Anyone who can perform miracles by dint of uttering a spell is called a magician or a sorcerer. Whether or not magicians do exist in this world I shall not discuss in this text. But the majority of those who go as one are deliberate cons; they trick people to make a quick buck. Many an ascetic and wandering saint, at least ones purporting to be so, have betrayed the trust of their victims by promising them gold. They appear at the doorstep of a home and say to the householder, “Bring me your silver – utensils, currency and jewellery – I have chemicals and a charm that shall turn them into gold.” Hoping to become rich overnight, the master of the house would entrust all his valuable objects with the ascetic who would collect them and leave, never to be seen again.

Yet, the ones who cheat people never do well. The dishonest need must suffer consequences. Right from boyhood days should one resolve never to speak a lie, never do what one believes to be false, and never perpetrate fraud. Mendacity and deception are the habits of the vile and the degraded. The Almighty punishes liars grievously for their wrongs.

To give you an example of how the liar incurs the Almighty’s wrath, let me tell you a story. It is a completely true story. The protagonist of this tale had acute intelligence and was armed with daring initiative and versatile knowledge. Yet, at the start of his life, he had said a few lies. Hence, even though he was gifted with every quality, he could not lead a successful life. Instead, misery and despair cast their doom and gloom on him for all his days. The day he died was the day he got his freedom from this fate. Therefore, one must forever be vigilant as to never pass a falsehood through one’s lips, commit an act that is less than honest, or even indulge selfish thoughts and feelings within one’s own psyche.

Everyone wants to make money and enterprise is man’s eternal quest. There exists a long-held fantasy, nay belief, that it is indeed physically possible to turn lead and mercury into silver and make gold from iron and copper. If a paisa worth of copper can be turned into gold, its owner makes a profit of ten crisp bucks. It is why, since ancient times, humans have been striving to do the same. In the old ages, so many in various countries had devoted their lives to this task. The techniques they applied in their endeavour are collectively known as alchemy, and to narrate the successes and failures of this science is a separate subject. Today I shall refrain from discussing the same. Today I shall recount before you the story of Johann Friedrich Bottger. In his youth, he had trained in alchemy, which means he had expended his efforts to achieve the same end.

Bottger was born in Prussia, which is presently part of the German nation, 217 years ago in CE 1682. He apprenticed at a hospital at the age of twelve. As a child, he had a fascination for the study of chemistry. In those days, chemistry and alchemy were one and the same subject. Bottger used all his leisure hours in alchemic research. In plain English, this meant he experimented with the reaction of iron, copper, etc., with various compounds to see if they could be converted to gold. These tests he carried on non-stop for several years on end. Seeing his sharpness and extraordinary knowledge, the owner of the hospital began sponsoring his laboratory work. After some years had passed, Bottger announced that he had discovered the means to prepare gold.

To sample the truth of his statement, a demonstration was arranged in the presence of his employer, the owner of the hospital. No one knows how but that day Bottger presented the owner with the desired result. To trick spectators, phoney ascetics are known to typically deploy similar ruses. One needs to place some gold in a pipe and seal its ends with beeswax. The pipe appears as a cane to the onlooker. Next, they have to light a fire, put some bogus items like sulphur, ghee and so on in a cauldron placed over it, and then make a big show of stirring them, turning these over and over on the flames with the cane. The heat of the fire melts the wax, and soon the gold is deposited into the bowl. Soon, the sulphur and the ghee evaporate and the yellow metal is all that is left. The charlatan gains the trust of the homeowner who thinks, “Yes, this ascetic can indeed produce gold.” I cannot say for sure if Bottger had adopted this methodology to fool his employer, but he and the witnesses present indeed fell for his hoax and believed that he had discovered a way to turn base metal into gold.

Word spread that a man in such-and-such hospital could create gold and crowds began to collect at the gates to catch a glimpse of him. Soon, the king heard the news and summoned Bottger. Bottger appeared in court with a gift of gold and declared it had been prepared from copper by him. It was a period when waging wars had depleted the treasury of Prussia. The king himself was an avaricious man. Overjoyed, he thought he had hit the jackpot and ordered him to be imprisoned in a faraway citadel where his task was to prepare pots and pots of gold to replenish the king’s treasury.

Bottger was crestfallen. Not only would he lose his freedom, but he was also now likely to be found out and hanged. If worse punishment awaited him, he could not say. He fled to Saxony even as the king sent his horsemen on his trail. At the borders, the Saxon king gave him asylum in Dresden. The horsemen caught up with him, but he evaded their clutches.

As I write this account, Andrew Carnegie does business in the United States of America. He had begun his life as a child labourer. As an adult, he is a steel tycoon and a billionaire. From his great wealth, he has donated to charities a total sum worth Rs 75 crore, which is 75,00,00,000 rupees when written in figures, to various public institutions, dividing the money among them – two crore rupees to a hospital for the care of the impoverished, a crore meant for students at an orphanage, another crore to a library, and so on and so forth. Evidently, Mr Carnegie has exhausted his personal desire for money, for it is a rare man who is indifferent to the pull and pursuit of its accumulation.

The lust for money has haunted mankind from the earliest times, and none can easily get rid of it from their mind. Two hundred years back, the kingdoms of Saxony and Poland shared the same ruler. Even though he was a ruler of lands, this king, too, was needy for money. Funds were required to clamp down on the rebellion raging at the time in Poland. Therefore, when the Saxon king heard that “gold maker” Bottger had fled Prussia and was seeking refuge in his kingdom, he took delight at the thought – “here’s the end to my worries, now I can have gold to my heart’s content” – and immediately welcomed him to his capital and put him up in a stately mansion right next to his palace. Ordering his employees and servants to give him the royal treatment complete with lavish meals and gifts of valuable raiment, he ensured that he was kept under watch at all times, with guards accompanying him when he stepped out and keeping an eye on him when he didn’t. From the bedroom to the dining hall, at all hours of the day and night, the vigil was kept, and he was never let out of sight. Bottger wondered if indeed he had landed from the frying pan to the fire, seeing that the very danger he had had to abandon his homeland for now threatened to swallow him in his new place of residence.

Meanwhile, the Saxon king’s presence became necessary in Poland to suppress the rebellion, and he had to rush there without seeing Bottger privately as he had desired. Hence, upon reaching Poland, he wrote him a letter that could along these lines be paraphrased – “Money has come to be of essence. Making gold, therefore, is no longer optional. Please let me know as to how it is that I can accomplish the same.” To his employees, the king said, “Torture the man until he obeys my wish.” The king’s men began tormenting Bottger in painful ways.

Excerpted with permission from “The Alchemist” in Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay: Tales of Early Magic Realism in Bengali, translated by Sucheta Dasgupta, Thornbird/Niyogi Books.