Photo by Serge Bouvet
A disillusioned American magician rediscovers his sense of wonder in one of New Delhi's poorest neighborhoods.
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I felt everyone watching us. The children sat and looked at us warily, having momentarily stopped their hunt through the trash. Two men broke off their conversation on the steps of a building across the road and now stared silently in our direction. Amit stared back. A woman carrying a large bundle of yellow cloth on her head crossed the road and then looked sharply up, noticing us, startled, before hurrying off. All around, I felt the day-to-day life in Shadipur Depot stop and take note of our arrival as we stood on the corner.
“There,” said Amit a moment later. “That must be him.” A man walked toward us from one of the side streets. He wore a bright yellow shirt and a gray vest that looked out of place in our burned-out surroundings. He looked more like a dad at a soccer game than a great magician.
“You are Nate?”
“My name is Ishamudin Khan. Welcome to my home.”
Ishamudin led us down a path into the slum and I became lost almost immediately. The path was narrow and seemed to lead through houses as often as it led around them—we crossed a small courtyard, turned down a side passage, walked through someone’s kitchen, turned onto another side street that also served as a hallway through one of the buildings, and descended a long staircase that somehow both started and ended at ground level.
The narrow strip of sky overhead vanished frequently as we passed through tunnels, doorways, hallways, and buildings. We passed a monkey chained to a wall and sleeping on a pile of cloth, and a man standing next to an upright oil barrel, working on a fire. We kept going. I stood to one side as a young boy—a toddler, really, no more than three years old—staggered down the hall carrying a baby. The two were practically the same size. The older boy smiled at me as he passed, carefully gripping his baby brother as he stepped across an open drain in the floor. They turned the corner and were gone.
We stopped when Ishamudin announced that we had reached his house. He opened a door and led us inside a dark, low-ceilinged room. It was filled with magicians.
Ishamudin introduced me to the group; then I sat silently as they spoke to one another. A plate of potato chips sat in the center. I would learn later that this was an extravagant gesture of welcome—potato chips for the American visitor—but at the moment I didn’t know what to think. Amit was clearly uncomfortable. This made me uncomfortable.
Finally Ishamudin said, “I understand that you are a magician?”
“Could you show us one of your tricks?”
Of course. They wanted to see if I was any good.
In America, entrance to the various clubs and societies of magicians is sometimes contingent on a performance, to demonstrate that you’ve already put in the requisite time and commitment to the craft, and this group—quite rightly—wanted to verify the same. The potato chips indicated that their hospitality would be offered either way, but I wanted to talk to them about magic.
I gathered the group in a circle and removed the spool of thread from my backpack. Some illusions rely on subterfuge or technology, some rely on psychological subtlety and a mastery of the ability to manipulate the attention of the audience, but some illusions rely on nothing more than pure sleight-of-hand technique that cannot be faked, purchased, or obtained by any other means than standing in front of a practice mirror and putting in months and often years of work. I didn’t know whether I could amaze this group of magicians, but I wanted them to know that I had chops.
I broke a three-foot section of thread from the spool and held it at my fingertips so that everyone could see. They were watching very closely. Slowly and deliberately, I broke the piece of thread into four or five smaller pieces, handing each piece to a different magician to demonstrate that the thread was actually broken.
When I had performed this for the teacher at the ashram in Rishikesh he had watched sharply, trying to catch any false move. But I felt a warmth from this group and remembered that magicians love magic tricks more than anyone else.
“Roll the pieces into a small ball,” I said. Amit helped with the translation, and one of the magicians collected the broken pieces and rolled them together.
“Watch this.” I retrieved the ball of broken thread and pulled slowly on two of the loose ends. The magicians began to smile.
As I pulled on the string, the ball continued to unroll and within seconds they saw that the thread had been completely restored. Laughter, applause, handshakes, pats on the back. I’m sure that any of them could have performed a similar feat easily, but my execution had been flawless and their reserve fell away.
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We spoke for an hour about magic, first in generalities about our careers and then about specific illusions. One of the tricks in my show has its roots in a traditional piece of magic from India and they watched—with amusement, I think—as I demonstrated my version of an illusion that has been handed down from father to son in their tribe for millennia. I passed out a handful of sewing needles for inspection and unwound another length of thread. After gathering the needles I placed them on my tongue, closed my mouth, and swallowed. In my show this moment elicits groans, gasps, shrieks of disgust and dismay. Here, nothing.
