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.)

But Rajkumar's fame is a league apart from the ephemeral Bollywood variety: it is made of broad cloth, enduring even as he reaches his seventies. Rajkumar grew up in poverty—a fact he has never tried to hide. Even if his onscreen persona invariably sports a wig and a debonair moustache, and even if lately his leading ladies have been young enough to be his granddaughters, offscreen he happily appears as himself: a pleasant, avuncular septuagenarian with a bald pate, twinkling eyes, a large nose, and a winning smile. He has been an ardent champion of Kannada (the language of Karnataka) and its culture. At one time the state government wanted to make the teaching of Kannada in schools optional rather than mandatory. Rajkumar objected, and it was as if God had spoken. Legions of fans rallied to the cause, and the government backed down in a hurry. He never ran for office, though he could easily have done so and won. Even in his 007 kinds of roles he refused to imbibe alcohol or smoke cigarettes onscreen, not wanting to be a bad role model for his fans. He was in good health, thanks to his modest and temperate lifestyle, and he still had the habit of rising at four every morning to practice yoga and chant bhajans. He was always early for his shoots. This humility—so much the exception in the movie business—is why Rajkumar (or "Dr. Rajkumar," as he is known for an honorary degree) is so revered by the common man in Karnataka. His repertoire has included roles as popular Hindu deities and saints. The colorful posters and calendars that decorate living rooms and shops in Karnataka often use Rajkumar's face to depict these figures (there being no gold standard, after all), thus sealing this divine transference. His millions of fans believe they have a personal relationship with him: he is brother, father, son, faithful husband, avenging angel; he is me and he is you and he is ... God. "You won't see this happening in Bombay," a filmmaker told me a few days later, referring to such deification. "It's as though self-esteem in the south isn't innate but exists largely as something we project on our heroes."

The actors M. G. Ramachandran, of Tamil Nadu, and N. T. Rama Rao, of Andhra Pradesh, were similarly deified in their states. Both men used—some would say they were involuntarily catapulted by—their popularity to become chief ministers (the equivalent of governors in America) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they went on, in a Reaganesque manner, to hugely influence politics on the national scene. I remember that MGR, even when old and sickly, insisted on appearing in a white Cossack hat and gangsta shades, his neck and jowls hidden by a white shawl, and with the few square inches of flesh that showed covered in white pancake makeup. It was as if he sensed that only MGR the icon had any power; to reveal the mortal beneath would destroy everything. Rajkumar has never had such worries.

I wanted to get close to the forest where the abduction took place and where Veerappan and Rajkumar were hidden at that moment. I flew from Madras to Coimbatore, a town famous for its textile mills. In Coimbatore I hired a car and drove to Satyamangalam, a town in the foothills of the Western Ghats, a chain of mountains on the edge of the Deccan Plateau. Outside the police station I met the man who was to be my guide, and we headed to the forest.

Rajkumar's kidnapping took place on a Sunday. The actor and his wife were visiting his native village of Gajanur, about 130 miles from the city of Bangalore, their principal residence. Rajkumar's ancestral property in Gajanur borders the Satyamangalam forest, a dense jungle preserve covering 2,300 square miles and nestled between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Rajkumar loved to escape to this rural retreat, far from the urban bustle of Bangalore. He had just built a new house on the grounds but had not as yet moved into it, and the couple was spending the night in the old house. They sat on a straw mat, watching the local news on television. Rajkumar prepared a betel leaf for his after-dinner chew.

Suddenly men armed with Kalashnikov rifles burst in. Rajkumar recognized the leader as (or recognized the moustache of) Veerappan. The smuggler addressed the actor using the English word "Sir" and ordered him to come with them. Rajkumar, who has played a calm, composed hero many times in his movies, stayed true to that role. He told his wife not to worry. His hands were bound behind his back with nylon rope. Veerappan handed a cassette tape containing his demands to Rajkumar's wife, with instructions that she deliver it to the chief minister of Karnataka. The bandits, about a dozen of them, disappeared into the forest with their prize as quickly as they had come.

