And then one day Maganlal Magicwallah disappeared himself. He simply melted away as it were, like “a cake of ice on a hot July day”. Since nature preordains all humans to melt into nothingness sooner or later, Maganlal’s disappearance probably didn’t deserve the status of an event at all. Yet, an event of sorts it was, an event in fact that bore the semblance of a tragedy. And the tragedy lay in the fact that few who had known him during the days of his visibility cared to notice that he was no longer so.
Not that he had too much claim to visibility. Amongst other things, he had never been visited by material success, even if he was no run of the mill poor man either. There was a painful irony indeed that surrounded his poverty. He was a street juggler by profession, one who carried a shoulder bag full of illusions wherever he went, illusions of riches that could be produced out of thin air. The bag itself was no more than a sheet of black cloth whose four corners were tied together into a large knot and inside which, one suspected from the bulge of the bag, Maganlal carried not only the implements of his trade but the minimal necessities for his daily subsistence too. A bedspread of sorts perhaps, a clothing or two, simple cooking implements and other indispensable artefacts for a poor man’s nomadic existence.
This at least is the way the person has survived in the storehouse of my memories, memories surviving from a period of my life that has lost much of its sharpness, things having mellowed with the passage of time. I was a growing school boy, less than fifteen I suppose, during the days he was a regular visitor to the locality my family inhabited. It was not a posh neighbourhood and large scale entertainment was a luxury beyond the financial reach of the people who inhabited that part of the town. But our imaginations knew no bounds and compensated adequately for the amenities that more fortunate city dwellers were accustomed to.
Whenever Maganlal showed up, my heart began to thump in rhythm with the beat he struck up on his hour glass shaped small pellet drum. He grasped it firmly by its waist in his left hand and deftly twisted it back and forth to produce a variety of sharp pitched percussive extravaganza, di-di-dum, dum-dum, di-di-dum, di-dum, di-dum … It was an unmistakable signal for his fans that the dream maker had arrived. At the same time, his right hand held on to an awe inspiring magic wand, made of an animal bone, with which he drew luscious arabesques in the air, conducting as it were the overture for his magic show.
He also delivered his pet abracadabra phrases, with great aplomb, to attract the crowd that would soon encircle him on the roadside, waiting in impatience for the show to begin. He was clearly not a Bengali and spoke mostly in what I supposed to be Hindi. Even the gobbledygook he started off his show with had an unfamiliar north Indian flavour to it. Or so the growing teenager that I was thought, not having been exposed till then to any language other than my mother tongue, which is Bengali. However, to my great delight, he did sometimes break into his version of pigeon Bengali too. His funny accent tickled my friends and me to no end and we giggled merrily as he smiled back in sportive response.
He was a tall man with a dark sunburnt face, sunken cheeks and penetrating eyes, separated by a prominent nose jutting out of his face above a long, twirling moustache. And his magician’s costume consisted of a once white turban, a long, loose brownish kurta under a black semi-velvety vest, studded with shiny trinkets. Afghani style salwars and a pair of nagras, both of undecipherable colour completed the attire.
He would begin his show by producing a carpet slightly larger than a doormat from inside a secret recess of his charmed bag and spreading it on the pavement under the open sky. Maganlal sat cross-legged before this once colourful carpet, frayed at the edges and bearing telltale evidence of the ravages of time. It was from this same carpet that Maganlal collected the means of his daily survival, coins (and notes on special occasions) contributed by those who could afford. Most of the people who watched Maganlal’s show were free riders though, I having been one of them too, a hazard of trade that all street performers must necessarily endure.
He entertained us mostly in a sitting posture and his repertoire, even though it rarely failed to hold me under a spell, lacked variety. It was more or less the same sequence of items every time. A few card tricks to start with, followed by a flowering plant growing within seconds of the planting of the seed, a dice disappearing from under the closed confines of an inverted cup, only to reappear inside the nose or the ear of some idler or the other, standing close to the spot Maganlal occupied. These, and a few other routine tricks were what he offered us on a regular basis. The repetitive nature of his performance notwithstanding, each of his numbers was greeted with an enthusiastic clapping by the audience and the aforementioned coins. One suspects that quite apart from his regular clients, he managed to attract a handful of newcomers as well during each of his appearances.
He waited till the finale, however, to actually lay his hands on the meagre reward that lay scattered on the mat. And it was only in the fitness of things that he did so, for the last amongst his tricks belonged to a category that stood totally apart from the rest of his programme. Quite clearly, he himself treated it as the most striking amongst his numbers and I was so awestruck by it that on many an occasion, I would arrive late for school just to ensure that I didn’t miss that magnificent climax.
