The amazing things that people do for love are matched only by the amazing things they do for money. In the love department, a recent example is Sadhvi Riddhishri, the young Jain woman who spontaneously combusted in her ashram room in Amaravati. An eyewitness reported seeing a flash in the window, and people rushed in to find the Sadhvi gone and only a Sadhvi-shaped pile of ashes and bones on the floor. It’s a miracle, cried Jain devotees, and began to worship it.
The police, who tend to be more cynical, uncovered the prosaic truth: the nun’s flamboyant exit from this life was merely intended as a smokescreen for her entry to a better, less celibate world. Consumed by a burning desire for an old flame, a boy named Rajnikant, she was shrugging off this mortal coil in order to slip into something more comfortable.
There’s something endearing about that, and it’s not just the pleasure of making bad jokes. The lovebirds were only trying to spare everyone the shame of a dropout; they did it interestingly; and they fessed up before the whole thing got out of hand. Her lover has been quoted as saying, presumably with a straight face, that they came clean to the police because things had become “too hot to handle”. At the end of the day it was a silly bit of theatre by a couple of kids who felt sparks flying, and how can you stay mad at them for that? I say good luck to the two of them.
As for money, history does not lack for any type of charlatan, imposter, swindler or cheat. As in every other area of expertise, bad behaviour is a matter of pride; those who pull off the baddest behaviour, with the most panache, for the highest stakes, are the ones we admire most (and not terribly secretly), even as we tut-tut and throw away the key.
For instance, one has to appreciate the élan of Czech conman Victor Lustig, who, in Paris in 1925, got away with selling the Eiffel Tower. It would have been an admirable enough caper just once—but he did it twice.
Lustig and his partner-in-crime, Tourbillon, got hold of stationery from the Ministry of Posts, which was responsible for maintaining the Eiffel Tower. Posing as an official, Lustig called six scrap dealers to a meeting, told them that the French government had picked them for their eminence and discretion, and swore them to secrecy. The thing was, he said, the Eiffel tower was falling apart. The government had to pull it down, but since the monument was so beloved, it was all very hush-hush. The very special gentlemen, by now deeply flattered, were being invited to submit tenders for the 7,000 tons of scrap metal that would result from the demolition.
Lustig awarded the bid to one André Poisson, whom he had picked as his mark, and masterfully followed up by demanding a bribe to ensure a smooth deal. This confirmed to Poisson that he was dealing with a bonafide government official, and he handed over a banker’s draft.
Lustig instantly shot across the border, laughing all the way, and waited for the uproar—but it never came, because Poisson was too ashamed of his own gullibility to report it. Unable to believe their luck, Lustig and his partner went back to France and sold the Eiffel Tower again. This second hapless businessman did report them, and they had to flee. But they were never arrested, nor did they ever tell anyone how much they made.
And if Lustig is known as the greatest—not worst—confidence trickster of all time, it’s only because a small part of all of us wonders how much we’d get for Rashtrapati Bhawan.