A few miles from Satyamangalam, just before we began the twisty mountain climb, we passed a Special Task Force camp. The STF has been in existence for a decade, its sole mission being to capture Veerappan (at which it has been spectacularly unsuccessful). STF men in khaki trousers slouched around, looking bored. Khaki shirts flapped on clotheslines behind them. My driver told me that the STF troops had been asked to "stand down" in order not to jeopardize Rajkumar's life. Standing down seemed to come easy to this group, I thought as I studied them. Only their eyeballs moved as they watched my car go by.

The STF operation has swallowed many millions of rupees. Some editorialists describe the STF as an industry, and like many government industries it is also an inexhaustible source of graft. If the STF were actually to succeed in its mission, the well would dry up; therefore (according to this theory) there is no incentive to catch Veerappan. And besides, catching Veerappan would be a very dangerous undertaking.

Past the STF post the steep and narrow mountain road began its seemingly endless hairpin bends. My driver leaned on the horn as we came to the blind spot in each turn, but we never heard answering bleats from lorries coming down. This sinuous road connects Tamil Nadu with Karnataka. Because Veerappan is a Tamil and Rajkumar is from Karnataka, the kidnapping had heightened tensions between the two states. Commerce between them had almost come to a standstill. Large numbers of Tamils live and work in Karnataka, in the city of Bangalore in particular. In 1991 a dispute between the two states over sharing water from the Cauvery River had brought deadly violence against the Tamils in Karnataka. When word of Rajkumar's kidnapping spread in Bangalore, on "Black Monday," as it is now called, there were huge protests and many fears that Tamils were in danger again. One motorist was stabbed to death. Trains coming from Madras were stopped. Only a strong show of force by the police prevented a repeat of the bloodshed seen in the Cauvery riots.

We eventually arrived at the tiny village of Thimbam. Only two cars had passed us on the way. Both were hardy Ambassadors, with Gatsby-era contours, and both displayed press signs on their windshields. The mountain air was brisk, nothing like the dry heat of the plains below. Thimbam sits close to the boundary between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and is also on the edge of the forest. The village was eerily quiet. I strolled down a path bordered by tall grass, keeping a keen eye out for cobras and conscious of the monkeys in the trees above who followed my progress. I soon came to a ledge that offered a sweeping view of a valley below. I lifted up my camera but lowered it again, because no lens could do justice to this vast valley and its dense forest, which deferred in the distance to mountains again, beyond which was a glimpse of more forest. Mudumalai forest, Bandipur forest, Satyamangalam forest—it is all one forest, and the names simply reflect its size and the direction from which one happens to approach it. In this huge preserve herds of elephants roam free along with all manner of other animals, of which wild boar are probably the most dangerous. Also somewhere in the forest, perhaps within hailing distance (Thimbam is a place where he has often surfaced), lurked Veerappan with his captive, Rajkumar.

Veerappan, who is now in his fifties, also grew up in poverty on the edge of the forest, and he has spent most of his life roaming within it. He moves from one spot to another, caching food in strategic locations. The terrain is difficult, and its few paths are well known to him; he has sown some of them with land mines. It is said that he has observers on hills and in treetops, and cannot easily be surprised. According to the Veerappan legend (a legend he helped to create), he was initiated into elephant poaching as a youth, and later branched out into the business of smuggling sandalwood, which is as expensive as it is uncommon. He began making the news twenty years ago as a smuggler of ivory. "We target and shoot at the forehead," he said in one interview, waxing eloquent about his first vocation. "[The elephant] slumps to death without even knowing that life is departing. Good death. To feed on its carcass birds come. Eight-point-four million living beings ... Of all charity, feeding is the greatest."

To become king of the jungle, Veerappan ruthlessly eliminated rival poachers, including a cousin of his. He was merciless with informers. Yet he helped villagers in places like Thimbam when they needed money for a wedding or funds to build a temple. In all likelihood the villagers here had worked for him in the past, hauling out headloads of ivory and sandalwood and receiving generous pay for their services. This generosity had won him a network of sympathizers who acted as his eyes and ears on the edges of his Sherwood Forest.

I had met briefly with a Veerappan sympathizer in Madras, a man who runs a lesser-known Tamil weekly magazine and who once served as an emissary for Veerappan. What he had to tell me was a rehash of what I had already heard and read. Nonetheless, I now had the eerie sense, as I stood looking over the forest, that because of that meeting Veerappan was aware of my presence.

How does one investigate a kidnapping when the main actors in the drama are hidden from sight? In Madras, Coimbatore, Satyamangalam, and now Thimbam, I had run into other Indian reporters—a congenial and helpful lot with whom I felt a strong kinship. (India's huge press corps, representing a plethora of papers and magazines, was something else new since my student days.) But we were all chewing on the same cud, the same slender set of "facts." The reporters offered speculation and rumors sotto voce. These, by virtue of frequent repetition, began to take on an air of unassailable truth. The outcome of this drama was predicted with emphatic punctuation: "Definitely!" "Undoubtedly!" "He will never ...!" "The government must ...!"

I knew one thing from my visit—the jungle, depicted in the press as an impenetrable overgrowth, was far from that. It was a dry deciduous forest, and walking into it was easy, with natural trails evident to the eye.

Things changed for Veerappan in the past decade, when India clamped down on the export of ivory. The bandit turned to the human trade, beginning a practice of kidnapping officials and even the occasional tourist or wildlife photographer. He demanded amnesty as well as money, and when the former was denied, he settled for the latter and released his victims. During the terms of the previous state governments in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka an intense effort was made to flush out Veerappan. The STF eight years ago was more engaged, and led by a fearless leader, Walter Davaram, who sported a bristling sergeant major's moustache every bit as fearsome as the kattabomman of his quarry. Many of Veerappan's associates were either captured or killed, and the gang was reduced from about a hundred to fewer than ten.

Somehow Veerappan survived. But his brother died in police custody (the police claim he committed suicide with a cyanide capsule), and that is said to have fueled Veerappan's hatred for the police. He became a man hunter. He used land mines to ambush police patrols. He killed and even beheaded some of his pursuers. One story that has been widely repeated to illustrate his ruthlessness (and the Veerappan myth has become increasingly indistinguishable from fact) is that he smothered his infant daughter to prevent her cries from giving away his forest hideout when the authorities came close.

After the decimation of his forces Veerappan seemed to have gone into hibernation; newly elected state governments in both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had all but forgotten about him. The Rajkumar kidnapping came after a two-year lull in Veerappan's activities, and it was, for both state governments, a rude awakening. Veerappan's newfound strength and the Kalashnikovs in the gang members' hands clearly stunned the authorities.

The ransom request was published in the national papers the very day I was in Thimbam. It, too, was atypical, in that the kidnapper did not ask for money. Instead he demanded that water from the Cauvery be released immediately to Tamil Nadu by the Karnataka government, and that compensation be paid to Tamil victims of the 1991 riots. He wanted the Karnataka government to declare Tamil the second language of the state, and he asked that a statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar be erected in Bangalore. Thiruvalluvar wrote his maxims and aphorisms around 2,000 years ago, and they are still used in everyday speech. There actually is a statue of Thiruvalluvar in Bangalore, but it is covered by gunny sacks. Bangalorians don't want it unveiled until and unless a statue of Sarvajna, a Kannada poet, is erected in Madras. Veerappan demanded the release of five militants belonging to Tamil liberation forces and of fifty-one members of his gang who had been captured in the wake of the killing of two police officers, Harikrishna and Shakeel Ahmed. All the evidence suggested that Veerappan had formed an alliance with disciplined Tamil militant groups who were sympathizers if not comrades of the Tamil revolutionaries waging war in Sri Lanka.

After two days I headed to Bangalore, where I found schools, colleges, liquor stores, and bars closed. As a mark of respect for Rajkumar, movie theaters, too, were shut, and all shooting on movie sets had come to a halt. Estimates put the losses to the film industry at the equivalent of $660,000 a day. In the aftermath of The Kidnapping the evening news showed film stars offering prayers alongside saffron-robed priests. Newspapers carried a picture of a starlet rolling on a temple floor, in a form of penance and sacrifice for Rajkumar's safety. For his fans, whose clubs are organized by street and neighborhood, Rajkumar's life was more important than their own; one fan demonstrated this by throwing himself in front of a bus.

