This short story won FIRST PRIZE INR 2012 (~US $40) in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
[The False Idol – Suspense Short Story]
The potter saw the man in the black suit first. He was a small, fat man, with a pencil-thin mustache. Not from this part of town. City-bred, surely. He was talking animatedly on a cheap flip-type cell phone. His face was unremarkable, chubby cheeks, with a mole on one chin. He wore thick spectacles and his eyes wandered over the various items kept for sale.
The potter’s scheming mind was at work. He knew at first sight-customers who were experienced at buying exquisite items of pottery, and people who just bought fancy items without a bit of knowledge of the art. He had been a potter for 15 years now, and this man was surely someone who didn’t know anything about pottery, or even art for that instance. Times were hard. Rice cost 27 rupees a kilo, and he had more than 1 mouth to feed at home. He looked at the items he had kept for sale. Two pathetic looking demon masks. He had wanted to create two identical masks and he hadn’t even managed to make the horns the same size. He sighed. He was going to need a miracle to sell these two. Not that he was the most honest man you had ever met. He knew that this man in the black suit would be a perfect bait to get some money.
The man kept the phone back in is pocket. He moved closer to the potter’s makeshift tent, bending down and examining some of the other pots and pans spread out by other sellers. The man took each piece in his hand as though he was some sort of expert, feeling the material with his hands, touching and tapping the pots and every time he kept the piece back down, shaking his head.
“No, no. Not this type.” he said in a high pitched-girlish type of voice, placing down a pot of excellent craftsmanship, shocking the potter who had it for sale. It would have gone for at least two thousand rupees.
” A complete idiot” thought the potter.
The man walked through the dusty streets, his head going this way and the other. The potter knew the type. He was looking for small colorful things to buy. Something that would look good in his house. Not that the man looked rich. His house was probably a two bedroom flat, somewhere in Delhi or Chennai. His wife had probably nagged him for a piece of village art so she could keep it in the house. A lucky charm, perhaps. City women were stupid.
The man was only a foot away from the potter now. Time to go into business.
“Here sir, here!” screamed the potter at the top of voice. The man turned his head, surprised. His lurid spectacles almost made the potter laugh out loud. His eyes fell on the two demon masks, and his eyebrows launched upwards.
“First class masks sir. Best piece of art in the entire fair.” said the potter. This gave him some nasty looks from the fellow potters. His work was far from the best. The 6 year old son of the head potter could make a far better mask.
The man came right upto the potter and squatted down in front of him. He looked at the masks carefully, making a show of examining them. But the potter knew the fish had taken the bait. The man was delighted at the masks. His mouth was open, and his eyes showed nothing but delight.
“How…How much for these masks?”
Serious business time. The potter couldn’t say anything too far fetched. The man might not buy it. At the same time, he was sure that any rate would not make a difference to this man. He didn’t know a thing about pottery. The man had taken out a white handkerchief and was wiping his brow. It was a hot day. The potter thought wistfully of sipping an ice cool Lassi at RajKumar’s shop near his house. It cost 40 rupees, but if he kept his head, he could have enough money for a month. Numbers ran around his head. The man was waiting for the price. Do or Die.
“Six thousand sir.” said the potter and regretted it instantly. The man’s mouth was wide open in in shock, his eyes magnified by his glasses. Damn! Too much.
“But sir..These are handmade with best paints…” he started, but stopped slowly. The man was considering it. He was thinking it over. All was not lost.
“It’s not even a mask, sir. It’s an idol, see. You can hang it over the entrance to your house, sir. It keeps away evil spirits. Your wife will congratulate you, sir.” The last line had been a gamble, but it was working. The man was beginning to smile. Luck was on the potter’s side.
“Please buy them sir. My family will bless you for all eternity. We will be in your debt.”
The man was grinning now, his face even more comical. He wiped his chin with his hand kerchief and kept it back in his pocket. He dug into the back pocket of his pants and took out a thin black wallet. The potter silently thanked his brilliant thinking.
The man looked at the masks again, seemed to think something. The potter narrowed his eyes.
“One condition.” said the man. His voice even more high-pitched than usual. Clearly, he was excited
“Yes, sir?” asked the potter, suddenly wary.
The man smiled. “My wife always wanted earthen pots in our household. I was wondering if you could sell the pots on which these idols rest as well? Of course, I will pay extra.”
The potter could not believe his ears. Selling the masks themselves were a bonus, but the pots as well? These pots were not even made by him. They had been brought in by his daughter from the fields a month ago. One pot had even a part of its rim missing. They were discoloured and one good shove could break it into a thousand pieces.
“But yes sir. You can have them. It will cost 500 rupees more.”
The man nodded his agreement and picked up the masks. The first time he had actually handled them. He then touched the pots. The potter hoped he would not notice the broken bit. But it seemed nothing could go wrong. The man opened his wallet and took out 6 thousand rupee notes and 1 five hundred rupee note. He counted them twice and handed it to the potter.
The potter almost snatched it from him, grinning like a maniac. He took out a fold of pink wrapping paper – his daughter’s, and wrapped the masks and the pots carefully. The man accepted it from him, turned and walked back briskly. The other potters were shell shocked. A man had just been swindled in broad daylight. But they were honourable men. They would not rat out a fellow tradesman for anything.
The potter barely concealed his glee. The moment the man rounded the corner, he let out a shout of joy. There was still 3 hours before he usually went home. But today had been a fairytale. Packing the remaining pots, he slung them over his shoulder and walked the road leading to his house. But he would first enjoy an ice cold Lassi at RajKumar’s.
The man in the black suit was walking faster now, peering behind to make sure no body was following him. He crossed the main road and took shelter under a large banyan tree. He wiped his face with his hand kerchief. The sun was merciless. But with the unbelievable thing he had just done,his days of walking might just be over. He took out his cell phone and called the same man he had been speaking with half an hour ago. The call connected. One ring.. Two rings. “Hello?” said a voice.
“Sir. Mishra here, sir.” said the man.
“Yes Mishra? Have you got it?”
“I have sir, I’ve found them. The trip was a success.”
The man at the other end gave a huge sigh of relief. “I can’t believe it. You are a marvel Mishra. You really have the Pots of Shiva. Does one pot really have part of its rim broken?”
“Yes sir. Indeed I have. Your information was correct. They were put on sale by a potter, sir. He had no idea whatsoever about its value sir. A regular village bumpkin.”
The man at the other end laughed. “You’re right Mishra. Come back at once. The pots are valued at over 650 lakhs. You will get your 10 percent discount of course. I have to announce the news now. I will meet you soon then.”
“Yes sir. I will get the next bus back. See you sir.” He disconnected.
He opened the wrapping and looked at the pots again. Of course the money he paid was obviously too much, but all that would be covered. He was going to be a rich man now. He took out the two idols and stared at them. He laughed slowly and let them drop onto the ground. They broke easily into two pieces each. He got up and walked towards the bus stop. He had a bus to catch.