Sorcerer's Apprentice



Date: 01-15-03

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The Sorcerers Apprentice

As a child, Tahir Shah learned the first secrets of illusion from an Indian magician. Two decades later, he set out in search of this man. Sorcerer's Apprentice is the story of his apprenticeship to one of India's master conjurors and his initiation into the brotherhood of godmen. Learning to unmask illusion as well as practice it, he goes on a journey across the subcontinent, seeking out its miraculous and bizarre underbelly, meeting sadhus, sages, sorcerers, hypnotists, and humbugs. His quest exposes a side of India that most writers never imagine exists.

Book - Softcover - 336 pages



Books: Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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 drought.

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. Sorcerer’s 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 — it’s 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 student’s spirit through gruelling physical trials. Eventually, his pupil’s skin bruised and raw and his temper strained, the magician unlocks the door to his secret laboratory. The miracles of India’s godmen are at last revealed one by one: how to swallow stones, to stop one’s pulse, turn water into wine, and many more. Next, as a cryptic test, Shah is sent to ferret out the secrets of Calcutta’s Underworld — gaining the confidence of the city’s ageing hangman, its baby-renters, and skeleton dealers. Then, just as Shah is making headway, Feroze announces that he’s to pack his bags and set out at once, on a ‘Journey of Observation’.

A quest for the bizarre, wondrous underbelly of the Subcontinent, Shah’s travels lift the veil on the East’s 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, Sorcerer’s Apprentice exposes a side of India that most writers never even imagine exists.


India's brotherhood 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 Bible’s 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 the ground.

How to Eat Glass

Miracle workers prove their powers by performing superhuman feats. What better way to do this than to eat glass? A shard of glass from a crushed (transparent) lightbulb is placed on the tongue, chewed up and swallowed.

The secret of eating glass is banana. Before the magician begins, he eats an ordinary banana. When the ground-up glass is swallowed, it embeds itself in the banana, and passes harmlessly through the digestive tract.

How to Levitate

Every child grows up to stories of flying carpets and levitating sorcerers. The most common form of levitation in India — where an outstretched magician rises from the ground — relies on a pair of ordinary walking sticks.

Covering his body with a dark cloth, the conjurer conceals a round-ended walking stick beside each leg. With his neck tilted backwards, he raises his head and the sticks slowly, parallel to the ground. The curved ends of the sticks give the impression of feet. As the sticks rise it appears that the magician is levitating.

How to Hibernate

In the 1830s, a man named Haridas came to the attention of the Maharajah of Lahore, claiming that he could be buried beneath the ground for forty days. These days most of the hibernations commonly performed by Indian godmen are much shorter than that, usually no longer than a few hours.

The favourite method of hibernation is for the anchorite to stand upside-down with his head buried in the ground. First, his head is wrapped in loosely-woven gauze. A hole is dug in the ground, and the magician places his head in it. Then an assistant fills in the hole. Careful inspection invariably reveals that dry, fine sand is used to fill in around the guru’s head. With practice, virtually anyone can learn to breathe through such sand.

How to Plunge an Arm into Boiling Oil

Godmen purporting to have divine powers believe that overcoming pain proves their divinity. One simple way to do this is to withstand plunging one’s arm in an urn of boiling oil.

As usual, there’s 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 it’s 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.


'Tahir Shah's 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.'


‘Sorcerer's 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 author’s 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. Houdini’s 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.’


'Another great 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.’



‘The most extraordinary work produced in the [travel] genre this year was surely Tahir Shah’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice.This, Shah’s second book, is one of the most surreal — not to say downright incredible — works of travel ever published. It tells of Shah’s 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 Devil’s 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 limit.

Elsewhere, his apprenticeship may have proved merely entertaining, but on the streets of Calcutta, which its Dickensian cast of characters, Shah’s 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… and 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 happened."

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 author’s 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 chronicled here.

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 locked trunks.

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.


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