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The Rediff Special/Sivasubramaniam

'They want to kill me. What is wrong in me killing someone who is trying to kill me?'

Sivasubramaniam The Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments have rejected Veerappan's request for an amnesty. The brigand has threatened to execute his nine hostages -- all Karnataka forest department employees -- by July 31 if he is not granted an unconditional reprieve from prison.

TN government emissary Nakkeeran editor R Gopal and his colleague Sivasubramaniam -- the first journalist to interview the dreaded killer -- have now returned to the jungles to persuade Veerappan to release the hostages. No one knows what will happen.

In this first person piece, exclusive to Rediff On The NeT, Sivasubramaniam recalls his encounters with one of the most wanted men in India.

Nakkeeran has about 250 to 300 reporters in the Salem, Periyar area and we used to meet regularly and talk about our activities. Veerappan was one of our favourite topics as he operated in our area; everyone had at least one fascinating story to narrate about Veerappan. In some of the stories he appeared as a virtuous character and in some very sinister and evil.

You might wonder how we got such exciting and contradictory stories about Veerappan. It was the villagers who supplied us with the information about him. If Veerappan is a hero to some, he is a villain to others. So we had a great time exchanging such stories, analysing his character.

Veerappan had pronounced the area as his kingdom and he ruled the jungle and its surrounding areas like a king. Later on, I understood that those who lived close to his hideouts, met him regularly, got help from him and also helped him in return. All of them belonged to the Vanniyar community, and there was some unwritten bond among them. Initially, it surprised me when some of them spoke about Veerappan in glowing terms, and with respect and admiration. My surprise knew no bounds when they referred to Veerappan as Mama, Perippa, Anna... They were all related to him in one way or the other.

Ninety per cent of the villagers supported him and only ten per cent portrayed him as a villain. I asked them in horror, "How can you call him a good man?" They said innocently, "What is the problem? It is true that he moves around with guns, it is also true that he smuggles sandalwood and makes money. What has it got to do with us? He never did any harm to us and he will never do so. So why should we be scared of him? If we give him food, he accepts it. When we offer tender coconut water to him, he happily accepts it and then quietly goes back to his hideout. Why should we be bothered about him?"

But I knew he was very cruel to those he considered 'informers'. Once he murdered an entire family when he discovered that they had informed the police about his whereabouts.

After listening to the villagers I wanted to meet Veerappan in person. So I began visiting the villagers regularly to win their confidence. They do not trust anyone. That was what Veerappan has taught them; never trust your own shadow! Slowly, I made friends with them and hoped that one day they would help me meet him. They used to tell me, "I told Mama that you want to meet him. He said he would meet you when he comes here next." I believed them. But nothing happened. Days and months passed. Whenever I reminded them, they would say, "Mama said, he will meet you." This went on for more than a year.

When I told some of my friends that I was trying to meet Veerappan, many dissuaded me by saying, why do you want to take such a risk? Is your life not precious? But I continued my endeavour. When some other reporters found out about this, their curiosity was kindled. Ultimately, all of us tried to outdo the others, secretly of course. A kind of unspoken rivalry rose amongst us. There was no way I could go back. It became a matter of prestige for me. I wanted to meet him, very badly.

Sensational incidents, of course all of them connected to Veerappan, used to happen in the villages and we used to report everything, without taking anyone's side. We only wrote the truth. Veerappan happened to see one of our issues and there was a report about police brutality in it. He was curious to know who wrote the piece. Veerappan's interest was because I highlighted, according to him, the other side of the story. Somebody told him I had been trying to meet him for the last year. "One year? Why didn't anyone tell me till now? Bring him here," he ordered.

My dream came true, on April 3, 1993. The trip was an exciting experience. My journey -- rather adventure -- began with two men from a village guiding me till a particular point. I think we might have walked at least four kilometres to reach the first point. Unfortunately, my first trip was a catastrophe. We could not proceed further as nobody appeared from Veerappan's hideout to pick me up. Maybe they saw some policemen, I do not know. I did not ask them; they did not tell me either.

I went back, disappointed and dejected.

My spirits were revived when my second expedition materialised in no time. The journey through the jungle was one I will never forget. We could not even walk straight as trees and twines blocked our way. The terrifying silence of the jungles, the utter stillness of the dark can give you shivers. Suddenly, you heard a jackal howling or a lion roaring, piercing the ghastly silence. After that, it was only silence everywhere. So silent that we could hear the sound of our own breath.

As I trampled on wearily, the dry leaves cracked beneath my feet, frightening me. What gave me courage was the thought that I would be the first reporter in India to meet Veerappan. Yet, I could not understand my mind. I had been waiting for this moment for nearly a year. Finally, when I was so near achieving my mission, I shivered and wanted to go back.

We dragged our fatigued legs throughout the night. Only a faint sliver of moonlight guided us through the darkness. I was the only one who felt fear. The villagers walked on as if they were walking on a highway in broad daylight. At four in the morning, we saw a few men standing near a hut with a fire burning inside. The realisation that I was near Veerapan's hideout made me all the more anxious. The men asked me to sit down. I could not oblige them as I was terrified beyond words.

In the dim moonlight, all I could see were guns and khaki uniforms. All the men looked so intimidating that I stood there, dazed and bewildered. But they were very kind and friendly. "How was the journey? Are you tired? Do you want a cup of tea?" I could not open my mouth and say yes. I wanted something hot very badly. But I was sweating profusely. I had seen these things happen only in the movies. But in real life....

Sivasubramaniam with Veerappan They began making tea for all of us. They behaved as if I was a guest in their home; all of them were very well mannered and cordial.

I gathered courage and asked, "Where is he?" "Why are you in a hurry? Thalaivar will come in the morning. You try to take some rest," one man said. How could I rest? I was so tense. All I could think of was what I would ask Veerappan when I met him. I must have been extremely tired for in no time I slept like a log.

As told to Shobha Warrier; Veerappan's pictures: Courtesy Nakkeeran

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