At a time when it is easy to lose oneself in the rat race of wealth and commodity, or in one word, capitalism, VJ James’s Chorashastra, translated from the Malayalam by Morley J Nair, advocates an almost Robin-Hood like solution – take from the rich, and help the poor. Our protagonist, “the thief”, nameless through the novel, is inducted into a mysterious professor’s experiment with an ancient Indian text.

Modelled on the author James’s own discovery of the “science of thievery”, the professor comes across a palm-leaf scroll called Chorashastra, a treatise on thievery, and is driven by his curiosity to apply it on someone. Our thief falls into his hands during a failed robbery, and thus comes to be introduced to Chorashastra. With wry humour, clever paradoxes and the elements that make up every classic story – “victory, the hubris that comes with the victory and the downfall that follows,” James takes the reader on a journey through the eyes of the nameless thief.

‘When will I get salvation from this coin?’

In a move of brilliant irony, just as the thief is ruing his luck and cursing his father’s petty legacy, he seems to chance upon his big break on his introduction to the professor and Chorashastra. A small-time thief with the desire to make it big, he sees this as a way to either redeem himself, or make off with a moderately well-off professor’s prized items – a way to escape the vicious cycle he is trapped in.

A while before this, he was introduced to Sofia Maria, a woman who caught him in the act of robbing her house, who later becomes his escape from the monotony of his marriage with his “she-thief.” Trying to negotiate both major turns in his life, the thief begins his study of Chorashastra.

The training gives the thief the ability to open any lock with just a look. While enabling him with skills and powers like never before, it also prescribes a strict code of ethics that every thief must follow. The thief is of course blinded by his powers and, paying no heed to his wife, the professor, or the teachings of Chorashastra, he proceeds to break the morals laid down by the treatise.

A thief who simply wanted to become better at his job, to make a living for himself by ridding the rich of their excess, is now himself caught in the vicious cycle. James uses the metaphor of the coin of a Dravidian King to depict the thief’s imprisonment in the system: a king trapped for centuries inside a coin, who must always tell the carrier the truth in a coin toss. The professor, when impressed with the thief, gifts him this coin. The coin stays with him through the story, until he symbolically loses it in a pile of wealth that he accidentally sets fire to.

‘A clean conscience is the most essential quality a thief ought to have’

The novel subversively sets forth the idea of a good, just thief. One who lives with the knowledge to access wealth beyond measure (Nidhijnana), but must also respect the morals of thievery set down by the god of thievery, Subrahmanya: “Thievery contains a philosophy of justice. The strength of a thief lies in his sincerity towards the science of thievery.” Chorashastra mandates that a thief must never steal from the impoverished, the old, the handicapped, from a temple or a space of study, putting forth guidelines for good thievery.

The thief, impervious to this, and driven by greed and hubris, proceeds to break all of these rules in his attempt to gather wealth. It is here that the novel explicitly states its most poignant thought: “When everything is within your sight and within your reach, why do you wish to lock it up in one particular cellar?”

Presenting an ideal escape from the world of the coin, the professor tries to explain to the thief the notion that “nothing belongs to anybody…whatever you considered your own was never really yours to own.” The thief’s own reaction is significant, as he feels like his “spirit had broken into pieces, like an anarchic country at civil war.” The novel cleverly brings to light the need for the coin, and the “salvation” that lies oft just beyond human reach.

In a moment of reflection, the thief sits down as he realises how “it was all very unnecessary”. However, true to its nature, the story picks its humour up right after this as the thief discovers a cellar full of riches, forgetting conveniently his learnings from only a few beats ago. Full of irony, sarcasm, symbolism, and a hat-tip to the belief and power of ancient Indian knowledge, the novel keeps you turning the page to unearth what lies at its heart.

The reader’s curiosity in this unique tale is its strong suit, and James plays it well as we continue to dig for closure until the end. Again, in a move of brilliance, you realise as you go on that the story is all about the journey and the learning and not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Chorashastra: The Subtle Science Of Thievery

Chorashastra: The Subtle Science Of Thievery, VJ James, translated from the Malayalam by Morley J Nair.