By some coincidence, I had just finished reading William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s biography of the magician and escapologist Harry Houdini (The Secret Life of Houdini) when I saw a photograph of P.C. Sorcar (Jr), India’s greatest magician, waving at his daughter. There was nothing particularly unusual about this except that Sorcar’s daughter was riding a bicycle at the time. And the bike was riding on water, not solid road.
Magic or miracle? Sorcar shows off as his daughter, Maneka, cycles on water in Kolkata on 12 April.
The photograph, which appeared in many Indian papers, was part of the publicity for the Sorcar family’s latest event: The gravity-defying feat of riding bicycles on a pool of water deep enough to drown a man. The trick will probably have been executed by the time you read this, but it is only the latest in a series of stunts (making an entire train disappear, for instance) that Sorcar has performed all over India.
But my interest in the Sorcar family’s trick — and the link to Houdini — lay in a childhood memory. In 1966, when I was a small boy, Sai Baba-fever was at its zenith. These days the baba prefers to talk about his charitable work but in that era, he was best known for his miracles. Could he really materialize Omega watches from thin air? Why did sacred ash suddenly tumble from his portraits? Could he really raise the dead? Why were his magic watches always Swiss-made? Did they lack watch-making technology in Puttaparthi? (Okay, I made the last one up.)
It was against this backdrop that a man called Hatha Yogi presented himself at the office of R.K. (Russy) Karanjia, editor of the Blitz news tabloid, which had repeatedly denounced Sai Baba as a fraud and asked such questions as: If he has such magical powers, why doesn’t he produce a fistful of wheat rather than an Omega watch or a gold ring? (This was a time of food shortages in India.)
According to reliable eyewitnesses, Hatha Yogi first levitated off the sofa and then told Karanjia that he could walk on water. If Blitz was willing to lay its scepticism aside, he would demonstrate this feat for its readers. Karanjia, a confirmed sceptic (at that stage at least; by the next decade he was wearing a Sai Baba ring), asked what Hatha Yogi thought of Sai Baba. The yogi said that the baba was a terrible fellow. But this appeared to be no more than professional rivalry because he did not dispute that Sai Baba had some powers though naturally, he said, they were far inferior to his own.
Karanjia took the bait. Blitz hyped Hatha Yogi’s imminent defiance of the laws of gravity, funds were raised from readers through public subscription and a massive tank of water erected in a Mumbai suburb. TV crews from all over the world flew in and large crowds gathered at the spot.
On the day in question, the yogi took one step into the water — and sank to the bottom.
Later, he was to say that Sai Baba had put a curse on him but by then nobody was interested. Hatha Yogi was denounced as a fraud and vanished into obscurity — while Sai Baba’s following grew and grew.
I have never been able to reconstruct quite what happened. Karanjia was convinced, till just before the mighty splash, that the yogi, while no god, had yogic powers that would allow him to defy gravity. Hatha Yogi’s own motives are more mysterious. If he knew that he could not walk on water, then why did he claim otherwise? The spectacle did him no good at all. In fact, it destroyed him.
But because I had been so fascinated by the saga as a child, I wondered if it was actually possible for a magician to recreate the feat Hatha Yogi claimed he could perform. The Sorcar family’s trick suggests that a variation (cycling rather than walking) is certainly possible.
Which takes us back to Houdini. Most of us think of him as a master escapologist, which, of course, he was. But he was also an accomplished stage magician who took his name (he was born Erik Weisz) from the legendary French magician Robert Houdin.
In Houdini’s era (the early part of the 20th century), America was in the grips of a wave of spirit mediums who claimed they could communicate with the dead. Apparently, there was a spirit world that existed in parallel with our own. Dead people joined this world and a lucky few (the mediums) were allowed to talk to them.
The mediums not only offered to speak to dead relatives but demonstrated physical manifestations — the spirits would move tables, ring trumpets, take the form of ghostly ectoplasm and even, for a price, have sex with willing clients.
Houdini recognized the mediums for the frauds they were and he made it his mission to expose them. In city after city, he turned up at séances, often in disguise, and exposed the trickery behind the ghostly manifestations. Then, he began to reproduce the tricks the mediums claimed as proof of their spiritual powers. In every case — mind reading, materialization, etc. — Houdini did the tricks more effectively than any of the mediums had ever managed. They were all frauds, he said, failed magicians, seeking to con an unsuspecting public.
Each time I point to the parallels with Sai Baba, I am vilified by angry devotees of the Afro-head. But I do wonder why a selfless Indian magician does not take it upon himself or herself to do a Houdini on India’s godmen. The closest we came to it was when P.C. Sorcar entered Sai Baba’s ashram in disguise, did better tricks than him and was thrown out. Sorcar hasn’t tried it again but any young magician eager to make his name will win instant recognition by exposing our godmen.
The truth is that every single “miracle” performed by India’s swamis can be reproduced — with more skill — by any moderately talented magician.
And now that Sorcar has shown us what Hatha Yogi should have done 42 years ago, even that bridge has been crossed.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org