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After Veerappan

She was 16 when Veerappan saw her drawing water from the Cauvery and decided to marry her. She had little choice then but to follow him into the forests. At 37,with Veerappan dead and her daughters studying,Muthulakshmi wants to live life on her terms—start a business and write a memoir.

Written by V Shoba |
June 19, 2011 3:28:44 am

In a red sari and a slightly mismatched blouse,her hair long and wet around her shoulders,Muthulakshmi emerges from inside the house and nods a greeting. Located off the junction of four roads,near Pottaneri,en route to Mettur in Salem district,Tamil Nadu,the house is a single-storey structure with a small courtyard where a white Maruti Swift is parked behind a few plastic chairs. As we wait for Muthulakshmi,the 37-year-old widow of Veerappan—the bandit and smuggler hunted down and killed by the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force in 2004—to finish her morning puja,her sister Chinnaponnu says they moved into this house from a neighbouring place in March. “We got this place for a monthly rent of Rs 2,000. She has just come out of jail,so we are yet to decide what to do for a living,” she says.

After almost three years behind bars,Muthulakshmi was released on April 26,2011,from the central jail in Bangalore after being acquitted in five murder cases registered in Karnataka—she had been charged with abetment in the killing of several policemen. That leaves one civil case pending in a Tamil Nadu court. “The police have filed a false case saying I know where the ransom money from Veerappan’s kidnapping of actor Rajkumar is,” she says in Tamil,measuring her words. “We have always been monitored closely. Even when my husband tried to give us Rs 15 lakh so that we could buy a house and a piece of land,the police found out and we couldn’t do anything with the money. You tell me,how could he have left us crores? I am confident the court will uphold justice in the Rajkumar case.”

In July 2000,Veerappan’s kidnapping of Kannada actor Rajkumar from his farmhouse in Gajanur,Tamil Nadu,shook the country. Rajkumar’s fans and government officials were relieved when,after over 100 days in the forest,Veerappan let the actor off,unharmed,after getting a fat ransom. “That was the last time I met Veerappan,after 1993. I was allowed to go into the forest with our elder daughter and I advised him to let the actor go. He assured me he had his reasons for keeping him and would not harm him. In fact,they got along very well,” Muthulakshmi says,and adds on impulse,“When I asked to meet the superstar,Veerappan declined.”

Muthulakshmi’s life is a palimpsest,scraped away and rewritten at every stage by forces beyond her control. Born at Nerupur in Dharmapuri district,Tamil Nadu,she was all of 16 when Veerappan,already a feared poacher,spied her drawing water from the Cauvery and became enamoured of her beauty. When her father refused to give him her hand in marriage,he threatened his way into tying the knot. “We were scared of Veerappan. But he seemed just—in those days he used to come to the villages and sit with the panchayat to resolve people’s problems. And though he was 39,he was slender and looked younger than his age,” she says. With time,she would come to like his handlebar moustache—“It suited him,” she says—and forest fatigues,his way of calling her ‘Muthu’,his marksmanship as he shot a deer for lunch,even his harsh canons of justice. In truth,she had little choice. “The kolaikkaran (murderer) came and took her away. We could do nothing. Ever since,we have all been in and out of jail. I was released only three months after he died,” says her father Ayyanna,now in his sixties and reproachful as ever of his late son-in-law’s ways.

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Chinnaponnu doesn’t believe Veerappan was pathologically cruel. “I’ve never met him,but despite the trouble he has caused our family,I will not say he was a bad man,” she says,as her son Kanakaraj,a student of engineering,nods from the flight of stairs leading up to the terrace. His father works at a cellphone tower nearby.

“When the police charged them with helping Veerappan,they had to sell their house and vehicle in Nerupur,which borders the forest,and move here to work as labourers and raise their children. They have all been tortured by the police and their lives were interrupted by years in prison for no fault of theirs,” Muthulakshmi says. Her brother,too,served time in prison,and is now a farmer in Singapuram,Dharmapuri district.

Braiding her hair in front of a mirror in one of the three small rooms in her house,Muthulakshmi points to a studio portrait of her in a maroon-and-cream salwar kameez,taken in Coimbatore in 2003. In the picture,she is a different person: her face bears the hint of a smile and her countenance is somehow gentler. “I wanted to give it to him,but we could not meet. I only saw his body a year later,” she says,lowering her eyes.

