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BLUFF MASTER

Nuts about Natwarlal

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In this photograph from 1996, Natwarlal is seen being helped by policemen on his way to the court in Bhopal. He was caught several times but it was always a task to hold him down.

The legacy of India's most famous conman, someone who made fraud look like an art, is being resurrected. Natwarlal, the man who forged President Rajendra Prasad's signature, sold the Taj Mahal and took money for the Red Fort will soon have his statue erected in his native Bihar village. Cops, of course, aren't smiling.

Just two km away from Ziradei, where India's first president Dr Rajendra Prasad was born, is Bangra. There is a statue coming up there. But it is not of the great statesman. The person being honoured is Natwarlal, perhaps India's most notorious and infamous thief, almost iconically so. In fact, legend goes that there was a time Natwarlal, born in this village in Bihar's Siwan district about 95 years back, was close to Prasad and that the two fell out after the fraudster once tried to dupe the President by forging his signature.

For residents of Bangra, though, those are little footnotes in a tale so grand that they now plan to install his life-sized state in the middle of the village. Still basking in the glory of the legendary conman, many of them say this is the least they can do for the man who made this nondescript part of Bihar famous.

Though not exactly a role model, the effusiveness of Bangra about its truant son is understandable. After all, this is the man whose adventures inspired Bollywood to produce Mr Natwarlal, starring Amitabh Bachchan, no less, in his prime in 1979. Some even draw parallels with Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can. No swindler, as people here will remind you, can be bigger than their own Natwarlal - the man whose real name was Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava, but who had more than 50 other identities;the man who sold the Taj Mahal, Red Fort and Rashtrapati Bhavan to gullible foreigners.

Natwarlal was caught several times. The real problem, however, was to hold him down, to keep him behind bars. Said to have died sometime in 1996 (no one will confirm this) in Ranchi, where his daughter, married to an army man, still lives, Natwarlal was last seen on June 24 the same year at New Delhi railway station. The old and frail conman was apparently quite ill and on a wheelchair when policemen, who had brought him from Kanpur jail and were taking him to AIIMS for treatment, lost him. He had managed to dupe cops once again. That was the last escape for the criminal who was wanted by the police of eight states, had been sentenced to over 100 years in prison and had over 10 mysterious jailbreaks to his credit.

Village children happily guided the TOI-Crest team to the vacant plot of land where Natwarlal's statue is expected to come up. It is the same patch where his house once existed and was razed to the ground during British rule. It really doesn't matter that he left Bangra at 15 and did not even turn back to look at it. "He was a famous man and his statue deserves to be installed here, " says retired school teacher Chandrashekhar Srivastava, who feels "sorry" never to have met the "great man". Still nursing his grief, the 65-year-old says, "In 1992, Natwarlal visited Siwan town and I tried to see him, but could not because of the huge crowd. "
Natwarlal's younger brother, Ganga Prasad Srivastava, who lives in Gopalgunj, says he will respect the wishes of the villagers and can take the lead in building the monument as soon as possible. "We have our land in the village and the statue will be installed there, " the 85-yearold declares with authority.

Chandrabali Yadav, a native of Bangra and currently working in the ministry of commerce in New Delhi, is happy to learn of the development. "He was a real hero, " he says. "He duped hundreds of people of crores of rupees, but helped the poor and spent the entire money on them. " It's a sentiment that finds an amazing echo. "It's a matter of privilege for us that he was one of us, " says Sudhanshu Kumar, who grew up on Natwarlal stories.

The legend, if anything, has only grown. Panmati Devi says it has even helped people who've dropped Natwarlal's name without really knowing him. Recalling an often-told incident, she says, "Once I was travelling in a train from Allahabad and the TTE was after my life because I was traveling in an express train while I had a passenger train ticket. He rejected my pleas and was adamant that he would have to fine or detrain me. Then I told him, 'Don't you know I belong to Natwarlal's village'. Suddenly his behaviour changed and he said, 'Oh, you hail from Natwarlal's village. Then you can travel without a ticket, no problem'. "
The police, obviously, aren't too pleased with the deification of someone the department views as a demon. Former IPS officer Kishore Kunal, when asked to react on the report, asked, "If the statue of Natwarlal is installed, it will be a sin, paap hoga". Not that the villagers can be stopped if they want to go ahead. Bihar director-general of police Neelmani says, "If they treat Natwarlal as an ideal and want to worship him like this, what can anyone do. Also, if the statue comes up on private land, the administration cannot interfere. Moral or immoral, that's the way it is. "
faizan. ahmad@timesgroup. com

THE LEGEND LIVES ON

Natwarlal was born Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava in Bangra village in Bihar's Siwan district He is wanted in eight states, in about 100 cases and his total convictions add up to 117 years in prison He has committed crimes under 50 different names He is said to have sold off the Taj Mahal to foreigners thrice, the Red Fort twice and Rashtrapati Bhawan once He was last seen in 1996 at the New Delhi railway station as he was being ferried from Kanpur to Delhi for treatment at AIIMS. He conned the accompanying policeman and disappeared in the teeming crowd. He was 84 years old at the time According to his lawyer Nandlal Jaiswal, Natwarlal died in 2009 at the age of 97. But the conman's younger brother Ganga Prasad Srivastava claims to have cremated him in 1996. He managed to dupe people even in his death

Reader's opinion (2)

Vasudev NairJun 9th, 2011 at 06:57 AM

GOD has created him for a purpose and he has fulfilled it to utmost perfection. Salute the genius with a statue is perfect.
Vasudev Nair

Srnair47 Jun 6th, 2011 at 18:17 PM

Some people are led by strange compulsions. This can happen only in India.

 
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