Nakkeeran Gopal, Editor of the magazine Nakkeeran, was the emissary of the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments when Dr Rajkumar was abducted by sandalwood smuggler Veerappan in 2000. He was able to meet and interview the brigand in his forest hideout even while Veerappan avoided being located by the combined resources of large contingents of police from two states. Now, at Rajkumar's death, Gopal recounts the various trips he undertook to rescue him, and his impression of the icon.
"When I was asked to go as an emissary, I did not look at it as an honour; I was scared. I had not seen any of Rajkumar's films, but I knew he was loved and respected by all and he was in the custody of a criminal. So, if something went wrong somewhere, I knew it would be disastrous for everyone concerned. Look at the kind of violence in Bangalore even though he died a normal death. If something were to happen to him while he was in the hands of a criminal, can you imagine how it would have been?
That is why I declined to go in the beginning. But then, I was under tremendous pressure from everyone, including the Rajkumar family, Kalaignar Karunanidhi, the Karnataka Chief Minister S M Krishna, Sivaji Ganesan and Rajnikanth. I was still undecided, but a phone call from my reporter in Bangalore made me change my mind. He told me, "The news has spread that you are refusing to go. All Kannadigas are angry." The moment he said this, I agreed to go to the jungles.
When we reached the jungle, myself and my group of people were made to sit in a hut for ten whole days. We could not meet either the Veerappan gang or Rajkumar. After ten days, Veerappan's gang met us and took us with them. We walked for one whole day. Then, I was told we couldn't meet Rajkumar. But I insisted we would look into their demands only after seeing Rajkumar as well as Veerappan. I just couldn't see how we could go back without meeting Rajkumar. I had to make sure he was alive. Finally, they agreed to take us to him.
As we walked, from far off, I saw a man sitting cross-legged in white clothes. I knew it was Rajkumar and felt calm inside. The moment he saw us, he got up and did a pranamam. I touched his feet. What I felt then was akin to what one must feel after seeing a sage or rishi.
I first told him about the tension in Karnataka, and requested him to let me record a message that he was well. He spoke for five minutes in Kannada and Tamil, and I recorded it. I sent it through my reporter to the city without wasting any time. That night, I asked him about the abduction. He answered all my questions in very good Tamil. He told me then that his legs ached because he was made to walk around 10-15 kilometres every day -- remember he was 72 years old then. I asked Veerappan to give him some medicine to relieve his pain. Should I bring some medicine when I come next, I asked him. Veerappan said there was no need, adding that they would take care of it. But Rajkumar wanted me to bring some medicine for his asthma trouble.
During my second visit, we were made to walk 40 kilometres before we met Veerappan. Again, he refused to let me meet Rajkumar, but I was adamant. He flatly refused saying Rajkumar was kept far away from the place where we sat. I suddenly noticed a man carrying a plate of upma, and realised Rajkumar was somewhere nearby. I said to Veerappan, 'In this jungle, villagers say that Veerappan does not lie, but you are lying to me about Rajkumar being kept far away.' That did the trick, and he agreed to take me to him.
As we walked, I asked my men to switch on the video camera. The moment Rajkumar saw us, he got up and started walking towards us. I walked even faster and touched his feet. He immediately hugged me tight, and there were tears in his eyes. I could spend only a couple of hours with him on my second visit.
But, during my third visit to the jungle, I spent 4-5 days with him. By then, he had completed 30 days in the jungle. It was then that I came to know him best. I must say he lived like a saint. The first thing he did after getting up was take a bath in the jungle stream. After towelling himself dry, he would practice yoga for nearly an hour. Even those who are half his age will not be able to do the yogic postures he did at that age. If he looked healthy then, it was only because of yoga. He also did a lot of meditation.
What impressed me most was the way he lived there. Whatever food was given to him by Veerappan's gang, he would eat as if it were very tasty. He would wipe the plate clean, then ask for more. I never heard him complain about the food. It is amazing for a person used to excellent food at home. He could adjust to life in the jungle so well without any tension or complaint only because of yoga and meditation. I was also impressed by the love he had for his late mother. During my third visit, I was asked to bring a photo of his mother to him. When I gave him the photo, he held it close to his face and cried. He later told me a lot of stories about his mother, how she struggled to bring him up, etc.
During my fourth visit, Nagappa ran away and complicated everything. I had to talk to Veerappan continuously for eight hours to cool him down. When I went there for the fifth time, Rajkumar was so overwhelmed and he cried a lot. He told me, I am a Krishna bhakta. Now, you come as Gopalakrishna to help me. You are the reason I am alive today.'
I never meet him after he came back. He said in an interview that if it weren't for Gopal, he wouldn't have been alive. I feel fortunate to have met him and spent some time with him."