The Rediff Special/ M D Riti
Whenever I saw him on television, I would wish I could see him in real life," says Kannada movie star Dr Rajakumar of brigand and sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. "So imagine my amazement when, one night, I suddenly saw the man in my house! 'Aren't you Veerappan?' I asked in astonishment. 'Yes,' he answered in Tamil, shooting back his own question: 'Which of you is Rajakumar?' 'I am,' I said at once. As he tied my hands behind my back, my wife Parvathi and the others tried to stop Veerappan. But I told them, 'It's me he wants. I am ready to go with him'."
On July 31 last year, Veerappan and his men abducted Rajakumar, who was camping in his newly built house at his hometown, Gajanur. Rajakumar says Veerappan, who used to address him as periyavar (great man), told him he would be released in a fortnight. But the star's ordeal eventually stretched to 108 days in captivity. Nobody, including Rajakumar, was sure if he would return unharmed to his large family.
Veerappan was hoping to use his hostage to notch some political and ideological victories and earn some money in the bargain. "I asked him right then, soon after we left my house, whether he was after money," recalls Rajakumar, now safely ensconced in his huge house in the posh residential locality of Sadashivanagar in Bangalore. "He said a flat no. We have some very fundamental demands that should be met. That's why we have kidnapped you."
Rajakumar says that even as he journeyed into the dense forest, he was not really afraid. The terrain was familiar to him, he had spent his childhood playing in the same area. There was a mild drizzle as they walked. Veerappan and some of his men led the way, others brought up the rear. Rajakumar, his son-in-law Govindaraj, his Man Friday Nagappa (who was later described as an assistant film director) and his kinsman Nagesh were in the middle. Whenever the ground was uneven, someone would hold Rajakumar's hand and help him along.
At about midnight, the group stopped suddenly. One of the men darted off to return with a big vessel full of uppittu (a dish made of crushed wheat). Everyone sat down to eat. Rajakumar declined, since he had already had his dinner. The men ate silently, then retrieved a thermos flask containing tea from the same hiding place. "That's when I realised they must have planned this whole enterprise well in advance," says Rajakumar.
They spent the night lying on some rocks atop a small hillock. "I could not sleep at all," recalls Rajakumar. "But Veerappan had no such problems. Within minutes, I could hear him snoring!"
The next morning, they all had sweet tea and biscuits before moving on. "We must have walked 15-20 kilometres that first day," says Rajakumar. "My fellow hostages were quaking with fear. What next, what next, they kept asking me? What could I tell them?"
One day slid into another as a feeling of timelessness pervaded their life in the jungle, punctuated only by daily radio broadcasts of news and appeals from Rajakumar's family. Hope slowly began turning to despair. Now, though, distanced from that ordeal by time, Rajakumar can recollect amusing little anecdotes of everyday life with Veerappan.
"Have you ever wondered why Veerappan looks as if he has a paunch in all his pictures?" he asks. "I used to wonder too, particularly when I saw him walking through the jungles. One day, I finally found out. He had stripped off his trousers and shirt and was walking around in his underwear. And, strapped to his stomach were bullets for his gun, as well as some money, biscuits and medicine. It was almost as if he had a small shop on his person. You see, he never knew when he would have to run without any of his baggage, so he always had the essentials on his person."
Sometimes, they would set up camp quite close to the villages bordering the forest. Cowherds would occasionally wander close to where they were hiding to graze their cattle. Or tribals would approach the area in search of herbs and roots. Whenever that happened, Veerappan had a simple solution. "He would roar like a tiger or trumpet like a rogue elephant," says Rajakumar. "That would immediately scare the people away."
Rajakumar, though, is unable to shed much light on Nagappa's mysterious escape from Veerappan's clutches. "I really don't know when or how he did it," he says. "All I know is that when we woke up one morning, he was gone and Veerappan's gang was searching for him. Later, we heard on the radio that he had reached Bangalore safely."
The main fallout of Nagappa's escape was that Veerappan and his men began treating Rajakumar and the other remaining hostages with suspicion. They were no longer allowed to perform even their toilette in private.
There were memorable experiences as well. "One day, they said they would dance for me," recalls Rajakumar. "I expected them to perform like a bunch of crude roughnecks. But the eight men who were with us danced these wonderful folk dances, accompanied by folk songs. Veerappan and Sethukuli Govindan were by far the most exuberant of the dancers."
An impressed Rajakumar asked them to teach him some of those steps, which they promptly did. When he finally left the forest, he asked them to send him a video recording of this extraordinarily simple but beautiful dance. He still hopes they will not forget to do so.
Design: Lynette Menezes
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