Vish Dhamija | The Heist Artist | Harper-Black, 2019 | An Imprint of Harper Collins
P-ISBN: 978-93-5302-602-8 | E-ISBN: 978-93-5302-603-5 | Pp 264 | ? 299 | $ 17.50
“Vish Dhamija is the bestselling author of seven crime fiction books. He is frequently referred to in the press as the ‘master of crime and courtroom drama’ in India. In August 2015, at the release of his first legal fiction, Deja Karma, Glimpse magazine called him, ‘India’s John Grisham’ for stimulating the genre of legal fiction in India, which was almost non-existent before his arrival on the scene. The Heist Artist is his eighth novel. Vish lives in London with his wife, Nidhi.” – From the half-title page, The Heist Artist.
Vish Dhamija’s previous novel – The Mogul, a courtroom drama, – is a page-turner too.
A great piece of art – painting, carving, sculpture et al – evokes varied responses in the viewers depending on their respective attitudes and value systems. The type of response ranges from aesthetic pleasure to philistine vandalism, from creative afflatus to mammonish rapacity. The Heist Artist by master storyteller Vish Dhamija thematises such a grabby covetousness on the part of the oofy collectors to purloin the famous exhibits and slyly install them in the private chambers of their gaudy mansions, with a readiness to shell out any amount of money to any Mafioso who promises to smuggle them in. The competition among the stinking rich collectors multiplies the bid amount in the underworld auction.
And one such piece is Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers on which the gaze of many a collector has hovered, owing to its history. Created in 1887 and stolen in 1978, it was recovered later on but only to be stolen again in 2019 from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Giza, not to resurface ever since. It is said to have sold for over sixty million US dollars to a private collector and nobody could trace it so far though they have scoured all over from Cairo to Dubai to Hong Kong. This objet d’art, an oil on canvas, with “yellow and red poppies against a dark background” is “not very big” but only “twenty-six inches by twenty-one.” Yet, its current demand has shot up to 200 million dollars, because it has already a committed “buyer” in Japan (11-12).
But nobody knows for sure where the painting lies. So it is left to the Japan collector’s powerful and underhand Indian contact and his agents to trace it and deliver it to him.
The background probe made points the needle to four people and one of them should be in possession of the art piece. The first one is Bipin Patel, a hyena-like character who “had built a biosphere around him that only showcased his respectable persona as an owner of kosher business.” Also a ‘Matka King,’ he is “one of the most dangerous men in the country” (66). The second one is JK Prasad, a liquor distributor for Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The third one is “a pair of dubious brothers” with “criminal affiliations” – Rajdeep & Baldev Singh (67). The fourth one is Nawab Jamshed Khan the junior, a royal inheritor.
Considering the utter secrecy in which the job is required to be done with no threat to the public reputation of the players concerned, the Indian contact (of the billionaire art collector from Japan Mr Haruhiko Sakai) can give this risky, big-bucks contract only to a highly efficient agent. The contact man does so, simultaneously engaging other cold-blooded hoodlums to keep tabs on him. Involved in this fierce race are not just one hunter but quite a few shady characters – biggies; upright businessmen; holier-than-thou politicians; rank in-your-face criminals; and also one with a ‘minor sentence and a slap on the wrist’ (18).
The stakes are sky-high in the background of a few other works of art of Van Gogh’s having been filched – Blossoming Chestnut Branches from Foundation E.G. Buhrle gallery in 2008; The Ramparts of Paris from Manchester; Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen and View of the Sea in Scheveningen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002; and two of them were, of course, later recovered (9). And “In 1990, Portrait of Dr Gachet sold for eighty-two point five million US dollars” (11).
That’s why the painting is “discussed in more detail – its provenance, its chequered history, its value, and the price Sakai was willing to pay for it” (113).
The piece to be delivered to the well-heeled collectors ought to be a genuine one, for ‘Many painters can replicate a Picasso or a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh so brilliantly that a lay person can’t even tell the difference’ (12). So a collector’s agent or dealer has to necessarily have the art piece in question certified by a reliable art specialist, in order to save his own skin. Otherwise heads will roll. So the authentication job is entrusted to an art professor with a “reputation as an Asian authority on Van Gogh.”
The job is so tough and complex that the operatives are given one year’s time to complete it, but even the initial steps themselves consume as many as seven months of time.
During the march of the story, we flit past other great artists like Monet, MF Husain and Japanese artist Hokusai besides, of course, Vincent van Gogh the Dutch painter. We go on a time travel of Renaissance, Romanticism, Impressionism, Cubism, Abstractism and Surrealism, and also come to know of “Intensity, colour, tone, rhythm” and “The aesthetics.” We are also acquainted with woodblock printing, block-printing fabric using natural vegetable dyes, and paint-splashed canvases. We also stop by art museums like the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House in London.
