Eric Gonsalvez heard about Kannada matinee idol Dr Rajakumar's kidnapping while in Bombay. The next day he was in Coimbatore, on Veerappan's trial.
The Spanish wildlife lover, who is currently touring India, came to know about the sandalwood smuggler from a Time magazine report three years ago, and promptly became an admirer.
"I wish I can meet him face to face," said Gonsalvez, as he began the arduous, 128 kilometre journey by road to Sathyamangalam forest range.
He is one of the many foreigners who show interest in India's most infamous brigand. For Gonsalvez, meeting Veerappan and seeing the forest ranges he operates in is of professional interest. He is planning a book on the bandits and poachers in the jungles of South America, the African continent and Asian sub-continent.
"It seems Veerappan will occupy much of my book because no other country has launched such an expensive manhunt. I have met a number of wildlife looters. But I have never come across another person who has killed more than 2,000 elephants and 120 people anywhere in the world," he said.
Two days later, I met Gonsalvez in a hotel lobby in Coimbatore. Nope, he hadn't managed a tete-a-tete with Veerappan, he told me.
"But going to the foothills of the jungle was like meeting him," he said.
Gonsalvez interacted with a number of Veerappan fans in the villages that straddle Sathyamangalam forests. "They love him because he gives them money and renovates their temples. I am impressed by the moral world of Veerappan," said the Spaniard.
Even on the road, Gonsalvez doesn't forget to log on to the Internet. He wants to check whether the site he is creating for Veerappan, www.veerappan.com, has been registered.
Yes, www.greatdomains.com, Internet's top seller of domain names, has done the needful. In fact, veerappan.com, veerappan.net and veerappan.org are up for sale at greatdomains.com.
"Veerappan is not available even on the Net," Gonsalvez murmurs.
Tour villages like Gajanur, Thalavadi, Punjur and Chamarajanagar, which surround the Sathyamangalam forests where Veerappan holds Rajakumar hostage. You will come across poor villagers who love the sandalwood smuggler.
Most villagers live by rearing cattle and goats. Veerappan has been benevolent to many. S Shetty, a manual labourer, got his daughter married off with the Rs 5,000 that Veerappan gave him. Shetty had helped Veerappan's gang by tipping them off about a police contingent that had landed in Punjur.
Veerappan pays handsomely the network of informers he has built up in the past decade. He helps the poor with money. In return, what he demands is loyalty.
The brigand is believed to be protective about women. The villagers remember he killed a member of his gang for raping a woman some years ago.
Despite the tales of his cruelty, Veerappan is said to be kind-hearted. His wife Muthulakshmi, who has been cut off from him since 1992, says he was smitten by love.
She saw him crying only once. "He wept while proclaiming his love for me," Muthulakshmi said.
She hailed from a village in the Dharmapuri forest range. The villagers there knew Veerappan very well. Muthulakshmi wanted to meet him. So she sent a small girl to the forest with the request. And Veerappan came down to see her.
It was love at first sight for him. He wanted to elope with her, but she resisted. She asked him to get her parents's consent. Veerappan married her after Muthulakshmi's uncle intervened.
I asked Muthulakshmi what she found attractive about Veerappan. "His moustache and notoriety," she replied.
According to Muthulakshmi, Veerappan always exhibited political ambitions. His desire to enter politics got a boost after bandit queen Phoolan Devi won the general election.
"If Phoolan Devi can become an MP, why can't I become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu?" Muthulakshmi quoted Veerappan as having told her once.
Veerappan's admirers in Tamil Nadu believe he will become the chief minister one day. These are their reasons:
First, he is the "ultimate protector" of Tamils not only in Tamil Nadu, but in Karnataka too.
Second, his Padiyachi Gounder community is a coveted vote bank.
Third, over the years he has cleverly played on Tamil chauvinist and nationalist sentiments to build up local support in villages.
Who knows, he might even make a decent chief minister!
George Iype is now cultivating a Veerappan moustache.
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