A Canvas of Lies
I would like to believe that I am a good judge of character and not easily deceived, but this was really different, since my two close friends ended up stabbing me in the back.
Museums, paintings and culture were said to be things of the rich, the uber wealthy. It was something we could never imagine to touch, let alone use for ourselves. We would often visit the museums trying to get a peek inside the lives of the uber wealthy. The ticket for entry to the large intricate museum never really cost a lot of money. But the treasures it contained were worth a lot more. The Mysore Royal family owned every inch of that land, including its museums and palaces. For high school boys who came from the small town nearby, visiting the city of Mysore to witness its rich culture was an experience we always looked forward to. For me, the walls of the museum and the intricate palaces were a source of inspiration, a place where I would be transported back in time. I loved listening to the tour guide’s narration and since the trip to the city of Mysore was a half day bike ride, I always brought Zain along, my best friend. The palace walls were our own private abode.
15 years later
I shook my head as I looked at the empty fridge. I sighed as I pulled out my phone to order some groceries. Being a museum curator had its perks and pitfalls. For one, I never really got a moment to sleep or restock the fridge, especially when the Mysore Palace was preparing for an exhibition. On the other hand, I got to be around the richest and finest pieces of art all day long. Mysore and its large palace grounds have always held a special place in my heart.
I made my way to work, which was bustling with people, coming in and out. It was the eve of the exhibition after all. There was a lot of work to do before the grand reveal of the painting the next day. I just hoped that the day would go by without any problems. As I surveyed the floor, I began to take note of things that would need to be fixed, the main gate did not have enough security personnel and I made a mental note to ask my assistant, Jayda, to look into it. I often relied on her for most of my day to-day work. After a few hours of ensuring that the banners were set, the decorations done and the red carpet assembled I went out for a cup of coffee.
The little cafe down the street has always been my favourite, and the barista knows my regular order. Just as I was looking for a place to sit, my eyes fell upon a familiar face. One that I knew so well and spent countless hours with. “Shyan, over here!” said the voice. I burst into a smile as I made my way to the table seating my best friend, Zain.
“What in the world are you doing here?” I asked him, laughing. “It’s your exhibition tomorrow, isn’t it? A big day for your career, so I thought of swinging by for old times’ sake”, said Zain. I was beyond pleased to see my old friend. We never really lost touch but stayed updated with each other’s lives via chat or email. Right now, Zain was working on a new breakthrough at his own company, a technology start-up that designed internal software. The two of us could not be more different from each other. With greetings and old stories exchanged, I took Zain to the Mysore Palace and got him a security pass to the building. The security team logged him into the system along with the other 20 or so people working at the palace today.
So, it’s the relaunch of the “Dasara Parade” isn’t it?”, said Zain. I nodded and smiled. It was an important day. After almost a decade of restoration work, fixing and intricate detailing, the famous painting was ready to show its face to the public again. “We are expecting quite a crowd, you know, the paintings are the creations of legends and a lot of people with roots in the city are coming in from all over the world to take a glimpse at this painting.”
“Ah, looks like you have your hands full, it’s a shame though that the painting was damaged badly the last time it was stolen,” said Zain. “True, but the effort put into renovating it has made the wait worthwhile. It’s almost good as new.” I remarked. The oil painting was one of the five paintings commissioned by the Wadiyars, the Mysore Royal family, to the finest artists of Karnataka to paint the glory of the Dasara Procession.
The painting depicts the Dasara process outside the St. Philomena’s Cathedral, one of the largest Catholic churches built in India at that time. “Which means it must have almost tripled in value now”, said Zaid, referring to the fact that the painting was worth almost 50 lakh rupees in the 1800s. “Why, yes, it is worth much more now”, I replied. Dropping my voice to a bare whisper I said, “between you and me, the painting is almost valued at Rs.22 crore today, my valuation expert ran the numbers last week”. I could see the absolute look of shock at the mind-boggling figure I just presented to him, just as my assistant, Jayda, came down the grand staircase with a distressed look on her face. “What’s the matter?”, I asked. “The lights…the banner is falling apart…the emcee has a sore throat….”, she was clearly out of breath. “Take a few breaths. Here, meet my friend Zain.”
“Good afternoon, ma’am, Pleasure to meet you. I wouldn’t like to take up anymore of your time. Why don’t I leave?”, he said pointing to the direction of the Gold Ballroom, “and I will catch up with you later?”