Bangalore, once known for being a gentle "garden city" with a mild climate, is now at the forefront of India's information-technology revolution, or "Eye Tee," as I heard repeatedly. The city is home to Infosys, wipro, and other world-class businesses. When I had visited the city five years earlier, pubs had been the new, new thing. Now it was cybercafés. Congestion, pollution, and rapid growth had predictably changed Bangalore, and Brigade Road, once the place to see and be seen, was a street I barely recognized. As I drove through town, I saw scars of Black Monday everywhere, in the form of shattered windowpanes. The damage was most striking in the high-rises under construction in the Diamond District, an Indian version of Silicon Valley. Ammu Joseph, a journalist friend of mine who has lived in Bangalore for a decade, pointed out that the rioters who gathered in the streets the day after The Kidnapping targeted the city's affluent and the symbols of affluence, such as automobile showrooms. Writing in The Hindu, she said of Bangalore,

Enormous fortunes have been made here ... but they have not trickled down in the form of more jobs, better wages ... If some of the richest individuals in the country—even the world—live in Bangalore ... so surely do some of the poorest.

That night in Bangalore, I was with friends and relatives. The beer (obtained with great resourcefulness, since all liquor outlets were closed) flowed, and the food was fabulous. Like everyone else in southern India, we talked about Veerappan and Rajkumar. "Why would anyone in America care about this?" I was asked, because in that room, at that moment, the story was really not of great importance. The riots of just a few days before were no joke, but the rest of it was a tamasha of sorts, an entertainment, although we were all nervous about how it would end. "High drama," I suggested. "Life imitating art imitating life. Robin Hood kidnaps Elvis Presley." But in a few minutes we had forgotten about Veerappan and Rajkumar. The forest I had walked in the previous day seemed a continent away.

There is another moustachioed character in this story: R. R. Gopal, the editor of a hard-hitting Tamil magazine called Nakkheeran (named after a mythical Tamil bard who offered a dare to Lord Siva). He, too, sports a kattabomman as his trademark. His magazine's style of investigative reporting has frequently embarrassed government figures and made Nakkheeran hugely popular. But in the Indian publishing world dangers abound for the aggressive journalist that are absent in the West: Gopal's printer, a man named Ganesan, died after being released from police custody. He had been arrested in retaliation for the publication of stories critical of the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha (herself a former film star). Jayalalitha's government harassed Nakkheeran but could never close it down; many believe it was the magazine's revelation of her corruption that brought down her regime. Just hours before The Kidnapping one of Gopal's reporters was murdered by "unknown persons," according to newspaper reports.

Veerappan must have admired the pluck of the little magazine, because in past kidnappings he had sometimes requested that Gopal be the mediator, the man with the briefcase. Gopal had played the role of jungle emissary several times, the last mission taking place three years earlier. His video crew brought images of the bandit and his forest abode into the living rooms of a hungry TV audience. Gopal wrote a book in Tamil on Veerappan. It is Gopal—perhaps by Veerappan's own design—who is responsible for the transformation of Veerappan from famous bandit to iconic figure, a superstar in Rajkumar's league. Yet Gopal's analysis of Veerappan has not always been flattering, and Veerappan is said to have been unhappy that Gopal profited at his expense. That may explain why, after the Rajkumar kidnapping, Veerappan asked for an emissary but pointedly did not ask for Gopal. Nevertheless, the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, both of which had been at odds with Gopal, pressed the journalist into his familiar role of mediator.

While I was still in Bangalore, Gopal went to Thimbam, where he was forced to cool his heels for two days before Veerappan's associates finally made contact with him and took him to the hideout. He emerged a few days later with the story. Photographs he brought back showed Rajkumar seemingly in good spirits and looking well. "Whatever his desire, please fulfill it,"the actor said on tape, using the honorific "Sir" to refer to his captor. "He is looking after us with love and affection. He fully trusts us, and we have confidence in him."Rajkumar, Gopal said, was enjoying nature and the outdoors and having long dialogues with his kidnappers. This was an unexpected twist, I thought. If, as Hindu tradition has it, there are four stages to a man's life (youth, family life, retirement, and renunciation), then Rajkumar had involuntarily entered the sanyasa phase: renouncing worldly duties and retreating to the forest to devote himself to meditation and spirituality.

