One of the leading movie actors in Kerala received a strange offer six years ago. He was to check in to a luxury hotel in Kochi and narrate his short bio to three persons who would visit him in his suite. The remuneration for the evening would be Rs 5 lakh. The actor was game for it.
The visitors came around 7 pm. The actor welcomed them and chatted them up. He told them how he was frustrated by the initial flops in his career, how he went into a long hibernation, only to be bounced back in style to stardom. He rose dramatically at the end of the narration, as the script demanded, and approached the man who had brought the visitors. He told the visitors that he owed all his success in life and career to this man. “He would tell you the secret of my success,” the actor wound up his assignment.
The man was ready with the rest of his plan. He bade the actor goodbye and led the visitors to the coffee shop in the hotel, where he showed them the “secret” - a metallic object wrapped in a carbon paper. The visitors bought the talisman for Rs 20 lakh!
The conman deposited Rs 5 lakh in the actor’s bank account. The three fortune seekers from Tamil Nadu left for home with the “rice puller” that would make them prosperous like the actor.
They waited for a year for the “rice puller” to show its effect. Nothing happened. Finally convinced that they had been duped, they filed a complaint with the Kochi Police. The police found that the actor had received Rs 5 lakh around the day the complainants said they had met him. A case of fraud was filed against the actor and others but it was never followed up.
The “rice puller”, however, had an exciting career graph. Indeed the object proved lucky to some. One of them was sold for as much as Rs 3 crore, the police tracking a recent fraud case found.
The supposed-to-be-talismans sell for up to Rs 300 crore in the lucrative illegal market that deals in anything from stolen idols to gems, according to unconfirmed reports.
The other stars in this underground market are the fabled stones spat out by aging cobras, bezoar-like stones found in the brains of the elephants, red sand boas, barn owls and star tortoises.
The prosperity magnet
The so-called “rice pullers” are claimed to be made with iridium, used to harden other metals and to enrich uranium. They sometimes show the metal’s properties.
The unscrupulous sellers have little difficulty in convincing their customers that the objects are special. They show them how the metal piece attract grains of rice. The trick is a sleigh of hand. The grains are coated with iron particles and the coat glossed over. With the help of a hidden magnet, the “rice puller” pulls the grains, the traditional symbols of prosperity. The conmen have more tricks up their sleeves. Watches and clocks stand still near the metal piece.
The Kerala Police had registered cases of sale of “rice pullers” for anything between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 1.50 crore.
People in search of short cuts part with ridiculously humongous amounts of money for the piece of a metal which is used to make the nibs of fountain pens. Some people think that metals exposed to lightning acquire the properties of iridium, explaining the cases where thieves are commissioned to make away with the metal domes of temples, which are then sold as “rice pullers”.
Barn owl feasts on mice, lizards and cockroaches in barns and granaries. They live and hunt in pair. They live up to 10 years. A couple of barn owls can get rid of at least 1,500 mice a year, making them a vital part in an agricultural ecosystem.
The barn owls found themselves in unwanted limelight when a group of tricksters started spreading a false theory that the strange-looking bird could attract Satan. The possession of the bird helped the owner mint money and lure whoever he wanted to, the theory goes. The prescribed ritual involved the sacrifice of the owl in the end and sprinkling its blood around the house.
Red sand boa
The non-venomous snake is advertized as a living aphrodisiac. The snake can even cure people of AIDS. All you have to do is to keep it in the flour with which you would cook your food later.
There are people who have fallen for the stories and bought boas for as much as Rs 50 lakh.
Kerala has only smaller varieties of red sand boas. Bigger species from other states can weigh up to Rs 5 kilo and grow up to 3 feet. The sellers claim that the boas live up to a 100 years though the buyers end up with a dead snake within a year or two.
The endangered species found on the Western Ghats is mostly smuggled into Malaysia and Thailand. There they end up in dubious brews which are sold as panacea for fatal diseases and sexual weakness. European visitors to the Asian country lap up these medicines.
A single tortoise can fetch the smuggler lakhs of rupees. The innocent creatures are falling prey to an illegal trade worth millions of dollars.
Another favorite in the market for the weird is Nagamani or Nagamanikyam, an imaginary stone formed inside the head of a cobra when the venom solidifies. Aged and no longer agile, cobras spit out the ruby-like stone out to attract prey. Once the snake had its fill it would swallow the stone again, the story goes.
Truth is stranger than fiction. Lookalikes of ruby indeed attracts gullible humans, who spent a fortune on stones which they believe had been stolen from a snake. There have been cases where people have paid Rs 1 crore for imitation stones available in fancy stores for Rs 20.
Another fabled stone from the head of a tusker. The bezoar-like substance is in high demand because it is believed to bring good luck to the owner.
The charming Indians
Westerners enamored by the Orient make perfect customers for the fraudsters. They think India is a land of exotic people who can read minds, charm snakes and smooth-talk elephants.
The police were shocked to hear the convinced statements of a Latin American who was caught in the Kochi airport with a barn owl he was trying to smuggle out. He though Indians possessed superhuman abilities and extra-sensory perceptions.
The wrong side
The Indian Penal Code prescribes rigorous imprisonment of up to seven years in cases of fraud where a customer is tricked into buying something. Anyone found in possession of endangered species can be fined Rs 25,000 under the Wildlife Protection Act.