The art of the con

In politics as in business, it is the age of subterfuge. Be it grand promises made by industrialists who offer investors a chance to spin gold from air or ride the next shuttle to space, or politicians who dispense freedom but clothe it in chains, the art of the con is in full flourish all around us. 

Call it deception or just old-fashioned hoodwink — stories and examples of such behaviour run abundant in myth and folklore. For the human and the divine, much was laid in store by the act of tricking another, revealing an innocent game of one-upmanship at times but on many occasions, a grim saga of blood and gore. 

The con job, pulled off by a trickster figure, such as Eshu in African or Maui in Polynesian lore, sometimes led to a better life for those who inhabited the earth. Maui, for instance, is said to have slowed down the journey of the sun so that people have the right amount of sunlight to cook. He also pulled land out of the water so that people could set their roots down and so on. Eshu is not as benevolent though, he ruins friendships, crops and reputations through his ways. 

“Silver-tongued” Odysseus
But tricksters must be careful to never step over the line. Eshu angered the great gods through one of his tricks and was banished from the heavens. The gods made him a messenger, asking him to report every night on all that he had witnessed on earth during the day. Messenger gods are always known to be disruptive forces, in India Narada and Hermes for the Greeks also fit the mould.

For Maui too, all was going well until he tried one trick too many. He believed he could bluff his way into eternal life. He sought immortality for all, and not just for the gods. Accompanied by his friends, birds who never left his side, he descended to the underworld to conquer death, a goddess named Hine-Nui-Te-Po. Maui found her asleep and thinking that this was an opportune moment, got to work instantly. He asked the birds to hold their silence while he stripped naked and attempted to force himself inside the goddess, a way to earn eternal life in his opinion. But the sight proved too funny for the birds who raised a cackle that woke the goddess up and she crushed him to death instead. 

The road to survival in the ancient world was often paved with bluff and deceit. But one had to walk a thin line. The cons pulled were largely harmless and the subtext was: to survive, man had to trick the gods. 

Among the heroes, Odysseus was a master of the craft. Homer called him a silver-tongued hero who could find his way out of tough situations, not through a show of strength but by thinking on his feet. His battle with the one-eyed giants is a case in point. On their way back home from Troy, Odysseus and his men land up on the island of the Cyclops or the one-eyed giants. Polyphemos (son of Poseidon, god of the oceans), is one such giant and Odysseus ransacks and plunders his cave. Polyphemos is furious and begins making a meal out of the raiders. Odysseus tricks him, plies him with strong wine, introduces himself as “Nobody” and then lulls him into wine-induced slumber. While he is asleep, Odysseus drives a wooden stake into his single eye causing him to scream and thrash about. When the rest of the giants come to his rescue and ask him who is torturing him, poor Polyphemos says “Nobody”. And so they all leave him to his fate while Odysseus makes his escape with whatever is left of his men. Even the famed Trojan horse strategy that finally won the war was Odysseus’s doing.

In India one of the most daring acts of subterfuge was that by the Pandavaas in the year they spent in exile. For the year that they spent incognito, there were several moments that threatened to lay bare their secret. But nerves of steel and a lot of luck saw them through.

Wit and cunning are a hero’s shield and luck his armour. When luck slips out, the game falls apart, just as it does when the trickster moves beyond the world of pranks into deceit — for instance, the game of dice in the Mahabharata when Shakuni turned a simple contest into a battlefield and set the stage for the bloody war to follow. Deception may be a much coveted gift today, but its perpetrators could well be pulled into its bloody consequences if they cross the line.

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