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Playing Godman

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to the SNAP, the "Behind The Curtain" episode. Today on the show we're going backstage to find out who's pulling the levers. And since he was a kid, our next guest, Tahir Shah, has had an obsession with magic. His uncles from India would visit him in England and show him tricks and illusions. Young Tahir was transfixed.

TAHIR SHAH: I vowed that when I was older, one day long, long in the future, I would go to India and I would learn magic for myself. It's kind of a crazy story. What happened was, when I was in my early 20s, I didn't think about it very much, I just did it. I got a one-way ticket from Britain and I arrived in Kolkata. And I went in search of this Hakim Feroze, the greatest illusionist and stage magician in Indian history, really. I had no contact details for this guy. I didn't have a cell phone number, I didn't have anything. I just had his name. Just by an incredible coincidence, I bumped into him in a cafe in Kolkata. The first thing that struck me was everything about him was immaculate. His hair was oyster-gray like his mustache, perfectly sculpted-back with lavender-smelling brilliantine. A tweed jacket, despite the heat, and in the little pocket of the waistcoat, the left side, a silver pocket watch.

After a lot of cajoling, he agreed to take me on as a pupil. Hakim Feroze said to me, if I become his pupil, I have to do everything exactly as he says, as he ordered me. And if I refused to do something, I would be thrown out on my ear immediately. So I decided right there and then, I would do anything he wanted.

So the great magician Hakim Feroze said that I had to come and live in his mansion on the outskirts of Kolkata, in a very beautiful suburb called Alipore, where the very, very most beautiful houses were built. From the street you couldn't really get a sense of what was behind the wall, but as I came in the first day, it was rather like Hakim Feroze himself - it was immaculate. It had an exquisite veranda on the back and in the central courtyard there were frangipani trees with this incredibly intoxicating scent.

As I was walking through the gate up to the villa, I was absolutely terrified out of my mind. Really from the outset of arriving, there was no moment that Feroze shook me by the hand and said, welcome and we're going to learn allusions. Hakim Feroze subjected me to a horrific catalog of almost debauched tests and trials and tribulations. The first - very first one was to dig a hole using a dessert spoon. The hole had to be two feet square and two feet deep. And I realized, OK, he's taking this seriously, so I will take it seriously because I don't want him to have a reason to kick me out. I started digging the soil, which was kind of sandy soil, in this courtyard. And I had to put each dessert spoon into a bucket. I had to do it with my left hand, as I remember, which was really difficult at first. And I was sweating and sweating and sweating.

I spent - digging holes I spent, I think, three or four days. But then there were all kinds of others. I had to jog backwards in laps around the courtyard carrying a gigantically cold and heavy block of ice. The worst of all, the one that drove me absolutely mad, was to stand in the courtyard with my arms outstretched hour after hour, with - it was like, 10 grains of rice on my left hand and a peeled grape on my right hand and I had to hold them outstretched like a scale. He delighted in the fact that I was almost in tears. I did think about quitting, like, a thousand times. And I would look at myself from a great height and I would think, what the hell are you doing?

Something in me said, give up, give up. But then another part of me kept saying, no - endure it a little longer. I learned a bizarre catalog of tricks, from how to eat glass, to how to stop my pulse, how to make the rain stop, or how to make the rain start, all kinds of illusions. You can take a bite of a glass light bulb, and you can chew it up without really getting any bleeding of your gums or your tongue or anything. But the secret is, if you eat a banana beforehand, the glass - the tiny fragments of glass will get - will go down into your stomach and they'll get embedded in the banana and will just go through your intestines normally.

I was beginning to think I was making good progress. I had learned to put up with Feroze and I had learned some of the basics of magic. With Feroze, he hated it if you were getting comfortable. So he could see I was getting quite used to being at his villa. Before I went to bed one night, Feroze said to me, you're to go on a journey, a journey of observation, a journey around India - you have to leave. And I said, when? And he said, at dawn.

I was deeply upset. I thought well, what am I going to do? Where am I going to go? He said the journey could last a day, a week, a year, the rest of my life. Suddenly something hit me and I thought to myself, instead of doing some pathetic weak little journey, go on a grand adventure around India, the greatest journey of observation ever done. My obsession at the time was about godmen - Indian godmen. A godman is as close as India has to what a snake oil salesman must have been in the Wild West. He was part healer, part entertainer, part magician. And they go from village to village doing magic tricks, OK? Some of them do it use it as a huge kind of medium for deception, and some of them are multi, multi-multimillionaires. And Hakim Feroze, he frowned at the misuse of illusion as a medium, a matrix to deceive people. He didn't approve of that at all.