From the viewpoint of audience participation at least, what distinguished the last item from the others was that while claps and coins greeted the magician at the conclusion of each of his tricks, the last one made people react in horror and anguish, dodging their heads in reflex action and rushing for cover in panic, like chickens encountering a cat prowling about on a foraging mission.
It was sheer ballistophobia, i.e. a fear of being struck by a missile, that made Maganlal’s viewers behave this way. The entire trick was quite short lived, from beginning that is till end. Without caring to prepare the audience for an approaching cataclysm, Maganlal would fish out a solid wooden sphere from his bag, slightly smaller in size than a cricket ball, and throw it with full force at the people directly facing him, taking them by total disbelief. While he did so, his face turned fierce, emulating as it were the grimace of a yet to arrive Malcolm Marshall delivering one of his vicious bests. Simultaneously, he would yell out in alarm himself at the lethal potential of his own weapon, with his left index finger drawing the attention of the crowd towards the path being traversed by the missile.
The audience clearly saw the ball spring out of Maganlal’s hand, but then, to their stupefaction, it would disappear into thin air! It took a few seconds of course for realization to dawn, but once it did, everyone present sighed in relief. The same people that had felt physically threatened moments earlier arrived back to the congregation in small groups, wearing their lives’ silliest smiles on their faces. People standing closer to Maganlal would invariably burst out into laughter at the discomfiture of those who had been made fools of by the magician, and Maganlal himself laughed the most.
The show being over now, Maganlal collected his money, packed his stuff inside the make shift bag and went about his way. The audience too dispersed one by one, some smiling and some shaking their heads incredulously.
I had witnessed the show several times in the past and, after being deceived every time, I ensured that I positioned myself, as far as possible, behind Maganlal the next time I witnessed him. I was primarily motivated by a desire for self-preservation I have to admit, but, interestingly enough, it was from this vantage position that I finally managed to unravel the mystery of the disappearing ball trick.
As it happened, after watching his show one day, I concluded that it was too late for arriving in school even by my questionable standards of discipline. There was a reasonable possibility that my class teacher would send me back home with a strong note of admonition to be attended to by my parents. I would of course have to explain my absence from school the following day, but when one is young, tomorrows lie an eternity away. There was no way I could have arrived back home at that odd hour either. I decided therefore to follow Maganlal from a safe distance, as any free rider would, waiting for an opportunity to watch him perform at his next destination.
I was lucky, as lucky in fact as Maganlal himself. A few streets and around half an hour later, a little child ran out of her house and called out to Maganlal. “Come to our house Magic-wallah,” she cried out in excitement, “my mother wants you to come over.” Clearly, this was an invitation for a call show, so a fee would be negotiated, thereby guaranteeing a floor to Maganlal’s earning for that day. Soon he was there. It was a large old house opening into a portico. The lady of the house didn’t haggle too much in the interest of her obviously pampered child and Maganlal began the show. This was not exactly an open air show, since he sat under a shade this time. But the area was large enough and the kind lady didn’t mind idle passersby to gather around Maganlal to watch the show. The little girl and her mother of course stood at the top of the stairs leading into the house, maintaining a safe distance from the common folk, including their house servants and a semi-school dropout boy who had little use for the book filled satchel he carried on his back.
I watched the man totally engrossed as on other occasions, but there was a difference this time. Somewhere deep inside my subconscious, a desire had reared its head. The desire to become a magician! I was overpowered by a sense of commitment that I had never known in the past. A desperate need to master the art of wizardry took possession of my soul and I already saw myself attired and looking every bit like Maganlal, not excluding the twirling moustache. A saw him perform for the first time, not in my role as an involved member of the audience, but as a potential student of black art. My perspective had undergone total metamorphosis and I think this was the first time I became aware of a truth, even if with a touch of uncertainly. The only chasm that separates a learner from learning is the desire to learn. There is absolutely nothing on earth that is unachievable if one seeks it with total devotion. Many years later my half digested realization received a confirmation of sorts when I came across an engraving on the walls of the Dakshineshwar Temple in Calcutta that said: “Oh Wise Rama! There is absolutely nothing in the universe that cannot be attained by means of tension free commitment.”
On this particular day of course, I don’t believe I thought all that clearly. I was just a young boy who had vowed to find out where the flying ball disappeared. A piece of wisdom had dawned on me, however. If I wanted to pick up the secret underlying Maganlal’s trick, the first thing that was essential for me to do was to force myself not to look towards anything he wished to draw my attention to. But this was not an easy task at all. I had to completely abstract myself from the words he spoke and keep track of what the rest of him was doing.
