Sunday, December 26, 2004


From Today's NYT Mag, by Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay [NOT Mumbai] Lost and Found..... a book I will purchase with a gift cert. received Xmas eve:

Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, c. 1949: Outback Outlaw

December 26, 2004

Koose Muniswamy Veerappan was a bandit in the forests of
South India with the world's most dangerous facial hair.
His popularity as a poacher and sandalwood smuggler rested
on the myth that he stole from the forest and gave to the
forest dwellers. Their support helped him evade an
extensive police manhunt for the better part of two
decades, and 20,000 people showed up for his funeral.

The local papers referred to him, in inimitable Indian
journalese, as the ''forest brigand'' Veerappan. His age,
when he was shot dead, was anywhere between 50 and 60. He
wore green army fatigues and his eyes were as bloodshot as
his life. He could reproduce a range of sounds of the
beasts and birds of the jungle -- 2,300 square miles of
wilderness between the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and
Kerala; a hilly wonderland of evergreen and deciduous
trees, medicinal plants and clear rivers, filled with
elephants, tigers and the occasional leopard. But during
his four-decade criminal career, he killed at least 120
forest officials, policemen and villagers who informed on
him; 200 elephants; and hundreds of thousands of sandalwood

Veerappan's whiskers, a sign of virility in India, struck
fear into the hearts of the hairless. His mustache lavishly
covered his mouth and jaws; it looked like a small furry
animal had died there. In 2000, he kidnapped a 71-year-old
film actor, Rajkumar, a demigod in South India. The hostage
and the kidnapper held lengthy discussions on religious
scripture. It had a therapeutic effect on the thespian.
''My time was all my own,'' Rajkumar later said. ''I prayed
to God, conversed with my inner self and marveled at
natural phenomena like day and night.'' The brigand would
twirl and flourish his whiskers and ask his captive his
opinion. ''He used to smear all sorts of oils and herbs on
it,'' the actor recalled. ''He used to comb it every day
and keep it very clean. He also used to take great pains to
dye it black.''

After 108 days -- a mythic number in Hinduism,
corresponding to the names of God -- Veerappan let the
actor go, supposedly after payment of a large ransom.
Rajkumar, unable to shave during his captivity, grew a
mustache and beard; during the same period, his three sons,
along with much of the Kannada film industry, vowed not to
shave until his release. Veerappan's whiskers spread on
vast numbers of cheeks. When photographs of his dead body
were published, many newspapers were initially suspicious
that it was the real brigand, because his face was adorned
with only a small mustache, barely a quarter of a foot

Veerappan was born into a poor Tamil family in the forest.
He began his career as an ivory poacher, shooting his first
elephant at 14. Then he turned to sandalwood, of whose
harvest the government had awarded itself a monopoly.
Veerappan outraged environmentalists but initially garnered
sympathy from tribes and villagers in the forests. At one
point, he led a group of landless laborers to take over
several hundred acres of government-reserved forest, clear
them of trees and use the land for cultivating crops.

He was adept at manipulating political struggles to his
advantage. The South Indian states Karnataka and Tamil Nadu
were engaged in a bitter dispute over sharing the Cauvery
River, and when he was wanted in one state, he would hide
out in the other. He demanded that the Cauvery water
dispute be referred to the International Court of Justice.
Among the demands he made for Rajkumar's release was the
paying of a fair minimum wage to tea-estate workers. ''I am
fighting for the 60 million people of Tamil Nadu,'' he
claimed, and he formed links with Tamil secessionist

But for all his ideological bombast, his crimes could be
downright macabre: he would order his victims' limbs to be
severed and chop their bodies into small bits. He once
called a forest official to his hideout for a one-on-one
meeting, offering to surrender, and later returned him --
without his head. He disposed of two other forest officials
by boiling them alive in a vessel used to brew moonshine.

The Rajkumar kidnapping only increased the feeling that the
brigand was becoming a source of national embarrassment.
The hotel industry in the beautiful Nilgiri Hills had been
affected; people stopped visiting after he kidnapped a
group of tourists from a wildlife sanctuary there. As the
South Indian states strove to be seen as forward-thinking
hotbeds of technology and development -- Bangalore, India's
equivalent of Silicon Valley, is the capital of Karnataka
-- it seemed ridiculous that they couldn't catch a bandit
in their own backyard. He regularly offered to surrender,
but his terms went beyond an amnesty. One was that his life
should be made into a major motion picture.

Tamil Nadu and Karnataka formed special police task forces
to hunt him down, and the outcome, though delayed, was
preordained. His homicidal paranoia had progressively
alienated the villagers who sheltered him. An informer
betrayed him to the police, who shot him, along with three
of his gang members, on Oct. 18. He met his end while being
transported in what he thought was an ambulance for a
cataract operation. The exact circumstances of his death
were unclear; human rights groups claimed the police shot
him dead in an extrajudicial execution.

During the latter years of the brigand's reign, the animals
and trees in Veerappan's terrain were, perversely, safer
than ever before. With 1,500 armed policemen as well as
Veerappan's gang roaming through the jungle, all other
poachers and tree fellers stayed out. A policeman in charge
of one of the task forces estimated that the percentage of
wildlife in the area had gone up 10 to 15 percent in the
previous decade. In the week after Veerappan's death,
scores of other poachers re-entered the jungles, and the
forest department hired men with drums to go around the
villages announcing a ban on outsiders coming into the

In death, Veerappan was successful in at least one of his
goals. Immediately after his demise, two filmmakers in
Bollywood rushed to finish films on the forest brigand. The
name of one was changed from ''Let's Get Veerappan'' to
''Let's Kill Veerappan.''

Suketu Mehta is the author of ''Maximum City: Bombay Lost
and Found.''

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