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Needles prick treasure balloon

- ‘Embarrassment’ of riches ends 6-year battle for chests

Three iron chests found buried in a south Calcutta plot and thought to hold riches worth fighting a six-year legal battle for were prised open on Monday to reveal little more than needles, worn-out letterheads and four Rs 5 notes.

Nobody was more disappointed by the anticlimax than Madan Mohan Pal, who had invested six years and “lakhs of rupees” in the legal battle for ownership of the chests found at 178 Rashbehari Avenue.

“I am stunned. I fought a legal battle for six years, spending several lakhs of rupees on lawyers. I am not going to spend a paisa more. I will withdraw my case in the Alipore civil court,” Pal told Metro after the chests were opened in the courtyard of Gariahat police station, supervised by a team of archaeologists and geologists.

Pal’s wife Mahamaya had sold the five-cottah plot in 2008 to shoe company Sreeleathers, whose workers found the chests while digging a portion of the plot for construction. The Pals immediately staked claim to the chests, motivated by apocryphal stories about a hidden treasure dating back three centuries.

The weight of the chests, each more than 1,000kg, had fuelled rumour mills about the antiquity, quantum and worth of the treasure. The moment of truth on Monday was almost tragicomic. Some faces in the gathering struggled to suppress laughter even as Pal and a few others grimaced.

“We found an envelope with ‘Government of India’ written on it. A date, 18.9.1969, was on it. The envelope held four currency notes of Rs 5 denomination each,” said Tarun Dutta, officer-in-charge (headquarters) of the fire services department.

“A table calendar from 1974 was also inside. There were some worn-out letterheads of a hosiery company with a Sukeas Street address. The packets containing the needles bore the name of the same company.”

Experts said the needles were made in Canada, though that necessarily won’t increase their worth unless any historical significance is found.

“We have collected the needles and other articles and will conduct tests to ascertain whether they are of archaeological value,” said an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Apart from experts deputed by the ASI and the Geological Survey of India, a lawyer representing Sreeleathers was at Gariahat police station when the chests were opened.

“The Alipore civil court had directed us to make the necessary arrangements to open the chests in the presence of ASI and GSI representatives. The order also mentioned that the nature of the contents would decide the ownership,” an officer said.

The Disaster Management Group of Calcutta police was the first to have a crack at the chests, only to be foiled by the heavy metal. Gariahat police station next approached the fire services department to send a team armed with gas cutters to rip open the chests.

“Now we know that the weight of the chests came from the iron rather than what was inside. A crane had been hired to lift the chests from where they were found buried six years ago,” an officer said.

A crowd of more than 100 people had started milling in Dover Lane, outside Gariahat police station, from 11.30am on Monday to know what the chests contained.

The police tried to ensure nobody could steal a glance from outside by using yards of blue fabric to increase the height of the police station’s wall by two feet.

“This measure was taken to avoid unnecessary commotion,” an officer said.

Many people crossed the rope barricade on the pavement and stood on concrete slabs or tried to climb the main gate to see what was happening inside.

“I had heard on television about three iron chests being found buried somewhere. I have come here out of curiosity,” said Latika, a domestic help who works in the neighbourhood.

As the sound of gas cutters ripping through the metal echoed in the courtyard, even the cops looked as eager as the claimants to the treasure that never was.

Occasionally, an expectant murmur would course through the air at the imagined sight of a non-existent item of value inside one of the chests. Was that the glint of gold? Jewels from a family heirloom, perhaps? Maybe a priceless artefact?

“All of us were very keen to know what would tumble out of the iron chests,” a constable said. “So imagine our disappointment when only eight boxes of needles were found in the first chest and nothing in the second except what looked like a dusty substance.”

By the time fire brigade personnel started cutting open the third chest, the gathering outside the police station had thinned.

“Who would have thought the treasure hunt would end like this,” said a resident of the neighbourhood as word travelled outside of boxes of needles and Rs 20 being found in an envelope.