Who’ll guard objects they aren’t trained to respect?

Roughly 2,100km east, back in Kolkata, a drowsy attendant in Indian Museum’s Bharhut Gallery is startled by a camera flash. Saree pleats clutched in one hand, she chides the culprit for standing on the base of a 2,000-year-old Sunga stupa.

I decide to take the museum director up on his offer of seeing the improved security infrastructure. But when I ask for department head Jaydeep Das, I’m ushered to meet “administrator in charge” Nita Sengupta.

Description of the system

The approach to the first floor of the administrative section, tucked behind the main museum, smells of cigarettes and somebody’s lunch. Right ahead is Sengupta’s cabin, where a conservation officer with mehndi-dyed hair sits silently at her desk. It takes several minutes for her to notice she has a visitor, and a few seconds to summon Das and museum caretaker Supreme Bhowmick.

“Let’s go,” she says flatly.

Das’s template government office—saloon doors, glass countertop table, white-inked nameplate—overlooks the museum courtyard. As children prance outside, we settle into his cabin. When it comes to matters of security, everyone but Das talks.

“So yes, CISF should be here by the first quarter of 2019. And we have 429 cameras,” Bhowmick drones.

Wait.

“But Mr. Purohit said you have 560 cameras, and that CISF will be here within three months. Which one is it?”

“429 cameras now and 560 eventually,” he says hurriedly, his eyes darting around the room. “And we have multiple cameras in the Coin Gallery.”

“Is that because most of the coins there were alleged to be fake?”

Das, a former Kolkata Police officer with a buzz cut and denim-on-denim attire, starts fidgeting with each of his four rings in stony silence.

“Who said that?” Sengupta turns sharply.

“Sunil Upadhyay supposedly suspected this. It’s there in his brother’s Supreme Court case against the museum.”

“People don’t know the difference between replicas and fakes,’ she interrupts.

Claims by the report

The mehndi-haired conservation officer, RP Savita, nods vociferously in agreement.

Note: The CAG report had noted that none of India’s national museums conducted periodic authentication checks.

“What about Upadhyay telling his brothers about mismanagement and criminal oversight here just days before he disappeared?”

“When we all get stressed, we share it with our families,” Bhowmick chimes loudly.

“This is not stress. These are serious allegations.”

“Look, he even used to call me didi,” Sengupta gestures animatedly. “He’d called me on the day he was to be admitted to RN Tagore Hospital. That was the last I heard of him…”

“People say he was bribed here to keep his mouth shut.”

“They can say what they want. So can the CAG. We’d even gone for the parliamentary hearing on their report in 2015. It was the Archaeological Survey of India, not us or the National Museum that came under the scanner.”

“Well if everything is fine here, why would there be so much smoke without fire?”

Nothing is impossible

“You see, this is Jadughar,” says Sengupta, turning around with a slight smile. “Anything is possible here. But not everyone likes magic.”

The approach to the first floor of the administrative section, tucked behind the main museum, smells of cigarettes and somebody’s lunch. Right ahead is Sengupta’s cabin, where a conservation officer with mehndi-dyed hair sits silently at her desk. It takes several minutes for her to notice she has a visitor, and a few seconds to summon Das and museum caretaker Supreme Bhowmick.

Editorial illustrations for The Ken by Bombay Bong.