No response. I opened my mouth to show the needles were gone and they just waited. One man nodded politely. The same thing happened when I swallowed the length of sewing thread—no response. It was only when I pulled the thread back out of my mouth—now with all of the needles threaded along its length, dangling and glinting in the light—that they responded with any sort of enthusiasm.
“It’s good,” one of them offered—a young man about my own age who spoke no English but communicated with me through Amit. “You have good technique.”
“Would you like to see how we do it?”
I didn’t know whether I could amaze this group of magicians, but I wanted them to know that I had chops.
I sat on the roof of Ishamudin’s house across from an eighty-two-year-old man who was about to breathe fire. He opened his mouth to show that it was empty. Then he closed his eyes and exhaled smoke through his nose and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. The smoke hung lazily in the unmoving air and joined the smells of shit, filth, and garbage that rose from the ground and the open sewers and clung to the slum like flies on rotting food. The sun had been high in the sky for hours, days, years, and the bricks under my feet radiated a deep, ancient heat, as though they had never completely cooled from the kiln. The T-shirt I’d worn for the last month stuck to my back, thin and soaking. I was hot and thirsty, but at the moment none of this mattered.
Word of this performance had spread throughout the neighborhood and twenty or thirty people had crammed onto this patio to watch Ishamudin’s father come out of retirement for one last show. At the sight of the smoke everyone jostled for a better view—children on shoulders craned their necks and leaned left and right for an opening in the crowd. Older children perched on the wall above like a row of pigeons. Across the alley, neighbors from the building next door hung from their windows. Everywhere you looked you could see people straining and shifting to see him, but when he raised his hand the entire audience stopped moving. Everyone was silent. Even the children were still. We were watching a sensation.
Another wisp of smoke rose involuntarily from his nostrils.
He winced. The old man seemed more like a prophet than a magician and appeared frail in his white coat and turban, until our eyes met. Then he did not look frail. He stared at me as if to say, “You want to see magic? This is magic.” He raised his head back and up and inhaled a great quantity of air. For a moment, everything in the world stopped moving. I could hear my own heartbeat. Then the magician exhaled and there was fire everywhere. One, two, three flashes of flame from the old man’s mouth, bright, hot, and painful. I felt as if I had stepped into the pages of a story. It didn’t look like a conjuror’s trick or a sideshow stunt from the circus. It looked like magic.
For a moment, the audience was transfixed—stunned, reeling—and then there was a great deal of shouting. The children jumped and squealed and turned to one another, laughing and surprised, but the loudest reaction came from the adults.
Behind me I heard Amit booming “Oh! Oh wow!” I could not stop laughing. The man was a street performer and this was ostensibly meant as entertainment but there was nothing trivial about it—fear and joy mixed and taken straight back, all at once, so you felt you were going to fall over. The magician stood there looking at us. The ferocity was gone now, and he didn’t look like an old man anymore. He looked like a ten-year-old, eyes bright and full of wonder.
One after another the street magicians of Shadipur Depot performed the feats they have perfected and preserved from generation to generation. When Ishamudin’s father did their version of the needle illusion he used no thread, no needles and, as far as I could tell, no illusion. His mouth was empty—unassailably empty—I know how this sort of thing works—and then he closed his eyes and regurgitated mouthful after mouthful of needle-sharp thorns, three inches long. They kept coming, and each time he proved their sharpness by taking one of the thorns and sticking it deliberately into the palm of his hand. By the end, his hand looked like a pincushion and a pile of thorns rested on the ground at his feet. I was beside myself.
I saw rope magic, and water produced from an empty bowl, and then Ishamudin’s son Altamas took the stage and together they performed the resurrection illusion. The crowd had grown considerably since the start of the performance, and when they finished, the entire neighborhood broke out into applause.