Meanwhile, Veerappan, according to Gopal, was quoting Che Guevara and showing other signs of a transformation from robber to revolutionary. Perhaps he was also getting tips from the veteran actor on having a film made of his life. Veerappan was well aware of the precedent set by Phoolan Devi, a revolutionary who, after she surrendered and served time in jail, ran for and won a seat in Parliament. [See "India's Bandit Queen," by Mary Anne Weaver, November, 1996, Atlantic.] Her life story was made into the movie Bandit Queen by the director Shekhar Kapur, before he went on to make the Academy Award-winning Elizabeth. A diary of Veerappan's that was captured three years ago is said to have Shekhar Kapur's telephone number in it.

Gopal visited the forest several times over the next eight weeks. The governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were ready to give in to Veerappan's demands, because they knew the public would not forgive them should anything happen to Rajkumar. The stumbling block now was the elderly father of Shakeel Ahmed, one of the policemen killed by Veerappan's gang. The father obtained a stay from the Supreme Court to block the release of the fifty-one prisoners connected with the ambush in which his son died. Meanwhile, the central government in Delhi and a sizable portion of the journalistic community and the public, at least outside Karnataka, were also against releasing these prisoners on the bandit's say-so.

In Bangalore rumors were flying. The most persistent one had to do with one of Rajkumar's sons, who is involved in the granite business; some granite quarries lie in Veerappan territory. According to this story, Rajkumar's son failed to pay money he owed to granite dealers, and this is why his father was kidnapped. As the days passed, the rumors became more inventive and surreal: Gopal, the journalist, according to one, is Veerappan! According to another, Rajkumar was fed up with his wife and son, and engineered this whole thing to get a little forest R&R. "Definitely!"

It was the hundredth day of The Kidnapping. In the Indian movie business a hundred days is a significant milestone: when a film has a theatrical run that long, it is cause for celebration. But the story was no longer on the front pages of Indian papers. The crowds holding vigil outside Rajkumar's house had thinned considerably, and life in Bangalore was almost back to normal. The likelihood of a dramatic police or military operation à la Entebbe was remote, because the risk to Rajkumar would be unacceptable. Veerappan, too, was in an awkward situation: should he kill Rajkumar, he would unleash a backlash against ethnic Tamils. By all reports, Veerappan was tired of life on the run. He was bothered by asthma and chronic intestinal ailments. He wanted out of the forest.

N. Ram, the editor of Frontline, a respected fortnightly, arranged for me to get an interview with Gopal in his office at Nakkheeran, in Madras. It was a Friday evening, the 103rd day of The Kidnapping, and a surprise shower had left puddles on the streets and sidewalks which mirrored the gay lights strung over shop awnings. Colors seemed strangely brighter in the rain's aftermath: purple and orange saris in store windows, white jasmine strung through coconut-shined hair, yellow auto-rickshaws darting between lime-green Pallavan transport buses. I left my sandals on a porch and climbed the narrow stairs of a residential building to its second floor. I entered a largish room partitioned into cubicles and lit by fluorescent lights that didn't seem to reach the corners. The reporters and other employees were all men, all swarthy, and all sporting moustaches, but none wore a kattabomman like Gopal's. A shelf running around the room at head height displayed awards and trophies, most featuring a likeness of Gopal, or Gopal with Veerappan. There was a bust of Veerappan in a glass case: the inscription indicated that it was a gift to Gopal from a grateful kidnap victim. Larger trophies had the usual silver figurine replaced by cardboard-backed full-figure color cutouts of Veerappan and Gopal facing each other like stags about to lock antlers, their moustaches bristling. One could be forgiven for thinking that the office belonged to both men, so prominent was Veerappan's image. My escort whispered to me that some of these trophies were awards that Gopal gives to his best reporters, or his best distributors. His reporters are fiercely loyal to him; I sensed both a siege mentality and a strong esprit de corps at Nakkheeran.