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Like many,Muthulakshmi is convinced Veerappan’s death was a conspiracy. When the Tamil Nadu police announced his death in an encounter based on a tip-off—an autopsy revealed three bullets lodged in his forehead,chest and hip—in Paparapatti village,Dharmapuri district,suspicions of a ‘staged’ killing were raised. “Police never really gave him a chance to surrender. They had never considered prosecuting him. They somehow cheated and cornered him and killed him on the spot,” says Muthusamy,a plantain grower of Vanniyar caste—to which Veerappan belonged—from Gobichettipalayam who says his family in Dharmapuri is indebted to Veerappan. “He helped my aunt sort out issues with her daughter’s wedding. We cannot forget that,” he says.

“He was too powerful and too careful. He trusted no one. At one point,everyone thought he was invincible as long as he remained in the Sathyamangalam forests. But the police had enlisted the support of his uncle’s son,who brought him mor (buttermilk) or elanir (tender coconut) spiked with a drug that induces drowsiness. In that unconscious state,he was finished off,” Muthulakshmi says,wryly. “We are certain of it. The cousins who turned him over to the police suddenly came into a lot of money after his death and now own a piece of agricultural land.”

She is no longer the innocent who followed Veerappan into the forests in the early 1990s,walking tens of kilometres every day in her Bata shoes. Articulate and confident,she even has an opinion on Osama bin Laden’s death—Muthulakshmi says it was equally suspicious and likely staged. “Why concern yourself with that? What if they come and get you?” warns her sister,in an unsuccessful attempt to cut her short.

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In 2006,Muthulakshmi contested the Pennagaram assembly constituency in Dharmapuri district as an independent and lost. She says she is confident of winning with some party backing her,though she hasn’t chosen one yet. “If only they had released me a couple of months earlier,I would have been here in time for the elections,” she says. For now,her concerns are her two children and a source of income for the family. “The government hasn’t helped us. But there are people who are favourably inclined towards my husband—they have given us assistance. I hope to start some small business,” she says.

Her elder daughter,Vidya Rani,will have a BA degree in a year’s time,and her younger one,Prabha,is pursuing a degree in engineering. They both live in a hostel in Chennai. “They were here for the holidays,which is why the second room with the cot is cluttered with all their stuff,” says Muthulakshmi,producing a picture of them: tall and slender like their father,with the sharp good looks of their mother. “Things were difficult,with the police constantly questioning me and the children. I would go to their school to meet them and there would be two CID men standing at the bus stop. While I was in jail,the children’s grades suffered and no one wanted to be friends with them. Now,I want them to study and live the life I never got to live,” she says.

B N Devadas,Muthulakshmi’s lawyer in Bangalore,says despite the “torture” meted out to her in jail,she has emerged stronger. “Even the way they arrested her—in the middle of the night,and without giving a proper reason—in 2008 was against the law. Unable to withstand such persecution,she tried to end her life once. Now,she is a mature lady,” he says.

When we return after lunch,Muthulakshmi is just waking from a short siesta and rolling up the straw mat in the front room where a TV and an iron desk with drawers take up most of the space. Over the next two hours,she opens up about the few years she spent with her husband. “We would walk all day,in the cover of bushes,and rest under a tarpaulin when the rains came. When I joined him,there were about 90 people with us; when I left,there were still 75. The boys used to cook for everyone; I would merely collect firewood,” she says,adding Veerappan was a very affectionate husband who treated her well. “He respected women. Once,when a close friend of his,Rangasamy,tried to act fresh with a girl from a family that had helped Veerappan,he shot the man without a second thought. Justice was important to him. He could not stand liars and crooks,” she says.

Veerappan enjoyed meat and fruits,especially apples. A firm believer in God,he donned a veshti for his morning prayers every day,she says. “He would worship whenever he could. Early on,he read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in Tamil. Later,he switched to reading Karl Marx and Che Guevara,” she says.