I was taken by a rickshaw wallah, you know, one of these guys running with a kind of hand rickshaw cart, to the Howrah train station - the old train station. I was on the platform waiting for the train to turn up. A few hours in, I saw a street boy, Baloo(ph), and he had a kind of, you know, it was a kind of routine that he was doing. You know, tricks and different things. And I kind of knew at that moment that we'd be great friends. He liked to be called the trickster. He could do amazing magic tricks. Yes, he could also pick pockets like I'd never seen anyone do. Or he could seduce women far older than him - because he was only 12 so - but he was charming, and I never really expected him to come with me on my journey or even leave Kolkata with me, but he said that he was coming too. I think at the time I kept brushing him off and cursing him, thinking he was going to rob me. But secretly, deep down I was electrified, delighted that I'd have such a wise and charismatic young man with me.

I traveled around with him on this zig-zag trip around India. We passed through Orissa, which is a very, very, very poor state in India, and there had been a drought. And we heard that in a village not too far away, a witch had been caught. I said to Baloo, let's go and see. So we went there. It was a few villages away and it was a hot - really hot afternoon, baking afternoon. And as we approached the village where she was from, we saw terrible drought. We saw a lot of dead animals and you know, dead cows. We got to a village and the headman said yes, yes - we've caught a witch and she's evil and we have locked her up. And I said, we've come from far away. And after quite a lot of cajoling we were taken to where the witch was, and she had been locked in a kind of - in a shed, in a shack. And they pulled her out and it was blinding sunlight in the afternoon, and she was blinking and she was frightened, so frightened - the poor, poor woman. And she was an old, old woman. I was very, very moved but also incredibly upset because I could see that there's someone in front of me here on the ground with people ready to kick her face in again. I knew I had to get involved. I said that we have been sent to adjudicate and get to the bottom of the story. I showed my driving license - my British driving license - I pulled it out and I said this was my document. And I said, what did she do? And she had been accused of a number of things. So for example, she had made the water in the water tower go poisonous, turn poison. And we investigated and it turned out that there were two or three dead rats in there, and that had poisoned the water tower. And we fished them out - Baloo fished them out, very bravely.

It's very difficult for us sitting here in our nice clean clothes, we ate a nice breakfast, ate a nice lunch today, whatever. If you can picture an Indian village - a few adobe houses, drought, terrible drought. Thirst, terrible, shocking thirst. There's this fear and you see it in everyone's eyes. You see it on their lips, even - because everyone's kind of wrinkled because they haven't drunk enough water - a hysteria because someone has been caught who - the witch - who all their problems in the village have been leveled on. There was no chance of ever explaining this is not the way to get someone off the hook. And when we were walking through the village, Baloo and I, I was very, very concerned. And I said, look, this is a serious situation. This woman could lose her life. And he said to me, let's do it from the inside out. And I said, what do you mean? And he said, if they want magic, we will give them magic.

And I said to everyone, you know, crowded around, if I can do something mesmerizing and inexplicable to you, will you let this woman go? And eventually they said, all right, all right - if you do real magic for us then we will let her go.

What would Feroze have thought about me using magic, passing myself off as a godman to have an effect? I had a chance to save, you know, maybe save someone's life. So do I save their life? You bet I tried to save their life, you know? And then I said, well, I can levitate. Hakim Feroze had taught me how to levitate in the way that a lot of godmen do. And it's very, very simple and if I tell you the trick, you'll say, well, that's not real levitation.

I asked Baloo to get us a blanket and he also got me a couple of bamboo rods. He diverted their attention for a little - a few minutes - and when they came back - he brought them back to where I was - I was lying under the blanket with my head back, tilted back almost like I was trying to float in a swimming pool. And under the blanket I had these two bamboo rods. Very, very slowly, I lifted the rods under the blanket, arched my body - my torso - upwards and threw my head back. And it might not seem very convincing on radio, but I can bet you it looked damn convincing. After a few seconds, I came down again and that I actually did a couple of other tricks. I burnt a fire on my tongue, which is camphor, which I had some with me. The villagers brought out some very rotten eggs. What I did was I managed to change - I mean, it's what every stage magician has done, you know, since time immemorial - I managed to change the line of sight. So I had an egg in my hand and all of a sudden, I got everyone to look for a fraction of a second somewhere else, and I opened my hand and egg wasn't there because the egg was down my back, crushed and slippery. And then they were a bit irritated because they could see that they had lost their witch.

So we left the village in the late afternoon, the three of us, Baloo, the old lady and I and we walked, you know, down the track towards the horizon. It was almost like a Western movie. And we walked two or three villages along the track and deposited the witch - the supposed witch, the old lady - at her relative's house and Baloo and I went on our way. I just remembered the coolness of the air, you know, it takes quite a long time for the air to really cool down, and you can breathe. It feels as if, you know, almost that you can breathe for the first time in your life. And it's the most delicious feeling alive.

WASHINGTON: Tahir Shah wrote a book about his journey through India. It's called "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," and SNAPers - trust me, it is an amazing, magical, stupendous read. I loved it. We'll have a link on our website, snapjudgment.org.

That piece was produced by Anna Sussman, and sound design by Leon Morimoto. In just a moment, SNAP JUDGMENT returns with a story of missed connections you have got to hear to believe. It's all true. When we continue "Behind The Curtain" episode. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.