Smuggler’s Soul: the shocking story of Veerapaan

Navika Mehta writes about how Lush are subtly propagating the story of Veerappan, the sandalwood smuggler

On a random visit to the Lush store near college, continuing a light-hearted conversation with my friend, I entered the store. I had never imagined that as I walked out, my mind would be in a whirlwind of emotions – surprise, curiosity, disappointment, anger and sadness. I was surprised to see a familiar name, a dreaded face from my childhood, from my home, that I can never forget – Veerappan, a man who terrorized south India for over 30 years. I was curious to see how a person like him can ever be on a cosmetic label selling bath bombs and lotions. I was disappointed to see what I found him represented as. I was angry at the lack of basic research on him, or perhaps a clear neglect of his serious criminal record. I went online and did a bit of research. What I found on the Lush website left me dumbstruck. Is this really happening? Were people in Dublin and the world buying products that were being marketed in the name of Veerappan?

Smuggler or Murderer?

“To see a murderer made frivolous, animated and glorified for his moustache made me question the sensitivity and intentions behind it”

He was being sold as a sandalwood smuggler, like some folklore hero. His animated face with the signature moustache on “Veerappan” moustache wax, “Smuggler’s soul”, a Gorilla Perfume and finally something that led me to write this article – “On the Trail of Sandalwood Smugglers” – a Graphic Novel claiming to tell the truth behind sandalwood oil. Let me explain why this is not only offensive but also heartbreaking: Veerappan was not only a sandalwood smuggler but also a poacher and a murderer. In a career spanning over 30 years, Veerappan murdered over 150 people, most of them policemen. He killed over 1,000 elephants (2,000 according to Britannica) for their tusks leading to a serious decline of wild elephants. He stripped large forests of sandalwood trees. He was, essentially, one of India’s most notorious dacoits. It’s ironic how much Lush campaigns for animal rights and is against animal testing, while at the same time having a man who killed hundreds of elephants represent their products. Coming to Lush, it’s unimaginable how a murderer can ever be glorified as a smuggler, on hair and beauty products. Like most bandits who cultivate their own network of informers and suppliers of essential goods, they carefully project a Robin Hood image to mislead the less informed into supporting them. But to eulogize a criminal, even if he had a certain Robin Hood side of him, is nothing short of blasphemy.

Lush’s Justification

“It’s ironic how much Lush campaigns for animal rights and is against animal testing, while at the same time having a man who killed hundreds of elephants represent their products”

In today’s world where the terror threat has left no corner untouched, is it necessary to exemplify Veerappan? Lush responded to this criticism by releasing a graphic novel called “On the Trail of Sandalwood Smugglers” that “reveals the unsavory nature of the sandalwood trade and draws attention to the complexity and importance of supply chains”. They describe Veerappan as “a sandalwood smuggler and elephant poacher notorious for violence, kidnapping and murder”. So it’s clear they researched it all. I appreciate a company going through such lengths to clarify the sourcing of their products and bringing the horrific truth about Sandalwood smuggling to the world. That said, if this was the intention from the beginning, why are they releasing this book now? It seems more like a marketing strategy in which both the products and the novel complement each other and increase sales. Even if the idea behind it was to raise awareness, it’s unacceptable to justify putting Veerappan’s animated face with his moustache on a moustache wax box as spreading the word about sandalwood smuggling.

There is nothing about the packaging and promotion of these products that says anything about Veerappan’s crimes or even sandalwood smuggling. One quick search on Wikipedia would reveal the importance of Sandalwood in region of South Asia. In Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sufism, Zoroastrianism, Sandalwood is extensively used for prayers and rituals. It is used as medicine and in technology. To belittle this extremely important plant by associating it with someone like Veerappan who has only contributed in the exploitation of Sandalwood, is absolutely appalling.

Veerappan is dead. How does representing him on products create awareness? It’s more likely that his unique moustache seemed perfect for a moustache wax box. Sandalwood smuggling is happening today, as I write this. People and policemen are being massacred. There needs to be an initiative to raise awareness about it and stop the illegal trade. I thank Lush for bringing this forward, but I refuse to accept that Veerappan helps this in any way.

Terror of South India

“The first thought in my mind when I saw the Lush product was ‘what if I was a daughter of some police officer murdered by Veerappan?’, how painful would it be?”

I don’t expect people in this part of the globe or elsewhere in the world to know about Veerappan. His reach was limited to South India. He was caught and killed in what is known as Asia’s biggest manhunt.

Withholding information of this kind is a treachery to the people who have used these products and admired Veerappan’s’ moustache. It is a blatant show of insensitivity towards people like me, who know of his terror. Having been born in South India and living most of my early childhood in Tamil Nadu, Veerappan was someone who terrorised my dreams. Someone whom I, as a five-year-old, was continuously worried about while travelling through jungles on road trips. My father is a defense officer, the first thought in my mind when I saw the Lush product was “what if I was a daughter of some police officer murdered by Veerappan?”, how painful would it be? To see a murderer made frivolous, animated and glorified for his moustache made me question the sensitivity and intentions behind it. If the researchers of Lush were trying to be unique; finding stories from around the world to bring something new, I can assure you, there are plenty of brilliant, exciting and unique people, stories and places my country has to offer, reckoning someone who has only harmed and taken away from people, never given. I ask to those who can, don’t encourage this. Condemn it, until it is removed. After all, 2,000 elephants are dead, over 150 people and police officers along with them. And let me remind you, these are just conservative figures.

Navika Mehta

Navika Mehta is the current Features Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister PPES student.