceness. Throughout India it is a staple of police inspectors, villains, ruffians, and zamindars (and, of course, actors playing inspectors, villains, ruffians, and zamindars in Indian movies). Not everyone can pull off a kattabomman (though, God knows, we all tried in college; but most of us wound up settling for the bottle brush, or the pyramid centered over the upper lip, or variations thereupon). One has to back up a kattabomman, ideally with a hollow-cheeked, sharp-nosed, and steely-eyed countenance as well as big shoulders and bulging biceps (though the wiry Veerappan has defied that rule). In college only my friend Eddie could pull this moustache off. It made him look fierce, even though Eddie was a sweetheart, a pussycat.

Veerappan's kattabomman is the prototype: it is shaped like the Arc de Triomphe, all but concealing his lips, its thick, oversized pillars dwarfing his face and hanging bushily off the edge of his chin. A secondary growth leads back to the angle of his jaw. The moustache dominates every image I have seen of Veerappan over the years. At times it seems as if the moustache—not the man—is responsible for killing more than 130 people and 2,000 elephants, poaching 88,000 pounds of ivory, and smuggling sandalwood worth millions. The fellow peering out from behind the kattabomman is a mere appendage, powerless but for those tusks. After The Kidnapping, Veerappan's wife—who was captured and released and who no longer lives in the jungle—had this to say about her husband: "Only in appearance he looks frightening. But if you sit and talk to him, he is a very kind person." A pussycat, in other words.

But this mouser achieved new heights of notoriety when he kidnapped Rajkumar, last July 30. It is difficult for the rest of India (not to mention the rest of the world) to fathom the devotion and love that Rajkumar's fans in Karnataka (formerly the state of Mysore) have for him. With the advent of Star TV and the opening up of the economy to imports, all kinds of people and things have gained fame in India: Jennifer Lopez, Palm Pilots, Baywatch, Nokia cell phones, Monica Lewinsky. Then there is the homegrown fame of film stars in Bombay (or Mumbai, I should say). Twinkle, Tabu, Pooja, Dimple, Bobby, Sunny, Anil, and others adorn the covers of the glamour magazines and scandal rags that scream from vendors' carts. These actors live on a well-lit stage, and every beauty pageant they judge, every opening they attend, is carefully recorded. Marriage, divorce, falling in and out of love, all take place within the same incestuous circle—or so it seems to us observers. Periodically the actors' houses are raided by I.T. (income-tax) officers looking for black (undeclared) money; great wads of it often show up behind paneling, stuffed into mattresses, or buried underground. We begin to imagine that the stars speak not like the rest of us but in Bollywood lines. (Woman from a lousy family tree, did I raise you to show me this day? Or You have mixed my honor in the mud. Get out of the house. From today you are not my son and neither am I your father. Assume that your father is dead.)

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Abraham Verghese is an author, physician and med school professor. He is the author of Cutting for Stone and his writing has appeared in many major publications. More

Abraham Verghese is a physician and writer. His third book and first novel, Cutting for Stone, was published by Knopf in 2009. He is also known for two acclaimed non-fiction works, My Own Country, which was based on his experiences working with persons living with HIV in Johnson City, Tennessee; that book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and was made into a movie. He followed that with The Tennis Partner, also a New York Times notable book and a national bestseller. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times , The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and The Wall Street Journal as well as many medical journals. Verghese is board-certified in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine and infectious diseases. He attended the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa where he earned his MFA. He currently practices and teaches at Stanford University School of Medicine where he is a tenured Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine.

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