A moustachioed bandit – recognizable from frequent media pictures – pointing a gun at you in the darkness? Unreal and implausible. But this was reality for Krupakar and Senani, wildlife filmmakers who were kidnapped by Veerappan in 1997 from their home adjoining the Bandipur National Park. The hands-up was followed by a prolonged, almost farcical few hours during which the kidnappers chained their captives, looked through their books and magazines, and helped themselves to some soap, a camera, and other sundry items that took their fancy. Their preferred hostages were white tourists or senior government officials, good ransom material. But they ended up with these brown filmmakers with little spare cash, because Veerappan had heard rumours that they were in an exalted category…and that the central government had given them a house, land, huge salaries, free hotels and air travel. Perhaps even better ransom prospects than white tourists!
Reality and disappointment dawn on the bandit as he escorts them to his hideout where they are kept for fourteen days, under constant vigil and through another kidnapping, this time of members of tourist groups out to spot wildlife. A strange and strained friendship develops between the poacher and the naturalists. There are frequent assurances that they’d be released, but the issue is fraught and uncertain until the end, when they are suddenly told to leave, and given a cassette recording of Veerappan’s message to the chief minister… asking for clemency; perhaps just a tad optimistic after over a hundred murders and kidnappings!
To have been guests at such a unique homestay for two weeks – with its attendant ticks, handcuffs, primitive bedding and constant guard (“… even when he was asleep, his gun seemed awake”) – is a lifetime dining-out story and one of its most attractive threads is the plucky courage (bravado, almost) of these two young men. If I spied the muzzle of a gun pointing at me in the darkness, I’d die of fright immediately, and certainly be unable to say “Come in, come in” or insist on having dinner before being marched off into a murderer’s hideout. This spirit must have galled Veerappan, who had to remind them to sober down: “The two of you have been kidnapped, know that?” A bit insulting for a bandit, to sense that his captives were thinking of tea and food rather than the possibility of imminent death. Krupakar puts on several suits of clothes in preparation of his captivehood, and emerges “looking like a mobile apparel store”, then practically orders Veerappan to unchain Senani so he can put on a few more shirts.
It is this indomitable cheek that takes the two filmmakers through their ordeal. Their writing style is a measure of their mindset, which is along the lines of “If I’m gonna die, I’ll die having fun.” Some sections are written by one or the other, with typical bachelor jokes about each other. Krupa says he was trying to walk slowly, to shorten the distance between them and home, “but Senani was striding ahead as if he had some urgent work of his own.” And Senani on his friend: “Krupakar had taught Kannada to everyone (in Mudumalai), but hadn’t picked up any Tamil.”
Because of their spunk, easy banter and the mutual interest in wildlife, they become Veerappan’s advisors and counsel him on a range of issues from poaching to religion. The forest bandit supposedly displayed an “awesome” degree of natural history knowledge. (I disagree; if I’d lived in the forest from my teenage years to middle age, I could also have recognized tubers and done a decent langur call. However, let it pass; unlike Krupa and Sena, I don’t dare undermine Veerappan even though he is no more.) It also includes intermittent wisdom, such as “Why does one need idols and temples to pray? God is everywhere, and you just need the heart.”
Apart from being a good story (and true to boot), there are interesting “human elements” to ponder, such as the social factors that create the Veerappans of the world: was he a victim or a villain? And is there a Stockholm syndrome at play in the filmmakers’ attitude to him? (We can invent our own Bandipur syndrome.) Was the bandit also a sensitive and thoughtful person? Could he have been re-absorbed into society, which is what he wanted?
Krupakar and Senani’s account, written in Kannada a year after their ordeal, was originally published in the weekly Sudha, and unsurprisingly, became its most popular serial ever. It was then published as a book and ten years later came the English translation. This – the translation from Kannada to English – has some endearing touches, such as the use of the word “bored” which has been adopted into Tamil/Kannada to mean trouble or difficulty. Now, however plucky and spirited the captive, he’s certainly not going to be bored an hour after being kidnapped. But RS Ramakrishna, the translator, gives us the sentence: “Our interaction in the dark had left us bored.” There are also some other ambiguous lines where the reader is hard put to understand what’s going on, such as the conversation on Page 49 about selling their house. Some of the language is heavy and archaic: “Dr Maithi put forth his apprehension”; “… he leaked the news in Senani’s ear”; “He sat sincerely before Dr Maithi”.
On Page 61, when Senani is emotionally trying to explain justice to Veerappan, and why his murdering another human being is not the same as a tiger killing a deer, Ramakrishna gives us a delicate and touching metaphor: “… he said in his broken Tamil, like one delicately untangling one’s garment from a thorny bush.” This is what all translators have to do and it’s not easy. A rigorous editor’s pen would have made all the difference; not just in refining the language but perhaps also by drawing out more details from the kidnapped duo, who too often seem to focus on superficial details. Dishes are being washed, rice is being cooked, baths are taken… okay guys, but how did you feel, what were you thinking? It would have been a very different book had they been women. Alas this was not to be, but the right editor might have been able to dig through the topsoil and unearth some emotions and thoughts which might have added valuable substance to the book.
However I’m not complaining. It’s a fun read, a “caper story”, as the translator says in his introduction. I googled the term and it’s a sub-genre of crime, with multiple crimes perpetrated by the main character in full view of the reader. But I say again, I’m left with the feeling that with thoughtful editing and prodding, this book could really have gathered stature and depth.
By Zai Whitaker
BIRDS, BEASTS AND BANDITS: 14 DAYS WITH VEERAPPAN
Authors: Krupakar and Senani
Penguin Books, 2011
Subject Category: Contemporary/Non-Fiction