Endurance

Being Mrs Veerappan

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Married at 16, widowed at 31, arrested at 35, acquitted at 38, the wife of the forest brigand reluctantly talks about a life she did not choose

It’s a little over a month since Muthulakshmi Veerappan was ac­quitted by a court in Karnataka in two murder cases, two bomb blast cas­es and one involving an attack on a po­lice station. Sitting on the verandah of a three-room house in Pottaneri, Tamil Nadu, Muthulakshmi, dressed in a ny­lon sari, her hair tied in a bun, looks trou­bled. She is reluctant to talk about her­self. “I am waiting to publish my book. Now that the charges against me have been dropped, I can go ahead,” she says.

Her arrest in 2008, from a house not far from her current residence, was carried out in the dead of night. “I was asleep when the police started banging on my door. It was close to midnight. When I came out of the house I could see that we were surrounded by the police.” Bail ap­plications were denied. Charges slapped against her had to do with crimes record­ed in the early 1990s. It is the price she is still paying for being married to a man who set off the longest manhunt in India’s history.

Veerappan, the legendary forest brig­and, was gunned down in a controversial encounter by the Special Task Force (STF) close to the jungles along the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border. Muthulakshmi was arrested four years after his death.

She is now back in her village in Mettur, a hill town about 350 km from Chennai. Home with her, on their sum­mer break, are her two college-going daughters. As the evening grows, Muthulakshmi gets more talkative. She recalls how Veerappan first noticed her while she was fetching water from the river. This was 1989. Her family lived in Dharmapuri (known for the famous Hogenakkal Falls on the Cauvery River) not far from Veerappan’s village Gopinatham on the state border.

As a child, she says, she was terrified of him and would scurry home when he came around. “I had heard of Veerappan. He had a reputation of helping the poor and killing people who did wrong. At that time, he operated from a much smaller region along the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border. He hadn’t killed any policemen yet, only some of his rivals.”

The first time she saw him, he and some of his gang members were taking a dip in the Cauvery. She allows herself a smile as she talks about it. “I was very scared. My feet and hands were trem­bling because he was so close.”

When Veerappan picked her to be his wife, there was no question of the family having a choice in the matter. “When he said he wanted to marry me, I told him it was up to my parents to choose my husband. My family didn’t have an option, we were forced into it.” Only im­mediate family attended the wedding ceremony, she says.

Muthulakshmi agrees to meet me again the next day. She has planned a rit­ual offering at a temple, referred to local­ly as Veerappan kovil (temple). The follow­ing morning, the family is in full attendance at the temple. Veerappan’s nephew, son of his brother Arjunan, who allegedly committed suicide in police custody, has arrived from Chennai, where he works as a teacher.

Dressed in a sari, Vidyarani, Veerappan’s eldest daughter who bears an un­mistakable resemblance to her father, ex­plains the temple’s significance to her family. “This is our house god, Munniappa. My father believed only in him. We have suffered a lot in the past. We are praying to protect us from harm in the fu­ture.” Vidyarani, an arts student studying at a Chennai college, is an aspiring IAS of­ficer. And her sister, Prabha, wants to be a lawyer.

Tears roll down Muthulakshmi’s face as she stands with folded hands facing the twin brightly coloured giant idols of Munniappa. “Before setting out on any operation, my husband would seek blessings at this temple. And when the hunt for him was intensified and he was unable to come to this temple, he would pray from wherever he was,” says Muthulakshmi. The ritual ends with the sacrifice of four chickens. 

About 10 km from the temple, in a village called Moolakadu, is the spot where Veerappan is buried. Overlooking the river Cauvery and surrounded by hills, his final resting place would make a perfect picture postcard. “Isn’t this place beautiful?,” Muthulakshmi asks reflexively.

The grave is unmarked and without a tombstone. On a rock next to it, in yellow paint, an epitaph by an anonymous author reads ‘Veeram viddikka pattad’ (The seed of bravery lies here). Every full moon, Muthulakshmi visits the grave to offer prayers. 

At the time of his death, Muthulakshmi wasn’t living in the jungles with him. She had to fight for the custody of her husband’s body. “The police wanted to cremate him. Only after pressure from lawyers, the media and the public, who had thronged in large numbers to this place, did they finally hand over his body. They wanted his burial to be carried out immediately.”

Muthulakshmi rejects the STF’s encounter story—of him having been gunned down along with his close aides while going to a hospital in an ambulance near a village in Dharmapuri. She believes he was drugged by people he had trusted, was handed over to the police, tortured and killed in their custody. A fact-finding team report, released the following year, lends credence to her claim. The report said Veerappan was in STF custody for two days before he was killed. But all efforts seem to have come to a dead-end. “There were several burn marks on his body. There were bruises…he was beaten up. He didn’t die of a gunshot. He was tortured to death,” she says.