Finally, the man in whose possession Poppy Flowers is lying is discovered thanks to a smart conmanship. It’s secreted in a super-strong steel chest at a place fortified by alarm system, CCTV cameras and jammers in a multi-storeyed building abutting a buzzing thoroughfare of the capital of India. How to steal it then?
Fake identities, vehicles with switched registration plates, power saw-cutters, meticulous timing to the seconds, micro-planning, tiers of plan B, and a slew of weapons come into the operation. Presuming that the heist is successful, how to safely sneak out of the building with the loot, unseen by anyone and uncaptured in any CCTV camera? How to hit the road, how to give the slip to any possible lurking chaser, how to negotiate the police blockades, how to throw dust in the eyes of the rivals or cops?
In answer, into the scene, come the goons “in uniform, pseudo police” (95); masks and other accoutrements like wigs for the disguises; spare tyres improvised for stashing away the contraband; deadly weapons and ammunition; nicking the automobiles and hot-wiring them and quickly changing their registration plates; faking the documents; changing the mobile phones; hurriedly buying the pay-as-you-go SIM cards; guarding against compromise of the phones; accomplices splitting up in order to avoid identification; and taking circuitous routes and unexpected exits or diversions. Yet with all this care, the stealers are confronted with lightning-speed developments to realise that it is no longer a race for 200 million dollars but a race for survival.
The story traversing across a large stretch – Rajasthan to Nepal, with many stops and camps – is marked by a skein of plots, counterplots and double-dealing. The characters concerned try their best to pull the others’ leg and even to eliminate them so as to grab the entire booty for themselves. The boss suspects his own subordinates, and the subordinates smell something fishy about their boss. The crime leader devises ways and means to cheat his contractee out of his agreed fees and even to kill him. And the rival claimants go for the throat of each other. In the process, some of them appear to swallow their pride and kowtow to the terms of the one who has a current advantage.
The heist operation commandeers vehicles like Hondo Accord, Toyota Qualis, Mahindra Bolero, Rolls Royce, Daewoo Cielo, Mitsubishi Lancer, Ford Escort, Audi, Honda Civic, Hyundai Accent, Tata Indigo, Mahindra Scorpio, Maruti Gypsy, Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Mahindra Xylo and Ssang Yong Kyron; gives us a feel of the driving both on the highways and on the bumpy gravel roads with daredevilry and a driving finesse of minute, micro-second driving calculations either to overtake a vehicle ahead or to go off the view of a chasing vehicle and give the pursuers a slip. We have pit-stops where to unwind with not just Coca Colas but with Old Monks, Cognacs and XOs. No sooner have we relaxed than peals of deafening sounds break into our ears from firearms like Glock 17, Heckler & Koch MP5, handguns and machine guns.
And in all this maze, in his own unusual style, a highly conscientious and committed police officer is on the trail of a long-pending case in which one of the operatives is the main suspect. Though junior in rank and on the verge of retirement, the sub-inspector is steadfast and singlehanded. Not minding the denial of promotions despite his uprightness and efficiency, he does a splendid job, like a man possessed, and after a lot of ups and downs, finally closes the case with discretion, propriety and humaneness.
For all practical purposes, the story has already ended here and reached its logical or inexorably fated conclusion. Then why the spill-over onto a few more pages, the reader wonders. Yes, herein lies the tricky talent of Vish Dhamija in suddenly turning the tables over to lead us away to a different ending.
The novel replete with a series of unimaginable twists and turns has characters that have turned into criminals because of circumstances. Given a chance, they would turn over a new leaf and live an honest life.
The book also throws a light on the police conundrum:
“If the police of any country had unlimited time and resources, all criminals would be brought to book and there would be no unresolved cases or miscarriages of justice. But they too, like all other government departments, have finite resources. They simply cannot afford to follow up every pointer. Not to forget, there are always other limitations halting sincere progress – the backbreaking bureaucracy people’s personal agendas, pressures from those higher up the ladder.” (95-96)
Narrated engagingly and in excellent English, the book has its due share of wit and artistic imagery in sync with the theme. Just a couple of examples.
When the Mafioso nonchalantly instructs his hireling to find out the possessor of the stolen painting and then to steal it, and finally hand it over to him – a very tough, risky and time-consuming job, the latter remarks to himself, tongue-in-cheek:
“He made it sound like he was asking me to steal crayons from an unsupervised kindergarten kid” (35)
And when an art professor dials the senior owner of an art gallery for a key consultation, the latter suffering from “verbal diarrhoea” deals out “a fountain of useless information” interspersed with “persistent coughing and wheezing,” before giving the tormented professor the number of his friend – another art gallery owner who is “more informed.” Though the professor “shuddered at the very thought of having to go through an identical conversation with another art loony,” he still meets him after a few days. And here is what he feels after the meeting is over:
“As I’d expected, and feared, Mehta Senior’s friend sucked my brain like an industrial vacuum cleaner until I could feel the lightness of my skull.” (65)
First published in Issue 84 (Mar-Apr 2019) of the Muse India, literary e-journal.