INDIA is a land of
miracles, where godmen and mystics mesmerise audiences with wondrous feats of magic. In
great cities and remote villages alike, these mortal incarnations of the divine turn rods
into snakes, drink acid, eat glass, hibernate and even levitate. Some live as kings, their
devotees numbering hundreds of thousands;while others virtually destitute
wander from village to village pledging to curethe sick, or bring rain in times of
As a child in rural
England, Tahir Shah learned the first secrets of illusion from an Indian magician. More
than two decades later he set out in search of this conjurer, the ancestral guardian of
his great grandfather's tomb. Sorcerers Apprentice is the story of his quest for,
and initiation into, the brotherhood of Indian godmen. Learning along the way from sadhus,
sages, avatars and sorcerers its a journey which took him from Calcutta to
Madras, from Bangalore to Bombay, in search of the miraculous.
In Calcutta, Shah is
apprenticed to Hakim Feroze, a tyrannical master of illusion, who sets out to crush his
students spirit through gruelling physical trials. Eventually, his pupils skin
bruised and raw and his temper strained, the magician unlocks the door to his secret
laboratory. The miracles of Indias godmen are at last revealed one by one: how to
swallow stones, to stop ones pulse, turn water into wine, and many more. Next, as a
cryptic test, Shah is sent to ferret out the secrets of Calcuttas Underworld
gaining the confidence of the citys ageing hangman, its baby-renters, and skeleton
dealers. Then, just as Shah is making headway, Feroze announces that hes to pack his
bags and set out at once, on a Journey of Observation.
A quest for the
bizarre, wondrous underbelly of the Subcontinent, Shahs travels lift the veil on the
Easts most puzzling miracles. The Journey of Observation leads him to a cornucopia
of characters. Illusionists all, some are immune to snake venom, others speak through
oracles, or have the power to transform ordinary water into petrol. Along the way Shah
witnesses a duel of miracles, crosses paths with an impoverished billionaire,
and even meets a part-time god. Revealing confidence tricks and ingenious scams,
Sorcerers Apprentice exposes a side of India that most writers never even imagine
MAGIC OF THE GODMEN
of Godmen are experts of the miraculous. Look beyond their sublime showmanship and you
glance into a world of illusion... How to Turn a Rod into a Snake Regarded as perhaps the
first stage illusion ever developed, the rod-to-snake deception dates back to the
Bibles Old Testament. It is commonly performed across India by godmen. The sorcerer
casts his staff to the floor. As the audience watches aghast, it turns into a serpent and
slithers away. The secret of the rod-to-snake illusion is that there is no rod.
The harmless serpent
is pulled straight by the conjurer, who applies strong pressure to the centre of its head.
The reptile goes into shock rigid as a rod only reviving once it is cast to
Godmen purporting to
have divine powers believe that overcoming pain proves their divinity. One simple way to
do this is to withstand plunging ones arm in an urn of boiling oil.
theres a secret involved. It is lime juice. Before the oil is heated, a cup of lime
juice is poured into it. Long before the oil is hot, the juice boils, sending bubbles
cascading to the surface giving the impression that its actually the oil
which is boiling.
Praise & Reviews
'Tahir Shah has a
rare talent for interpreting giving the feel of India, distilling its
uniqueness. Sorcerer's Apprentice nourishes a realistic hope that when all other countries
have lost their identities India will remain unhomogenized by globalization. This book is
not sentimental, or romantic, or condemning or condescending just perceiving.
Sorcerer's Apprentice is surely the liveliest account to be written about an area of India
so few of us have had the good fortune to visit.'
Apprentice is a truly fantastic journey into the million facets of magical India... This
book is a hymn to man's imagination.
This is a most
engaging book, and a very funny one. Tahir Shah has a genius for surreal travelling,
finding or creating situations and people. The India described here is not
to be found by any tourist, though tourists may usefully read this book to help them
interpret baffling events. This India does not resemble anything I have read or seen on
television. The other great bonus is the authors exposure of "magic" and
miracles. Every sort of scam or trick or illusion is explained here, as he travels from
guru to avatar to magician. People who like being amazed by the arcane should avoid this
book. Magicians are not going to thank Tahir Shah, but then they are probably safe, since
people so badly want to believe. There is an incident here where a particularly
meretricious holy man performing tricks, seen as miracles, is exposed as a fraudster, but
the audience continue to gasp and marvel as if the exposure had never happened.
Houdinis feats are explained too. Is nothing sacred? No. I do most heartily
recommend this book, informative as well as so attractive and entertaining. A page turner
if there ever was one.
journey of discovery by Tahir Shah which has produced a fascinating book, getting right to
the heart of India.'
A great book.
Funny and often gripping. Packed with information.
SIR RANULPH FIENNES
extraordinary work produced in the [travel] genre this year was surely Tahir Shahs
Sorcerers Apprentice.This, Shahs second book, is one of the most surreal
not to say downright incredible works of travel ever published. It tells of
Shahs apprenticeship as a magician at the hands of the sadistic Calcutta master
illusionist Hakim Feroze.
Feroze, who runs a
tortuous regime, forces Shah to suffer such indignities as digging a hole 2ft deep using a
dessert spoon, learning by heart huge chunks of scientific textbooks, plunging his hands
into molten lead and eating coal-tar soap, Feroze dispatches Shah on a "journey of
observation". There are moments of comic brilliance and some telling insights into
the more sickly aspects of modern India. If it occasionally feels all too wondrous to be
credible, well, who really cares?