An unsmiling Gopal came out and took me into his air-conditioned office, which has a window overlooking the newsroom where his staff works. Under the glass top of his desk were displayed photographs, including the first ones of Veerappan published in Nakkheeran, relating to some of Gopal's most important investigative coups. Speaking in Tamil liberally sprinkled with English, Gopal told me that his first foray into Veerappan territory had resulted from his frustration at having to reuse an old police photograph of Veerappan every time there was news of the bandit: "One time I changed the size, next time the tint. But I was fed up with having to use the same picture." He offered a cash reward to the first of his reporters who brought him a photo of Veerappan. In 1993 one of them bravely walked into the forest and came back with the prize. This was at a time when several hundred Special Task Force people were supposedly looking for Veerappan. "The first time I saw the negative, my hair was standing on end," Gopal told me. "I had to process the photo secretly. I had to pinch myself to see if it was real." He was cautious about discussing Veerappan or Rajkumar, because in the absence of any real news the only sport in town was to magnify or distort the least utterance or gesture of Gopal. New members had joined the team negotiating for Rajkumar's release, apparently without consulting Gopal. Much had been made of this in the press, but Gopal said it did not bother him. "I am the official government emissary. I have to see this through. My only goal is that Rajkumar should be released." I sensed that he was tired of Veerappan—as Ringo Starr must be tired of constantly being asked what Paul is really like.

I had walked into Gopal's office prepared to dislike him—envious, I suppose, of his closeness to the story. Instead I found myself quite taken with him. If, as his critics have said, he has greatly enriched himself on the Veerappan story, there was little evidence of it. He walked me downstairs to my car; he would remain in the office for an hour or two more, he said, and then head to the printing plant for a final okay of the next issue of Nakkheeran. Asked for one last thought about Rajkumar, he would say only "I am sure he will be released within the next few days."

Indeed, a few days later, when it seemed that no one other than Gopal really expected it, Rajkumar was released. On November 16 the thespian appeared in Bangalore, helicoptered in from the forest. The pilot of the helicopter made two landings in the city, as if unsure exactly where to take him. Finally Rajkumar was delivered to the Vidhana Saudha, the seat of government, where an unusual press conference was staged in the assembly building. Rajkumar, dressed in a simple white shirt and dhoti, appeared dazed and overwhelmed by the outpouring of joy from thousands of fans outside. But then, what should have been the clear denouement of this prolonged abduction instead became a source of further confusion. Referring to the negotiating team that had last visited the forest, Rajkumar gave credit for his release to one of its members, a woman who called herself Dr. Banu. Rajkumar said that she had coached him to act ill and then persuaded Veerappan to let him go. At the press conference, while she periodically whispered into his ear, Rajkumar described her as a goddess: "It was as if I saw Devi Shakti in her."

But the next day Banu turned out not to be a doctor at all. The rescuer of Rajkumar was, in fact, in the granite business. The Times of India uncovered court records showing that she had been accused in 1996 of cheating an Italian granite businessman to the tune of about $100,000. Her links, if any, to Rajkumar's son or to Veerappan are unclear. The goddess, without explanation, canceled a press conference she was to hold. Rajkumar, contradicting what he had said in front of millions of television viewers all over India, released a statement downplaying her role and giving credit to government emissaries. There were strong rumors of a big payout to Veerappan and his militant Tamil partners, and strong rumors that the whole kidnapping had come out of a granite deal gone sour. Among people I talked to in Bangalore there was growing resentment: if in fact The Kidnapping had little to do with Tamil nationalism, but instead arose from a private matter involving Rajkumar's son and some granite dealers, then the millions of dollars it had cost the state of Karnataka should be reimbursed. There was brave talk of night-vision goggles, heat sensors, and going into the jungle to capture Veerappan. There was equally brave talk of taking politicians and STF members to task for the atrocities committed against villagers and other detainees in the name of catching Veerappan. Rajkumar declined to be interviewed.

When I finally left Bangalore, I drove past the statue of Thiruvalluvar, which sits, still wrapped in gunny sacks, on a pedestal in the center of a traffic circle. I left with a sense that the story was even murkier than when I began. But this is the nature of things in India: the harder one scratches, the more complexity is revealed. I thought back to Ganesha Chathurthi, the festival celebrating Ganesha, the elephant-headed god (the most popular of Hindu deities, the god of wisdom and prudence), where clay images of Ganesha are always immersed in lakes and rivers and other bodies of water. In recent years the festival had become more and more elaborate, and a major element of entertainment had been thrown in: film screenings and dance performances were now common. Of late, too, intricate tableaux had been constructed around the statue of Ganesha. In 1999 the tableaux featured Indian soldiers, the heroes of the Kargil war with Pakistan over Kashmir. But last September in Bangalore one tableau had Ganesha leading Rajkumar out of the wilderness. And there, peeping through the trees like a Cheshire cat who can never leave his forest, was Veerappan.