Contents | February 2001

In This Issue (Contributors)

More foreign correspondence from The Atlantic Monthly.


From the archives:

"India's Bandit Queen" (November 1996)
A saga of revenge—and the making of a legend of "the real India." By Mary Anne Weaver


From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Tracking India's Bandit Queen" (November 1996)
A conversation with Mary Anne Weaver.


Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Kidnap Drama
A multimedia feature offering information about the Rajkumar kidnapping. The site includes profiles of key figures involved, a photo gallery, maps showing where various parts of the drama unfolded, an archive of articles, a copy of Veerappan's crime record, video news footage, and more. Posted by IndiaInfo.com, an English-language Web site devoted to news and information about India.

"Kidnapped Indian Actor Freed"(November 15, 2000)
An article posted at abcnews.com. Includes photographs of both Veerappan and Rajkumar, and a link to an August Reuters article about Rajkumar's publicly-issued warnings against rescue attempts. By The Associated Press The Atlantic Monthly | February 2001
 
The Bandit King
and the Movie Star

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
 
by Abraham Verghese
 
.....
 
Illustration from book by R R Gopal t 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.

 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.

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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.