In the forests of South India lived an infamous rogue called Veerappan. There was no marksman who could shoot as well. His gang was known for its acts of cruelty. Mothers would frighten their kids with tales of Veerappan and how he kidnapped naughty children. The entire gang was high on the government’s wanted list, for Veerappan and his gang had killed 2000 elephants for their ivory and over 300 forest rangers. But, either through fear or otherwise, the villagers never informed on Veerappan. In turn, Veerappan (perhaps only his mother might have dared call him Veeru or Appa and that too before he was born) would sometimes throw some money, sandalwood or a carcass before the villagers. That is, if he was in a good mood, which was very rare. The tree or the carcass was enough to feed the entire village. It didn’t matter to the villagers that the money distributed was indirectly their own for after all, the forest wealth was theirs to lead a life without destroying it completely. Nor did it matter to them that the wildlife he killed, destroyed their habitat. To them the money flung before them occasionally, was better than nothing at all. But how did Veerappan become such a dreaded dacoit? Now that’s quite a story. As a child he was the puniest and sorriest looking boy in his village. He started growing a handlebar moustache the day he noticed a few strands of hair sprouting on his upper lip. He was a teenager then. In the village near the forests, everyone cut sandalwood trees from the areas marked as government property. They then sold it secretly for high prices to people who were willing to do anything for the fragrant wood. Veerappan soon became an expert in locating the largest and most fragrant tree to cut. Since the tree had to be cut, sawed and transported without the forest officials knowing about it, he got hold of a power saw from his underground contacts and cleverly devised a muffler to cut the sawing noise of the machine. The forests were also full of elephants and tusks were worth a fortune, more so since killing elephants, an endangered specie, was forbidden by the government. Veeru practiced long and hard and became a crack shot. In a trial run he shot his first tusker and managed to kill it. Then he declared himself a gang leader and set about collecting a large gang of thugs from around the village to do his dirty work.
One day Veerappan was in a particularly adventurous mood. “Wait here, I shall fire three shots in the air if I need you,” he told his band of ruffians. He then took up his carbine with its telescopic sight and two rounds of ammunition. He also stuck a revolver in his belt and a large machete and slunk away into the forest. As the day progressed, Veerappan counted his spoils. He had robbed a bank on his way. He hadn’t fired a shot but his very presence had scared the daylights of the bank officials and they willingly parted with Rs 1 million (on that day $1 equalled Rs 46). Further down he had robbed a man of his Rolex watch and diamond ring, which now glittered on his finger. Coming upon a small brook he decided to eat. Veerappan opened his knapsack and unwrapped the foil. Slowly he bit into the soft bun of his hot dog. He dug into his pack to find the can of Diet Coke. Sipping it he thought about everything that he had done that day. Gargling on the last drops of the aerated drink, he dug a hole in the ground and carefully buried the can and all traces of his presence. His cunning so far had saved his life many times. He was just enjoying his siesta when he noticed a movement on the edge of the green. In a quick blur he moulded into the landscape and through his scope sighted the stranger coming through. He was a tall brute of a man, easily weighing 300 pounds but moving on cat feet. His eyes were sharp and probed the jungle for any sign of danger, but he himself didn’t try to shy away from it. With a thickset body and arms and legs like an elephant’s, the stranger was impressive. Quickly making a decision, Veerappan called out to the stranger. “Stop, or I’ll shoot.” And just for good measure sent a bullet thudding at the stranger’s feet inches away from his toes! Anger flashed across the man’s face. “How dare you shoot? You could have hit my leg,” he roared. “Had I wanted to I could have shot the nail of your big toe without you even realising it,” boasted Veerappan, rising from the ground. The stranger had already spotted him and there was no sense hiding anymore.
“You could, could you? Let me see you shoot a hole in this.” Saying this the stranger took a coin and flicked it high in the air. As the silver glinted and reached its highest arc, there was a puff of smoke and then the sound of a shot. The coin landed on the far side and both hurried to take a look. A corner of the coin, like a bite from an apple, was missing. Veerappan grinned like a cat. “Can you do better?” he asked mockingly. In answer the stranger took the coin and tossed it high in the air. Just as the coin reached its peak the stranger took a wicked silencer fitted magnum and took a pot shot. But instead of flying away the coin landed on the palm of the stranger’s hand! Veerappan was astounded.
The stranger closed his palm as if in pain and quickly flicked the coin at Veerappan. A clean hole was drilled in the centre of the coin! “Fantastic,” he cried. “You must join my gang, whoever you are.” “No way,” cried the stranger, “I am a loner and let me be. It is best that you don’t interfere with my plans. I am wanted in two countries and the international police organisation Interpol has a red corner notice out on me.” Veerappan was terribly impressed. For all his banditry, he was only an interstate criminal. He had never felt confident enough go outside his haunts. But he dreamt of red corner notices and Interpol and how he outwitted them time and time again – in his mind. “Okay, at least let’s spend the day together,” he cried. Here was the adventure he had hoped for. Rushing out he shot a large hare and frenziedly skinned it. Over a slow fire the meat was cooked and the duo ate with relish. The stranger related his escapades to an open-mouthed Veerappan. As the fire died down, Veerappan’s eyes glowed as he imagined himself as the daring derring-do. Lost in his world of make-believe he forgot to take his usual precautions and turned over and went to sleep. At two in the morning the stranger’s watch alerted him. He woke like a panther in a fluid motion. Moving towards Veerappan’s knapsack he opened it cautiously and checked to see if the money was there. It was. He hefted it on his shoulder. Turning away, he stopped as if he forgot something. He put his hand in his pocket, took out some coins and threw it near Veerappan. Then he walked away in the night. In the morning, dark was Veerappan’s rage at the stranger’s trickery. He cursed and shouted. Ranted and raved. In his rage he kicked at the root of a tree nearby and something flew in the air. Bending down he saw two coins. One had a hole in its corner like an apple bite and the other had a clean hole drilled in the middle. Veerappan hadn’t paid attention earlier and he thought the hole had been drilled by a bullet. But now, examining the coin he saw that the hole had been drilled by a machine. What a fool the stranger had made of him! He recalled the adage he constantly used to tease the people he robbed: A fool and his money are soon parted!
By B Sumangal; Illustrations by Sudheer Nath