Sunday, December 24, 2017

Book Review: Veerappan: Chasing The Brigand

“There are no atheists in the jungle” — writes Vijay Kumar, the police officer who eventually killed the dreaded sandalwood smuggler and forest brigand Veerappan. This is obviously a rip-off on the American phrase “there are no atheists in a foxhole” — used to indicate that extremely stressful situations makes anyone a believer. Autobiographies generally allow you to gaze into the author’s soul. We read them because, we get to see life from the point of view of the author and get to live, albeit briefly, the life of someone who is very different from us. With these sort of cheesy lines from army books, Vijay Kumar signals to us that he is a cop who isn’t used to “baring” his emotions to other people. I was all prepared to hear Vijay Kumar tell me about his hunt for Veerappan in the deep jungles of Sathyamangalam, a jungle according to him that was as formidable as his foe. Instead I got a fairly impersonal story that serves as a fast racy thriller and one that feels like its always at an arm’s length away from the “real” Vijay Kumar.
Koose Munnisamy Veerappan was well-known criminal in the state of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and chased by police from both states. However, the people of Tamil Nadu had this unexplained fascination for Veerappan. He polarized the population into those who thought he was some sort of Robinhood and those who thought he was just a cruel murderer. The first time I learned about Veerappan was from the movie Captain Prabhakaran (Rs 2 ticket in PerInbaVilas theater, Thirunelveli), a hagiographic take on the fugitive. On one hand, I grew up watching journalists openly supporting the brigand and accusing the cops of feeding and growing him and on the other hand Walter Devaram — TN’s most famous cop ever was publicly demanding his head. This effect he had on people intrigued me. You’d generally expect a murderer, smuggler, and kidnapper to be unanimously hated by all, how does he get to polarize people instead? I wanted to know. And thats why I picked up this book.
Vijay Kumar IPS is a well known cop in Tamil Nadu and succeeded Devaram as the head of STF tasked to nab Veerappan. The lead character of the famous Tamil movie Kaakha Kaakha was supposedly modeled after his mannerisms, he was in Rajiv Gandhi’s Special Protection Group, and BSF in Kashmir. Vijay Kumar has structured this book as a multi-threaded narrative that goes back and forth in time. It starts with a phone call he receives from the then CM Jayalalitha requesting him to come join the effort to capture Veerappan, it then goes into Vijay Kumar’s past and the rigorous training he went through in India and abroad, and then goes way back in time to tell the story of Veerappan’s past and all the cops who tried to hunt him down. While this is an interesting narrative structure to keeps things fast paced, it doesn’t feel like an autobiography, which is generally linear. It feels like a Dan Brown fiction thriller and Vijay Kumar is further limited because of his introductory note “In some cases, I have deliberately blurred sequences, obscured details and scrambled timelines in order to preserve operational secrecy and protect identities of people who were involved in sensitive missions”. This forces narrative choices that makes the book feel even more “commercial”. Also, I had a problem with the narrative structure of this book that I had with the TV series Wonder Years, or the movie Titanic. Any story narrated from the point of view of a single person must either contain events where the narrator was present or events which could’ve been narrated by someone else to the narrator. Vijay Kumar liberally writes about Veerappan’s optimism, his regrets and his feelings — which seem like needless “masala” thrown into an other wise realistic narration.
There were several ‘aha’ moments in the book. The brief origin story of Veerappan told from the POV of the rather senseless partition of states in the 60s, the story of “Rambo” Vijay Kumar’s valiant effort to nab Veerappan and the cruel way in which he was bombed by Veerappan on Good Friday (called as the “Good Friday Massacre”), the gruesome murder of Karnataka STF Shrinivas, Veerappan’s daring escape from Karnataka STF and his revenge bombing of STF base camp. All these have been narrated in great detail by Vijay Kumar who collects information from a variety of his sources to enrich this narration. I especially felt for “Rambo” Gopalakrishnan, nicknamed so because of his body builder frame. The Good Friday Massacre permenantly disabled him and he passed away recently. Reading this book made me feel for all the unnamed sacrifices made by the police force for meagre financial returns and almost no limelight. There were police officers who volunteered to be part of the STF just for pride. They put their life in danger, they spent days without food in terrible conditions and lived far away from loved ones. All for what?
This book also provides significant insight into the police procedural and intelligence aspects that were crucial to the eventual killing of Veerappan. I was hoping to understand Vijay Kumar’s hypothesis, his thought process or just about any sort of access into his brain to enjoy this autobiography. Again, Vijay Kumar keeps this book at an uncomfortable distance from him. We get detailed descriptions of setups involving Veerappan’s informers, his wife Muthulakshmi, and the prisoners who were known to Veerappan. It tells us how many months/years of work go into getting one set up to fruition. When it fails, its back to the drawing board again. And there were several failed set ups for Veerappan, until the one that finally got him. What this book also brings to light is the murky connections that Veerappan had with famous people in TN. The Mr. X that Vijay Kumar describes, the one who finally helped them get Veerappan, seems like a very interesting character. I wonder who he is.
The best part of the book is the countdown to Veerappan’s final moments. The operation is described in minute detail. Suddenly, for a brief moment, Vijay Kumar comes alive as an author and opens up his thoughts and his mind to us. We really get to live the ebbs and flows of his anxiety and care about what happens. This to me was the bst chapter of the book. There was always a suspicion among the public that the encounter that killed Veerappan was staged. I wonder if the amount of effort Vijay Kumar puts into that chapter reflects his intensity to counter that rather unfair criticism. I wanted to know if his killing was staged or real. This chapter presents the operation leading to his death in such a detailed fashion that it becomes hard to question the legitimacy of his death. He managed to convince this layman reader with that chapter.
To conclude, this book is a good read from the POV of learning about the life experiences of a cop who was in charge of this cat and mouse game. It is neither Vijay Kumar’s autobiography nor a Veerappan biography. I wanted to know what Vijay Kumar thought of Veerappan, what his colleagues thought of him and what he wanted the reader to think about about Veerappan. We don’t get a lot of this. While this book gives insights into Veerappan’s ruthlessness (he kills his own child) and his general character profile. It doesn’t go deep into his motivations. In a sense, its not a true “both sides of the coin” story. Its not an unbiased look at the forest brigand. My personal intuition and bias is with the police force and I did want to see Veerappan caught or killed. But it is human nature to seek, to question and to understand both sides of the story, to get an unbiased view of what happened and make sure all those who were at fault were brought to justice. It is human nature to understand another human being (the author in this case). As to what motivated him and his innermost emotions that made him the person he was, that vicarious peep into the inner recesses of his mind or his world. In that way, this book did not help me “get to the truth”.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice one, Bharat. It's been a long time...