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How to be the world’s best thief

Malayalam writer V.J. James spins a witty and clever novella about the art of stealing

‘Chorashastra’ lays out the science, art and ethics of thievery.
‘Chorashastra’ lays out the science, art and ethics of thievery. (Photo: iStock)

Some years ago, Malayalam writer V.J. James, an engineer by profession, came across a book in the library of the space research organization he works at. A chronicle of the many branches of sciences that existed in ancient India, it even mentioned the unlikely science of thievery, believed to be presided over by Lord Subrahmanya. A few days later, when James was alone at home, he was woken up in the dead of night by a suspected break-in. The two incidents inspired him to write Chorashastra, a witty avant-garde novella, recently published in an excellent English translation by Morley J. Nair.

V.J. James
V.J. James

The protagonist of Chorashastra is an unnamed thief who comes from an illustrious line of thieves. He is married to a “she-thief" and the couple have two “child-thieves". But his talent in thievery is mediocre—until he is caught red-handed by a dotty scientist one night. The latter is a repository of the knowledge secreted in “Chorashastra", an ancient treatise about perfecting the art of stealing. Using the thief as his guinea pig, the mad professor teaches him the power of unlocking doors with his eyes. Possessed with this magical skill, the thief amasses huge wealth, takes on an apprentice, and enjoys the accidental privileges of his profession, like a heady affair with a woman living by herself.

Chorashastra is dark satire and wry fantasy rolled into one. In spite of its emphasis on the craft of stealing, it is anchored in a resolutely moral universe. “Thievery contains a philosophy of justice," we are told early on. Towards the end, the protagonist ignores a cardinal rule of robbery at great personal peril: “A good thief should be unmoved by temptation." Even when opportunities arise, the thief must weigh the pros and cons of his actions carefully.

Chorashastra: By V.J. James, translated by Morley J. Nair, Westland, 172 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>299.
Chorashastra: By V.J. James, translated by Morley J. Nair, Westland, 172 pages, 299.

The whole wide world is a school for the thief. He must imbibe lessons in agility and invisibility from animals, understand the twisted heart of his fellow humans, and never offend the gods. Even when they sound droll, the principles of Chorashastra have a decidedly communist bent. The higher purpose of stealing, the book reminds us, has been sullied by politicians and petty businessmen. They steal from the poor and infirm, when only the well-heeled ought to be robbed. For stealing, as the thief realizes in the end, cannot be an end in itself, or a vehicle of vengeance. It is, rather, a corrective, a proxy for social justice and fairness.

In the last few years, translations of books by Malayalam writers like K.R. Meera and Benyamin have substantially enriched the Anglophone reading sphere. James’ pithy novel, with its acerbic humour, is a worthy addition to this growing list of literary riches.

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