Sitting by her father’s grave, Vidyarani talks about the day she learned of his death. She was in Class VIII then. “I did not believe my friends [at school] when they told me about it. They knew he was my father. Only when my relatives came to take me home did I believe that he had died. When I arrived here at around 3 am, the police were refusing to let my mother inside the van where his body had been kept. They let us in only when she began shouting at them. We were given not more than a couple minutes with him. After that, they locked the van. The burial took place at 7 am.”

Vidyarani is all too aware of the burden that comes with being Veerappan’s daughter. “We don’t have the kind of freedoms other people take for granted. We live our lives as privately as we can. It is both to protect ourselves and to lead an honourable life. Whatever we do in our personal or public life, we have to be very careful that it is not perceived in the wrong light.”

Fiercely protective of her two daughters, Muthulakshmi won’t humour nosey reporters. She makes it abundantly clear that there will be no communication with her daughters in her absence. No photos, no personal details will be published.

She reluctantly agrees to one last meeting at her house. After some coaxing she agrees to talk about her life in the jungle and being on the run with Veerappan.

Hard it may be to imagine Veerappan as a farmer living in Uttar Pradesh, but that may well have been the story had fate not intervened. After getting married, the elephant poacher and sandalwood smuggler, who grew ever more notorious for his high-profile kidnappings and killings of senior police and forest officers, had actually considered giving it all up. And settle down with his new bride in a faraway city.

“He had sold a lot of the sandalwood and with the money he had made wanted to start a new life. But then there was a police raid and he lost all the money,” she says. Muthulakshmi lived the first two years of her marriage with Veerappan in the jungles. She never went to school. She was taught to read and write Tamil by Veerappan. 

“At first, I was scared to talk to him. He didn’t approve of me talking or laughing too much.” She was the only woman among a gang of 90 men. The men were constantly on the move, camping for not more than 10 days in one place. Days and nights were spent walking 30–40 km, sometimes without water or food.  The first meal on some days would be at 6 pm, she says. The men would cook. Veera- ppan, says Muthulakshmi, was very fond of meat and insisted on it when he ate. He was also very disciplined. “He was keen that things happen on time—waking up, listening to the radio news, setting out.

If anyone disobeyed him, he would get very angry.”

Muthulakshmi’s first daughter was born in a hospital. In 1990, a month before the baby was due, she surrendered at a lawyer’s house in the presence of a senior police officer. “After the delivery, my husband came to take me back into the jungle. I had to leave my daughter, who was only a few months old, with my mother.” Her second daughter was born in the jungle two years later. “The STF had intensified their hunt by then. There was no way I could reach a hospital. There were about 10 ladies with us then.”

Muthulakshmi’s darkest period, she says, were the months she spent at the police camp after her capture in 1993. Following a gun battle between the police and Veerappan’s men, she had run for cover and lost her way. After spending two harrowing nights by herself in the jungle, she was caught by police. “I was detained in a police camp without being produced in court. They tortured me. They starved me, beat me up and gave me electric shocks. I lived every day in fear of being killed. I became very depressed and tried to commit suicide by drinking phenyl. The news leaked to the media and a case was lodged against the police. I was released after being produced in court.”

For the next eight years, Muthulakshmi lost contact with her husband. “It was like being under house-arrest. I was watched constantly. I worked in a textile mill in Coimbatore earning Rs 25 a day. I lived in the company quarters.” The next and the last time Muthulaksh- mi would meet Veerappan was during the dramatic 108 days of Kannada filmstar Rajkumar’s hostage crisis in 2000. “After he had kidnapped Rajkumar, he came to meet me for a day. I told him not to harm him in any way and to release him as soon as possible. He assured me that he had not mistreated him in any way.”

The only case now pending against Muthulakshmi has to do with the Rajkumar kidnapping, where she is charged with accepting part of the ransom money paid to Veerappan for the actor’s release. Muthulakshmi says Veerappan wanted to surrender during his final years. “But the police and the government didn’t give him a chance. He thought he would do jail time and when released, spend his remaining days with his family. But the government didn’t agree.”

It wasn’t until after Veerappan’s death that Muthulakshmi sought a public life for herself. She took a shot at politics, campaigning for the rights of tribals and speaking out on the police injustices against her. When the leaders of the PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi), which represents the Vanniyar community to which her husband belonged, didn’t offer her the support she expected, she stood as an independent in the 2006 Assembly election from the Pennagaram constituency in Dharmapuri district. She lost to the DMK candidate.

Having failed at politics, Muthulakshmi says she would now like to start an association or trust for the welfare of the tribal people.  There are no visible traces of the vast riches Veerappan amassed during his lifetime. And mention of treasures Veerappan allegedly hid in the forest gets no reaction. Says Vidyarani, “Despite the riches my father accumulated, he didn’t give us anything. And neither did we ask anything of him. We also want to dedicate our lives to the people, just as he did. That is my mother’s vision too.”

Donations from well-wishers appear to be Muthulakshmi’s main source of income. She is reluctant to identify her benefactors. She is only too aware of the price she has paid for being Mrs Veerappan. “Another woman in my place wouldn’t have survived.  But I am proud to say that through all my struggles, I stood by him as his wife.”