After an able
start with Beyond the Devils Teeth, Tahir Shah has found an outlet for his writing
skills in a book that is magical in its delivery. The tale begins with his boyhood
befriending of an Indian conjurer, which leads him years later to the ordered chaos that
is Calcutta, and the tutorship of Hakim Feroze a character as enigmatic as he is
merciless. Having begged this legendary magician to teach him the art of illusion, Shah,
as a result, finds himself the subject of bizarre ordeals that test his commitment to the
apprenticeship may have proved merely entertaining, but on the streets of Calcutta, which
its Dickensian cast of characters, Shahs account of his training develops into a
sharp exposť of Indian life. Feroze dispatches him with orders to seek out "insider
information", which leads him to encounters with all levels of Indian life: from
hangman and bodysnatcher, to guru and businessman. Together with an Artful
Dodger companion he heads off on a journey of discovery around the country
I gladly followed him on every page. Shah has conjured up a bewitching tale, that may
itself be an illusion, but nonetheless had me spellbound throughout.
Shazam! No more
illusions Tahir Shah's first book, Beyond the Devil's Teeth, describing mad landscapes and
surreal events, had readers muttering: "Now come on! This couldn't have
But it was all true.
Faced with mountebanks, murderers, thieves and madmen, most of us are indignant or run
away, but not this traveller. He meets whatever chance throws in his way with a smiling
and apparently artless readiness, and is not above matching effrontery and guile.
This book's genesis
was the arrival of a vast and hairy Pushtun at the authors father's house. This
visitor was the keeper of the tomb of the great warlord and mystic Jan Fishan Khan, an
ancestor of the author's. He had dreamt the boy was in danger of falling into a well, and
so he had felt compelled to come himself to warn him. "Rest assured," he barked,
"that I shall not stir from this place until the threat is vanquished." With
which he laid his pallet outside Tahir's bedroom door, where he spent his nights on guard,
while his days were spent instructing the 11-year old boy how to eat crushed electric
lightbulbs, plunge his arm into boiling oil and other magical arts. Weeks passed. Then a
chemical trick went badly wrong, blackening the faces of his audience, and Hafiz Jan
hastily departed back to his vigil at the sacred tomb.
Twenty years later,
Tahir Shah decided to resume his study of magic under Hafiz Jan. From him he went from one
magician, godman, guru, saint, to another, across an India it is safe to say that no
well-conducted tourist or even amiable hippie has ever glimpsed.
In an eating house in
Calcutta, a brilliant cook transforms decaying vegetables salvaged from refuse heaps into
food poor people come for miles to enjoy. There is a processing factory where corpses that
have escaped the ghats and have been thrown into a field to feed dogs and crows are
transformed into nice, hygienic skeletons for scientists and colleges. An official hangman
stays awake for nights before an execution, praying for him or her, and his pride in his
work and the compassionate devices he uses to ease the criminal into another life are
This kind of
experience was prescribed by a master magician who took Tahir Shah on as an apprentice and
subjected him to horrific ordeals a process caricaturing certain mystic initiation
rites. The trouble was, Tahir found himself on the road to masochism, beginning to enjoy
swallowing and regurgitating potatoes and stones (a magician must have control of his
stomach muscles), shifting soil with a teaspoon, swallowing soap to achieve high
temperatures and a thousand other indignities.
Restored by the use
of the Western critical eye, he set off on further adventures, accompanied by a child
"with a salesman's tongue, a forger's fingers, a gambler's nerve" who spoke
faultless English, passable Italian and German, and could communicate in a dozen Indian
languages. He insisted on teaching the author how to make beauty products from lavatory
bleach, used tea leaves and grease scraped from door hinges; concoct aphrodisiacs from
mango skins and suppositories from soap; and the art of selling dirty drain water as
Ganges holy water.
In India there is a
craze for the Guinness Book of Records and unpleasant and difficult feats of all kinds
were being attempted, in the hope of achieving immortality, by many of the people they
met. One fifth of all Guinness mail comes from India, and the book is published in four
Indian languages. One record is for inscribing a grain of rice with 1,749 characters. Who
can blame Indians for confusing fact with miracle with this kind of thing going on?
This very funny book
is for lovers of the picaresque, but while laughing, you soon realise how thoroughly it
debunks all magic and magicians, godmen, gurus and phoney avatars. Not an illusion
remains, not even Uri Geller's, but I confess to a pang on seeing that great showman
Houdini brought down. There is something pretty ignominious in discovering that he was so
bored, he took a book with him to pass the time while awestruck and anxious crowds waited,
imagining him struggling with straitjackets and heavy chains inside submerged barrels and
But magicians need
not worry. Here is the tale of a famous holy man whose miracles include making rain and
cooking rice without a fire. In India a vigorous rationalist movement aims to rescue the
populace from superstition. Four rationalists arrived during a session where miracles were
coming thick and fast, and they explained them all, while the holy one, wiser than they
about human nature, only sat and smiled. The exposť over, the crowds returned to their
horrific diseases to be cured.
The funniest scene is
a contest between magicians, in public, outdoing each other in chicanery. Even the
crowning feat, levitation, turned out to be fakery. Shame.
DORIS LESSING, THE