I was huffing and puffing all over the place, just as one thing seemed to settle in, another thing seemed to fall apart. It was well past midnight by the time any of us could call it a day and get some well earned rest. I couldn’t seem to find Zain anywhere, and I was tired. I made a mental note to call him before the exhibition as I collapsed onto my couch into a deep stupor.
Calls in the wee hours of the morning are never a good sign. I should have been more mentally prepared for the chaos that was about to ensue upon me as I started my car, to once again drive to the Palace. To a person who spent countless hours in this very place, knowing every inch of it, I knew something was amiss the minute I set foot into the parking lot. The entrance lobby during the day is usually quiet, with a few tourists milling around, listening to the audio guide. Right now, the scene before me was mortifying. There were police cars everywhere. The sharp sounds of the sirens cut through the cold air. There was yellow colour police tape all over the place and the entrance was guarded with heavily armed police personnel. I made it through the yellow tape and identified myself. It was another thirty minutes before the Inspector in charge of the scene made a disturbing and shocking revelation to me.
“Mr. Shyan, I understand that you are the curator of the Mysore Palace Museum? I am Inspector Piya. May I ask you a few questions? First of all, who owns all the pieces inside the museum?” asked the Inspector.
“I don’t understand why you want to know that? Why are there so many policemen here? And what with all the police tape?” I asked
“Sir I understand that a unique painting piece was to be open for showing?”
“Yes, but -”
“Sir, where was the painting in question kept for safekeeping?”
“In the Gold Ballroom, but what in the world – “
“And who has access to that room?”
“Listen here, I need information first, you call me at 3 in the morning, asking me questions about the exhibition and I have no idea about anything going on”
“Sir, one last question, and I promise to explain everything to you.”
I sighed exasperated, “Look, I still don’t know why you are asking me these questions.” “What was the painting valued at?”
“Almost 22 crore rupees, why?”
Inspector Piya was startled upon hearing this. Her hands visibly shook as she wrote down the number onto her notepad. Her words seemed to be slower now, it almost felt like time slowed down while I could only hear the words “stolen…. Security alarm tripped…maybe inside job”. Every muscle in my body seemed to constrict and tighten, my legs wouldn’t move, Jayda seemed to be saying something to me but I couldn’t hear the words.
Inspector Piya was trying to ask me more questions, but I couldn’t form words, let alone sentences. Jayda brought me a hot cup of coffee and I gulped it down in one go. She slowly gave me the gist of the events that took place. “At 2 a.m., the alarm of the Gold Ballroom gave a few sharp rings. The alarm company worried that someone had tried to break in, called the head of security.”
“Meyan told me that they searched the Gold Ballroom after the phone call, but did not find anything to be out of place. There were no people in sight either. But on instinct, Meyan went to open the large safe in which the painting was kept.” Her words seemed to falter and she was mumbling something, but I couldn’t’ make the words out. “What? Can you please speak up?” What did he find?”. I said. She replied “The safe was pried open and the painting…”
I looked up at her with tears brimming my eyes, I knew what she was going to say next but did not have the heart to hear it.
“…the painting wasn’t there.”
One week later
Chief Piya walked into the Mysore Palace with two cups of coffee in hand. She comes at the same time every morning, asks me the same questions and tries to glean any more information that she can. She keeps coming back to the same question. “Who had access to the room? Janitors? renovation staff?”.
“Like I’ve said before, the security is quite tight, but the day in question, I may not be so sure. People were walking in and out the whole day. We weren’t anxious about the actual painting since it was kept in a bomb proof safe. There were about 20 or so people that day working for the exhibition.” But today, she added another question to her interview, “What about visitors who wanted to walk through the museum? The main gate was shut.”
I didn’t understand her question. Looking at my puzzled reaction, Chief Piya went on to say “From the staff I’ve interviewed, more than half of them saw you walking with another man, wearing a visitor’s badge. Probably someone who wasn’t on the staff?”
Zain. My hands gripped the coffee cup harder, almost crushing the paper cup. My mind was racing at a thousand miles a minute. Zain was there. Yes, as a friend who came to the exhibition. But what was the Inspector trying to imply?
I stuttered, my mouth went dry and I was barely able to form the words “What about him?” “Was he a friend of yours? She asked. I immediately noticed the change in her tone and demeanour. The friendly cooperative face was replaced with a cold and accusatory one.
“Yes, a childhood friend. He came to attend the exhibition.”