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“Are you glad you came?” Altamas asked as the magicians packed up their equipment and the party moved back downstairs for a feast, and I said that I was. He was ten or eleven, I think, and spoke flawless English. Like all of the children I had met in this extended family, he treated Andy, Amit, and me with impeccable courtesy and kindness. The contrast between this modern, educated, articulate boy and the ruin of his surroundings was hard to understand. As he helped pack away the props, a rubber cobra fell from a basket, and he noticed as I flinched and stepped backward.
“You are afraid of snakes?” he asked, picking it up and putting it back in the basket.
I nodded. Altamas peered at me, face tight with concern.
“Have you been bitten?”
“No. I’m just afraid of them.”
“You have no need to fear,” he said. “I have been bitten but I am not afraid.” He held up his arm and showed me a scar—two white puncture marks and a twisted line connecting the dots and running three inches toward his elbow. “This is where the cobra’s fangs went in,” he said, “and this is from the knife to release the poison.”
“Wait, you were bitten by a cobra?”
“Oh yes,” he said, still concerned, as though my fear of snakes was the most important piece of this conversation.
“And to prevent the poison from reaching the rest of your body you cut it out with a knife?”
He nodded, and two other young boys held up arms with similar scars. “But you have no need to fear,” he said again. “It’s okay. Also,” he said, and looked at me strangely, “this is only a rubber cobra.”
He stared at me as if to say, “You want to see magic? This is magic.”
Ishamudin led us downstairs where he showed me his computer, glowing incongruously in the darkened room. In 1995 Ishamudin gained some notoriety for creating a working version of the infamous Indian Rope Trick, or at least a variation of it.
His performance was featured on TV networks around the world, and this exposure allowed him to bring his show to Europe and Japan. He used the money from this modest success to wire his home with both electricity and Internet access—a feat far more amazing than any of the magic I had just seen—and children from all over the neighborhood came here to learn. “I learned English by radio and television, but this is better,” he said, pointing to the computer. “Here you can learn science and math, too.”
“Is there a school?” I asked.
“Yes, there is a school. But we want them also to learn in the home.”
Ishamudin went to speak with his wife about dinner. Amit and Andy were still on the roof, and for a moment I sat alone on the floor in Ishamudin’s living room.
I thought about how many people must see this slum from the train as it rushes through Shadipur Depot station on the way into the city. It is one slum among many on the way to downtown New Delhi—how many notice it at all? And of those who do look up from their phones or their newspapers and see the crumpled ruins of brick buildings and the burning drifts of garbage, how many know that in this dying neighborhood there lives a family of magicians who endure this ruined place and rise in all ways above it? No one on that train could guess that in one of these buildings a group of young boys and girls huddle around a computer screen in the evenings to learn about biology, and astronomy, and evolution.
And if this unexpected richness hidden just behind the illusion of the mundane is here, it could be anywhere. And if it could be anywhere, then my assumptions about most things are almost certainly inadequate. And because my assumptions govern every decision I make and every judgment I pass and form the fundamental worldview from which every single thought, action, and impulse in my life has originated, then all I know for certain is that I am lost. If lives like that can grow in a place like this, then I know nothing. The thing about certainty is that it only takes a tiny crack to bring it all crashing down. And this is not a tiny crack. This family’s existence in the middle of a wasteland is a miracle.
The thing about certainty is that it only takes a tiny crack to bring it all crashing down.
An hour after the performance we all sat together in front of a five-course meal prepared by Ishamudin’s wife with a hot plate and a one-burner stove. Its aromas, tastes, and sheer abundance drew a firm border between this room and the neighborhood on the other side of the bare concrete walls. Outside, the slum seethed under the late-afternoon sun, agitated and decomposing.
Inside, we were somewhere else entirely. Inside we had been transported by the warmth of this hospitality and I was embraced like a returning son, long lost and joyfully recovered.
“You have traveled a long way and are welcome here,” they seemed to say. “Eat and share with us. Sit and rest. Today this is your home, too.” Piles of rice, naan, a dark orange curry, and a hot green sauce with paneer, steaming and perfect, rested in the center of our circle, which expanded to accommodate a steady stream of visitors who arrived to join the celebration. Cousins, neighbors, and fellow magicians had heard about the visiting American—the American magician —and wanted to see this curiosity from the other side of the world. We had nothing in common except magic, but that was enough.
Excerpted from Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing. © Nate Staniforth, 2018.
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