The missing hand and other stories

The train sped into the night and the passengers struggled to stay awake against the hypnotic rhythm of the travelling sounds which gently seduced everyone into sweet sleep. I was at the very back, facing the inmates of the compartment as we all gently bobbed as if performing some obscure Irish dance to an inaudible beat.

I knew the young man next to me was getting restless. Having already exhausted his conversational ammunition with the person on his right, he was looking for another captive. Which was me, of course. He started by asking for the newspaper, went straight to the ads for films and ogled at the steamy sirens who beckoned the viewer to see more of them in the cinema.

"I've seen this  one," he said pointing to one especially buxom beauty standing next to a snarling impression of a man painted in blood. I told him I hadn't. Which was enough for him to launch into his life story. He worked in an antiques shop next to a cinema in Islamabad. The shop was owned by two brothers who had literally brought him up since he was a little boy. He was no relation to them, no, they had found him somewhere. He had paid back the kindness by serving the family by running the odd jobs, graduating slowly to being a house servant. He had his own room where he listened to music, he said with obvious pride. When he became a man, as he put it, the brothers had other tasks in mind for him.

By now I had been sucked into his world. He had the knack for story telling and one couldn't help but listen with interest as he animatedly moved his hands around. He was wearing a golden watch, fake but expensive, and joggers. The train sped on.

The brothers were dealers in antiques, and not your average blackened-by-shoe polish antiques either. The real thing, he said with eyes gleaming. And what was the real thing, I asked tentatively. Real antiques, thousands of years old. Statuettes, figurines, utensils, jewellery, things no one had ever seen, not even in their dreams.
I had to sit up. Was this man trying to impress me? Was he exaggerating? What was he upto? I decided to grill him.

So how do you go about getting these unimaginable things? I asked casually.

Feeling important he got into the story. The brothers worked very systematically. They bought small plots in areas where antiques could be found. They mostly operated in Swat in the North-West Frontier Province.

Swat. A picturesque mountainous land with an emerald green river running through it. Once the Gandhara dynasty stretched to Swat, and one can still go visit stupas there.
So far the story was close to the mark. I waited for him to go on.

After the plots were bought, labourers were hired on daily wages and the digging began. They never dug during the day, he confided, only when the night was deep and dark. The young man's job was to supervise the digging. Supervision consisted of stopping work as soon as a sound was heard. What sound, I queried.

"Tunn!!" came the reply.
The sound of a pickaxe hitting a rock. Most of the times it was a false alarm but sometimes it was not. As soon as a discovery was made, the labourers were paid their wages on the spot and politely told that their job was over. Now the supervisor took over the excavation himself. He had dug up innumerable statuettes with his own hands. What sort of statuettes? What era? What did they look like? I fired one after another.

He could not tell. All he could tell was that they were old, very old. But then his job was not that of a historian. His job was to safely bring his bounty to Islamabad where the Big Book lay. What on earth was this book, I had to know.

Again he was stumped for an answer. All he knew was that it was some kind of an encyclopaedia which listed various antiques and the estimated prices of each. How could a book list such antiques if they were not even found yet, retorted my logic. No answer. His only knowledge of the Big Book was that it was published in Japan and was the bible of every antique dealer.

Never mind, go on, I urged.

Well things were simple after that. The brothers had contacts outside Pakistan and the goods were smuggled out at astronomical sums. How much was an astronomical sum? He paused. Let me give you an example, he said with obvious relish. We have this statuette of a goddess but one of her hands is missing. As soon as we find this hand, the goddess would sell for two crores (20 million) rupees.

Bloody hell! Out of some instinct I looked around to check on my fellow passengers. They only nodded assent in their sleep. Although I knew it was a naive question, I had to ask it anyway. How did they smuggle the goods out of Pakistan without getting caught?

By air, by sea, by land, any which way that was suitable. The consignments were seized occasionally. But it was not a big problem, he hastened to add. Once when a seized consignment was lying in a police station, the brothers hired some artisans to make replicas. One by one, the originals were smuggled out of the police station and replaced by fakes. During the trial that ensued, the fakes were presented as evidence. Fantastic as it did sound I had to believe him. Those artisans had to be damn good to make exact replicas.

Oh, there was no dearth of talent in Pakistan, he said wisely. You know the Lahore museum? I did. Well over half of it is fake. Come on now, this was getting a bit out of hand, I said uncomfortably thinking about the times I had stood agog in front of antiques of breathtaking beauty marvelling at the hands that shaped them thousands of years ago.

No, I'm serious, it was his turn to sit up. You know the Starving Buddha in the museum? I did, I said with growing dread. That's a fake. I looked at him closely, checking for any signs of deceit. I couldn't see any. I didn't have to believe him. But why would this young man travelling by train, having no allusions to archaeology or history, want to fib? Maybe he had good imagination. Maybe not.

The station was approaching. The inmates of the bogie were rousing and elbowing their relatives to rouse as well. Babies started to cry, luggage began to be lugged. I and my antique friend sat in silence. The train slowed down and I got up to leave.

"Here, I want to show you something", he said fishing out his wallet.

I stood frozen. What could it be? A certificate that the Starving Buddha was a fake? A photo of the two crore goddess? His visiting card?

"Here, see this." I found myself staring at a fading photo of a girl with black hair and red lipstick. "This is my girlfriend."

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Himal Southasian