I found no success, unfortunately, with the tricks that preceded the last one and stood crestfallen by the time he produced the wooden ball from bag. Even before he began to talk, I knew that his left hand would soon point straight ahead towards empty space, a direction towards which the ball will certainly not travel.
I gritted my teeth and told myself, “No, no, no, don’t let his left hand distract you. Watch what he doesn’t want you to watch at all. His RIGHT HAND! His right hand alone, the one that will fling the ball towards the unsuspecting audience.” And this was possibly the first examination that I managed to pass. I daresay, I had possibly passed this test with flying colours.
I stared with rapt attention at his right hand therefore and was rewarded by a truly wondrous sight. Maganlal was a supremely skilful athlete, one who could make many a sports person turn green with jealousy. Not for once did he look at the right hand that held the ball. He looked straight ahead and made a violent show of throwing the ball. Despite the circular motion of his arm though, he didn’t throw the ball at anybody at all. Instead, with unimaginable dexterity, he threw the ball vertically upwards only a foot or so above his head. As he did so, the palm of his right hand remained open to catch it back during its descent. He took a perfect catch without once taking his eyes away from the audience. His left hand kept gesticulating all the while that his right hand remained rock still waiting for the ball to descend with clockwork precision.
Things happened with lightning speed. The ball retrieved, the right hand descended with practised accuracy and pushed the ball through the open end of his sack which he must have kept ready for the purpose when he produced the ball for the first time! All this while everyone else was staring where his left hand pointed. But, as intended by the magician, there was nothing to be found there at all!
I smiled with the others once the show was over, but not stupidly anymore. I smiled wisely. For once I had not flunked an exam. I was a success in Maganlal’s school. I did not commit the mistake of screaming to the crowd of course that I had seen him through. Instead, my heart was full of admiration for the skill he demonstrated.
An athlete as well as an actor he was. All the noise he made and the attraction he drew with his left hand was intended to make people look the wrong way. But the athlete, by ensuring that each and every person actually saw the ball leave his hand, lent support to the actor’s empty harangue.
For many a week that followed, I tried to practise Maganlal’s trick with a rubber ball and might have even achieved a semblance of success. My worried parents, needless to say, had little appreciation for whatever absurd exercise I was engaged in with the ball, especially since I was not playing with the ball outside home. Instead, I was sitting all the time on the bed in front of a mirror and throwing the ball up and catching it back without taking my eyes off the mirror.
Soon enough the nonsense was put a stop to. A severe spanking followed in fact when one day my mother discovered that I was trying to solve a sum holding the pencil between the big toe and the second of my right foot. Maganlal had given me ideas I guess. But my mother wouldn’t be convinced about the merits of working out sums with my right foot when my right hand was not missing.
“Come and behold,” she said to the rest of the household with unconcealed sarcasm, “he can’t pass his tests with a pencil in his hand. So he is trying out his foot!”
When I think of her comment today, I can’t help smiling at the poor woman’s feeling of utter helplessness at her son’s refusal to fall in line with social norms. She was desperate and employed the only trick that came in handy. A thorough beating!
I have no more than a vague recollection of how long I kept following Maganlal. But follow I did, though I hardly know if he ever noticed me. My Maganlal chase did reap some sort of a harvest of course. I picked up many of his other tricks too by following the basic theory I had propounded for myself. Sometimes I managed to entertain my friends with these tricks, though I never tried out a public show of the vanishing ball trick. That needed a lot more practice than I could afford in my hideouts.
Times change irretrievably. Interests alter at a wild pace at that impressionable age. Magic, followed by soccer, cricket, a brief tryst with the stage and then the most absorbing of all hobbies, chasing girls, kept me busy through my adolescence. For a good part of this time, I am sure Maganlal and his tribe were performing in the streets of Calcutta. They could have wild admirers too, but quite unknown to me, I had ceased to be a member of the crowd.
This was surely unfortunate. Even though I had cracked Maganlal’s disappearing wooden ball trick with considerable success, I had failed hopelessly to figure out what he did to make himself disappear the way he did, i.e. lock, stock and barrel. And, to tell you the truth, I suspect that very few who had loved watching his shows had found the time to be present for his swan song.
And it is precisely the uneventfulness of it in the eyes of the very same people whom he had entertained during his visible days that lends to his disappearance the semblance of an event shrouded in gloom, even if one cannot be entirely sure if the world at large would subscribe to this viewpoint.