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Her memories flow back and forth—from when her second child was delivered in the jungle by an elderly midwife to when she got separated from Veerappan in the Chettimangalam forest in 1993 and was caught by the police,who,she says,tortured her in custody without producing her in court. She fills in a few of the emotional gaps of a man who killed hundreds. “Veerappan wanted to eat a family dosa with us in a restaurant,” she says,smiling for the first time that day. Then,abruptly,she talks with rare objectivity about the families of those killed by Veerappan. “Caught in the crossfire between Veerappan and the government,so many innocent people suffered. Some of them still come to me,asking for help. The Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments haven’t done much about their rehabilitation,” she says.

Muthulakshmi is writing a memoir,and TV channels and filmmakers have approached her about productions on Veerappan’s life. For,she is privy to rare nuggets from his past,from before he started his poaching trade. “When he was young,Veerappan was known to friends and family as Koose Molakkai—Koose is his grandfather’s name and ‘molakkai’ means bald. Apparently,he did not have much hair as a child,” she says.

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Today is amavasa,the day of the new moon,when Muthulakshmi visits her husband’s grave in Moolakadu,a village 25 km away. (Ironically,Veerappan,in his active years,was known to strike in the darkness of amavasa.) Halfway through the drive,we make a stop at Mettur Square Market. Here,as she buys fruit,flowers and other offerings,the vendors watch with interest. “You haven’t come for a long time,” accuses a woman from behind her cart. Muthulakshmi flits from shop to shop,haggling and picking out the choicest mangoes and the freshest flowers. “Every amavasa,we have to call a driver to take us to the samadhi. I had just enrolled myself in a driving class in 2008 when the police put me in jail again,” she says.

We arrive at the samadhi,set in a barren piece of land hemmed in by boulders on one side and the Cauvery on the other. Under a solitary neem tree,a rectangular border of whitewashed bricks set in the ground encloses two mounds—the graves of Veerappan on the left and his brother’s son Mani on the right. “Mani died seven years ago at the age of 27. It was an accident,but we think he was killed. He had just become a lawyer and he wanted to fight for us. Since he was unmarried,we cremated him. Veerappan’s body lies buried beneath the mud,and many of his followers come to worship here,” Muthulakshmi says,depositing her handbag on a rock with a Tamil inscription painted on it. “Veeram vidaikkappattulladu (the gallant is buried here),” it reads. “A series on Veerappan’s life,called Chandanakkadu (sandalwood forest),was filmed here. It was a big hit on Makkal TV,and now the third re-run is well on its way,” says her sister’s son Kanakaraj.

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A wild wind snatches at the flames of an earthen oil lamp that has just been lit at the base of the graves. Muthulakshmi smears vermillion and showers petals on the mounds before decorating them with yellow garlands. Her face drawn into a frown,she cracks open two coconuts and places them on ceremonial banana leaves along with apples,mangoes,grapes and sweet limes. Incense is lit and the air surges with the scent of spices and rain. Some tourists arrive and stand back by the boulders to watch the fortnightly ritual. When it’s over,Muthulakshmi closes her eyes and folds her hands in silent prayer,with her face to the ground and her back to the Cauvery,the river that carried her youth away.

The man,his turf

On October 18,2004,a joint Special Task Force team of the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu police killed Veerappan near the village of Paparapatti in Dharmapuri district,Tamil Nadu. The killing brought to an end a two-decade-long hunt for Veerappan in the 6,000 sq km jungles along the borders of Karnataka,Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Over Rs 50 crore was disbursed to 1,506 policemen in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as reward following Veerappan’s killing. In Karnataka,754 policemen who were part of the STF that day got Rs 16.70 crore in cash. In Tamil Nadu,every person in the 752-strong STF team was awarded Rs 3 lakh in cash and a plot of land,apart from a promotion.

Veerappan is said to have killed nearly 120 people—mostly policemen travelling in large groups,forest officials involved in forest patrol,and police informants and tribals believed to have been assisting the police.

Veerappan collected large sums of money through kidnappings and extortion during the last few years of his life. He is believed to have poached about 200 elephants and smuggled ivory and sandalwood worth over Rs 100 crore.

Veerappan’s last victim was former Karnataka minister H Nagappa who was kidnapped on August 25,2002. The minister was found dead three months later.

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First published on: 19-06-2011 at 03:28:44 am

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