The holy hoax

Flash a pious prefix and get away with grand larceny

February 25, 2022 08:01 pm | Updated 08:01 pm IST

As the grand drama of the yogi and the stock exchange unravels at a financial capital near us, on our screens unfolds an equally incredible con pulled off by a Russian scamster in another financial capital rather far from us. Both grifts ran around the same time, both have women at the centre, and both involve staggering amounts of money defrauded, loaned, traded, spent, misused.

In Mumbai, between 2013 and 2016, Chitra Ramkrishna, then chairperson of NSE, India’s largest bourse, claims to have been in the thrall of a holy man in the Himalayas who pulled her strings remotely and stage-managed high appointments, princely salaries, and full access to the National Stock Exchange databases. Since the directives came from a self-proclaimed ‘siddha purusha’, which is the Sanskrit equivalent of ‘open sesame’, they went unchallenged.

In New York, between 2015 and 2017, Anna Sorokin aka Anna Delvey claimed to be an heiress with a €60 million trust fund in Germany. Those magic words saw stinking rich drawing rooms, luxury hotels, banks and art salons unquestioningly open their doors to Anna. By the time she was arrested, she had defrauded individuals and institutions of roughly $275,000. The Netflix series on her life is airing now; Anna sold the rights for $320,000, from which she had to pay $298,000 to lawyers and various people she had gypped but she retained the rest.

Anna is in custody; Chitra is being questioned by the CBI. By all accounts, both women were financial geniuses, extremely intelligent, and lived at a slight remove from reality. 

In both cases, the word that comes to mind is gullibility. The people Anna took for a ride were quite blind to what were dead giveaways because all they saw was a projected ‘image’, exactly what Anna was banking on. A superb 2018 report in  New York magazine (which inspired the  Inventing Anna show) bristles with brand names. As long as Anna got her wine vintage right and carried the correct Hermès bag, she could have come from a lineage of serial killers and the haut monde wouldn’t have cared. Alas, she bit the manicured hands that had seated her at the high table and was duly shown her place.

In the NSE case, was Chitra really gulled by the attentions of a sadhu in the Himalayas? Or was he simply a kindred soul whose opportune advice she unquestioningly followed and could later say, wide-eyed, that nobody questions a ‘sage’. It’s difficult to say what the directors on the NSE board were doing while all this was unfolding. Reports find that they were informed of Chitra’s dodge in 2016 to which they responded by giving her a Rs. 50 crore severance package before gently showing her the door. We don’t know yet if they unrolled a red carpet to a waiting limo. With such an upshot, a life of financial crime sounds positively salubrious.

If splashing champagne and brand names grants an easy entrée into the highest social circles, India has always issued an additional admission ticket: a connection with someone or something holy. Prefixing anything with ‘baba’, ‘guru’ or ‘yogi’ is a powerful key to open up purses and shut down the brain’s natural defences against stupidity. Even as scientists struggled to find a cure for Covid-19, a baba created a magic potion overnight and found enough takers and TV anchors to buy it. Hospital data, overflowing crematoriums, and families of the dead might attest to certain Covid-19 numbers, but these are easily overturned by a yogi nonchalantly declaring that his management of the pandemic is the “best in the world”.

That’s the formula. Greed, willing suspension of disbelief and lashings of bogus spirituality. In the stories of Anna and Chitra, what strikes you is not that they might be deeply flawed individuals, because those are a dime a dozen, but how superficial society’s engagement with truth is. By flashing the right snobberies, Anna could cadge a life of luxury for the longest time; and by claiming that a mysterious holy man directed her actions of fraud and insider trading, so can Chitra. It’s a fatal Indian weakness and it’s being manipulated brilliantly today. If Ray had been alive, perhaps he would have made a sequel and titled it  Joi Baba Fekunath.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words.

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