Travelling by train from Calcutta to Assam in 1979, John Zubrzycki found himself unavoidably delayed at a small, out of the way station. Wandering into a dusty square, he came across one of India’s most confounding mysteries. Surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers, an old man was helping a small boy clamber into a cane basket just big enough to hold him.
Chanting incantations, the man reached for a large sword, which, without warning, he started plunging into the basket: ‘Blood covered the sword, and the boy’s screams were terrifying.’ There seemed no way, Zubrzycki writes, that the boy could have avoided the blade. A blanket was then thrown over the basket. A few moments later, the blanket and the lid of the basket were removed and the boy appeared with the sword through his neck. With the hilt in one hand and the tip of the blade in the other, the old man lifted the boy off the ground, presenting him to the astonished – and, one imagines, distinctly queasy-feeling – audience. ‘When sufficient baksheesh had been collected, the boy was lowered back into the basket’ and the blanket was thrown over it. Shortly afterwards the boy emerged completely unscathed.
Zubrzycki’s encounter with one of the staples of Indian magic provides an enticing introduction to this hugely entertaining book. As he notes, in India the lines between magic in the way we understand it – as a trick or illusion designed to confound and entertain – and religion