“What was his profession? Who did he work with?”, she asked.
“You can’t seriously think he had anything to do with this?”
She ignored my question and went on “Did you know he was selling fake computers for a living? His so-called tech company was just a front.”
“No.” I said, shaking my head. “You’re lying to me. You are actually implying that Zain had something to do with the robbery. That is not right. Nope.”
“I have hard evidence. I’m sorry, but this is the matter of the case.” She walked over to the evidence kits lying around and brought a plastic transparent sheet, with fingerprints dusted onto them. “The prints are a perfect match, I’m afraid. We found these prints on the sides of the safe.”
I started pacing around the room. Shaking my head and refusing to hear a word that Inspector Piya was saying. How could my best friend do this to me? Did he know the kind of trouble he was getting me into? My career, my reputation? What about the actual painting? Where was it now? Is this why he came to the exhibition? Was it all planned? How did he know where to find the painting? Another thought suddenly struck me, Zain wanted to visit the Gold Ballroom when he first came inside the Palace. Did he already know how to steal the painting? Feelings of hurt and despair washed over me, I needed to sit down. He took advantage of me. He planned all of this, and walked in with me with the security pass. I believed him like a fool. How could my dear friend do this to me?
After a few moments of this, Inspector Piya asked me again. “Did you know he had an accomplice on the inside? “
I stopped pacing. I slowly turned around to look at the Inspector her hands nervously shaking, the tapping of the pen. Only now did I realise the change in the line of questioning. She thinks I had something to do with the robbery. That I was the accomplice on the inside. I looked back at the chief with a glare in my eyes. I was angry at the accusation, betrayed at hearing my best friend’s name and annoyed with the police for having no real leads.
“Spit it out please. I mustered every inch of courage. If you think it was me, you are very mistaken. This museum has been my home, my abode since I was a child. I treat the paintings with love and care. I cannot believe -” Inspector Piya interrupted me saying “No no no no. Please please wait a second. You seem to have misunderstood me.” This made me pause and catch my breath.
“What I meant was,” she began slowly, “Yes, it was surely an inside job. But look at the nature of the robbery itself. Let me show you.” We walked to the ballroom where the crime occurred, she added “The safe was broken into for sure and the painting was safely removed, with gloves.” She also pointed to the edge of the cubical safe, where they found Zain’s fingerprints.
“But here is where it gets complicated. Someone on the inside had to help him for sure. Not you, It can’t have been you, the timeline simply doesn’t add up. Everyone saw you bustling all over the place. But look up.”
“Look up? What?” I said, clearly confused.
I slowly lifted my head to face the ceiling. And then it hit me. Zain’s accomplice used the skylight. They picked up the painting, scaled the wall using ropes or something and simply jumped onto the terrace through the skylight.
“We found a hair tie outside the skylight, which seems to have fallen out of the thief’s hair while she was running. One DNA test and everything would have been over for her. Which brings me to the fact that she turned herself and Zain in. She was ready to tell us where the painting was hidden in exchange for immunity.”
“She?” I asked
I turned around to look at two people who I never thought I would see in handcuffs. Zain, trying to cover his face with his sweater, avoiding my eyes. And right next to him Jayda. The person who brought me my coffee every morning, handled problems for me and managed my daily life at the Mysore Palace.
Jayda looked straight ahead, with her chin up, but refused to look me in the eye.
“I’m glad you can get the painting back” I said to Chief Saya with feelings of anger, confusion and betrayal in my voice. “Thank you. But what in the world were they trying to do?”
“Like I said, Zain’s business isn’t really doing too well, he was in debt with a lot of loan sharks. Jayda, well her motive is still pretty unclear but we just think it was greed for the money”, said Inspector Piya.
“But she turned herself in.?” I asked, quite surprised.
“Well, their plan had a small problem, taking the painting out of the Palace was easy, but trying to sell such a well – known painting became a problem for them. Their buyer backed out at the very last moment, leaving them in the lurch.”
“So, it was just about the money?” I asked with slight anger in my voice.
“22 crore rupees worth. Yes”, said Chief Saya
I turned back and walked out of the Mysore Palace. The last two people I expected to carry out a heist, in the place I called home was too much to bear. The palace seemed cold and distant. I wasn’t sure if I could come back here again.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Just for reference , I took inspiration from a real – life event : The theft of the painting “Portrait of a Lady” in 1997.