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The Bandit King and the Movie Star - Page 2
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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.

hings 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.

fter 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.

here 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.

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Illustration provided courtesy of R. R. Gopal.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2001; The Bandit King and the Movie Star - 01.02; Volume 287, No. 2; page 71-78.