It was one of those references to the science of thievery that award-winning Malayalam writer VJ James one day found in the library of the space research organisation, where he worked.
It has been claimed that ancient India’s scientific achievements extended to areas from aviation to atomic energy and medicine to military. Interestingly, thievery wasn’t left out either. The odd science of stealing boasted of a treatise and presiding deity. It was one of those references to the science of thievery that award-winning Malayalam writer VJ James one day found in the library of the space research organisation, where he worked.
The serendipitous discovery led James, who is known for his works Purappadinte Pusthakam (The Book of Exodus) and Anticlock, to an imaginary world where thieves are sworn to protect the rules of the game. Just published in English as Chorashastra: The Subtle Science of Thievery (Chorashashtram in Malayalam), the author’s second novel goes beyond the reference book on sciences that flourished in India several millennia ago.
First published in Malayalam in 2002, the novel begins with a thief (called the thief) eager to put to practise his newly-acquired skill of opening a lock just by looking at it. The man, from a family of thieves, had just acquired the rare knowledge from a college professor (called the professor). The professor had come across the science of thievery in a palm-leaf scroll while working to bring back the lost treasures of the country’s ancient knowledge.
The palm-leaf scroll, named Chorashastra or the science of thievery, laid out rules for stealing, and one of them was to consider it as karma or duty, and, therefore, not sinful. The thief, the first disciple of the professor, takes heart from his lessons that considered thievery as an act of righteousness. Indulging in petty thefts until then, he learns to acquire the internal strength essential to a ‘noble’ thief, and along with it the thousands of laws that a thief must honour and never break.
Having graduated with honours, the thief, who is now armed with the supreme knowledge of opening a lock just by looking at it, returns to thieving with renewed vigour. He grows in his belief about the respectability of the profession. But once he hits the road, the thief forgets the laws that govern the science of thievery. Instead, in his greed to get rich without wasting time, another thief in the village becomes one of his first victims. The thief also begins to distrust his own disciple, who waits eagerly for his master to pass on the supreme knowledge.
Resting on the foundations of knowledge, in this case the science of thievery, the novel stretches to expound on theories of philosophy and justice. It is forbidden to steal from the old and handicapped. Stealing from places of worship is a taboo. So is stealing animals. A thief must not fall to temptations of lust, greed and hunger for power. But as soon as the learning is over, the thief tells his wife, “I am not for petty thievery at pinched households anymore,” his voice betraying a hidden purpose rather than a belief in the sense of duty.
After assembling his characters like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the author lets the novel run its course. The thief is married to a she-thief, who always rushes to promise another measure of grain as offering to the deity. There is Sofia Maria, a widow who is seen to be opening her heart only to thieves. The book’s imaginary world of palm-leaf scrolls and petty thieves comes together to lay bare the enormity of human greed and lust for power.
Like its main character Kunjootty in Purappadinte Pusthakam, who toys with the meaning of playing the role of Lucifer in a Bible play at his village church, the thief in Chorashastra too dabbles in the discovery of his own power. James sets to piece together an ancient science, but opens doors to the realms of the unknown. Where science can’t offer answers, philosophy often pitches in. Or literature.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer