A Briton of Afghan descent reveals his quest for the secret of India’s greatest conjurers—a journey that takes him through several subcontinental cities and provides a humorous anthropological study of the world of Indian con artists.
Hoping to find Jan, the Indian illusionist who initiated Shah into the world of conjuring as a child, the author starts out in Delhi at Hotel Bliss, a partially submerged dwelling where “the rats that survived the flood could be heard nibbling on the cockroaches in the dank corridor outside my room.” He soon finds Jan, but the magician refuses to teach him and advises him to seek Feroze, the renowned conjurer of Calcutta. The wild goose chase continues on the Farakka Express, a train infamous for harboring its “own breed of brigand,” groups of tricksters who, disguised as shoe cleaners and passengers, maintain a cooperative swindling system. Shah detours into holy Varansi (where the abolition of sati leaves castigated widows praying for death) and on to Calcutta’s streets—where he learns why mothers rent babies to beggars. Poetic descriptions of these ghastly sights and fiendish foes are spiced with a unique, dark humor. After enduring several hardships—including bedbugs, robbery, and the fetid Ganges—Shah finds Feroze and is granted apprenticeship at the magician’s mansion. But Feroze proves to be a tyrannical master and his sadistic training regimen soon has the obedient apprentice thirsting for revenge. As Shah cleverly psychoanalyzes Feroze, he renders a hilarious skit of an underling on the verge of rebellion. Feroze is so intriguing that the narration loses momentum once he orders Shah to go on a solo journey to encounter more “godmen.” Still, Shah’s colorful, lively portraits give each character depth.
A rich, exciting read for the armchair Indiana Jones who longs to learn the secrets of Houdini.