Catch Me If You Can: The Man Who Sold The Taj Mahal

Catch Me If You Can: The Man Who Sold The Taj Mahal

Infamously known as Natwarlal, Mithiliesh Kumar Srivastava was one of the most notorious con men in India. Having arrested and escaped from prison ten times, Mithilesh would often state that no prison could hold him as there was always a dishonest cop, and so so consequently, he would always find a way to get out. This astounding and almost comedic story is about the inspiration behind iconic crime films like Natwarlal, Raja Natwarlal and Bunty Aur Babli.

Born in 1913 in Bangra village in the Siwan district of Bihar, Mithilesh’s origins are as mysterious as his entire life with certain accounts claiming that he came from a plebeian background much like the rest of India, others stating that he belonged to a well-to-do, land-owning class. Studying in Patna high school, Mithilesh was a bright student but weak in mathematics. Stories suggest that he ran away from home after being violently beat up by his father.

He somehow emerged in Kolkata and enrolled in a Bachelor of Commerce graduate course in Calcutta University with no support from anyone. Through fake documents, he made his way into a businessman's home as a tutor of his kids and even the headmaster of the school they were in. Their friendship grew and eventually developed into a business deal where he stole 4.5 lakhs from the businessman. This was when he was arrested for the first time.

Over the next few years, Mithilesh left a trail of furious, duped businessmen all across the country. Being a 'lawyer', he mastered the forgery of official documents and even signatures of figures like Rajendra prasad and Dhirubhai Ambani. By the early 50s, he had made his mark in Patna, Meerut, Allahabad, Andhra, Pradesh and Mumbai, collecting money through deception and evading arrests. However, he is primarily known for selling the Taj Mahal thrice, Red Fort twice, Rashtrapati Bhavan once and the Indian Parliament along with its 545 sitting members to gullible foreigners.

With more than 100 cases in 8 states across India and sentences running up to over 113 years, Mithilesh served only 20 years in prison. His last escape was at 84 years old while being transported from Kanpur jail to the AIIMS hospital for treatment under police escort when he vanished, leaving behind an empty wheelchair. Even his death was shrouded in mystery; his brother claims to have buried him in 1996 but according to his lawyers, he lived till 2009.

Much like most other aspects of his life, it was difficult to separate the truth from the myth and fact from fiction. The people who came across him all described him as a highly intelligent, charming and articulate man which of course, falls in line with his 'work'. But he was also loved in his hometown where there are legends of him distributing the con money to people from the village who defend him to this day. No one knows exactly what he did with the money or where he was till his death or even if he had any companions, but his story certainly makes for a thrilling, ableit criminal, anti-establishment tale.

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