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Author's travel accounts in India.
He Who Scatters Souls
We failed to realise it was an omen when it came. Sunshine streamed down through an almost cloudless indigo sky, warming the dew-covered lawn. The gardener had fished out his dilapidated machine for the first mow of the summer. The great yew tree, basking in sunlight, threw long shadows across the grass. Squirrels dashed about in the monkey-puzzle and copper beech. A bank of azaleas perfumed the early-morning air. Then, quite suddenly, hailstones the size of conkers showered down from above, shattering the peace. A lone cloud in an unending blue sky had spawned the freak bombardment, which persisted for about three minutes. And, as the last nuggets of ice struck the lawn, the doorbell echoed the arrival of an unexpected visitor.
My family's home in an isolated English village was not unused to bizarre guests. The house was a magnet for the peculiar. One could never be certain whom the next to arrive would be. But, even by normal unpredictable standards, the man standing at the porch, waiting to be welcomed, was anything but typical.
The first thing that struck me about the towering Pashtun was his extraordinary bristliness. An immense bush of woolly beard masked much of his face. Hanging like an ink-black inverted candy-floss, it fanned out in all directions. His hands, ears, and the nostrils of his hooked beak of a nose were also thick with waxy hair. In the few places where the skin was bald — the fingertips, palms and below the eyes — it was creased and scaly as an armadillo's snout. The sable eyes spoke ofhonesty and the furrowed forehead hinted of an anxious past.
The giant bear of a man teaselled the froth of beard outwards with a scarlet plastic comb, and dusted down his filthy khaki salwaar kameez, shirt and baggy trousers — the preferred outfit in the Hindu Kush. Straightening the knotted Kabuli turban, which perched on his head like a crown, he peered down at the ground bashfully, as the front door was pulled inwards. My father, recognising Hafiz Jan, son of Mohammed ibn Maqbul, embraced him.
The Pashtun's luggage — a single sealed tea chest bearing the word 'ASSAM' in black stencilled lettering — was carried in ceremoniously. It was heavy as an elephant-calf and stank of rotting fish.
Although received at no notice, Hafiz Jan was welcomed with great decorum. Tea and refreshments were brought and pleasantries exchanged. Blessings and gifts were conferred upon him. According to Eastern tradition, my father expounded in detail the pedigree of our distinguished visitor.
His forefathers had fought alongside my own ancestor, the Afghan warlord and statesman Jan Fishan Khan (a nom de guerre, translating literally as 'He Who Scatters Souls'). None had been so courageous, or trusted, as the progenitors of Hafiz Jan. They had accompanied the warrior on all his campaigns. Many had died in battle, side by side with members of my own family. When, in 1842, their lord had travelled with his enormous retinue of soldiers from Afghanistan to India, they had escorted him. With his sudden death at the tranquil Indian town of Burhana, they had pledged to guard for eternity the mausoleum of their commander, Jan Fishan Khan.
More than a century on, Hafiz Jan was proud to have assumed the inherited position: keeper of my great-great-great-grandfather's tomb.
'The shrine of Jan Fishan,' he said in faultless English, 'is the shrine of shrines, and as noble as He who lies there. It will last ten thousand years and longer!'
A lengthy harangue followed, in which the Pashtun showered praise on the memory of Jan Fishan. Such orations, more familiar as the conclusion to a great Afghan feast rather than a dainty tea, are designed to verify well-established facts.
'His Highness Prince Mohammed Jan Fishan Khan, son of Sayed Qutubuddin Khan of Paghman,' began Hafiz Jan with deep, growling intonation, 'was pious, generous, chivalrous, honourable, and the greatest horseman that ever lived. Known as Shah-Saz, "the King-Maker", he was a tactician, diplomat, philosopher and leader of great wisdom. Still today,' continued Hafiz Jan, working himself into a frenzy, 'the descendants of his opponents tremble on hearing that legendary name — Jan Fishan Khan, the Soul-Scatterer!'
Suddenly, as if ordered to do so, Hafiz Jan fell silent. His face contorted with anxiety, he led my father into the garden. Twenty minutes later, the two men returned. My father was taciturn at first. Hafiz Jan was equally reserved.
'Our brother, Hafiz Jan,' began my father hesitantly, 'has crossed continents to be with us. He left the tomb of our forefather and hurried here. His journey was respired by a disturbing dream.'
His brow ridged in thought, my father related the dream of Hafiz Jan. Prolonged and elaborate, it had depicted many things. At the core of the tale, fringed by a series of confusing and interlinked events, was one gruesome incident. It centred on my own future.
Deceived by a concealed well-shaft, the dream had shown me meeting a sudden, undignified end. Hafiz Jan had hastened across land and sea to protect me from what he could only assume was a premonition. Rising up to his full height, the Pashtun thrust an arm in the air,
'Rest assured,' he barked, 'that I shall not stir from this place until the threat is vanquished!'
The sudden arrival of a gallant and honourable Pashtun, pledging to defend an eleven-year-old boy, might have seemed incongruous. However, a precedent gave the visitor's dream greater significance.
At the time of the British retreat from Kabul, an insurgent had crept into Jan Fishan Khan's sleeping quarters. As he drew his dagger to murder the warlord, one of Jan Fishan's most trusted men stepped nimbly from behind a screen and severed the throat of the intruder. The incident, which had passed into legend, is a favoured tale in our family. Jan Fishan's defender—himself a forebear of Hafiz Jan — had been alerted to the murder plan by a premonition.
Refusing all further hospitality, Hafiz Jan strode from the sitting-room, and hauled his tea chest up the four flights of stairs to the landing outside my attic bedroom. Removing the lid, he plucked out a mattress and set it down in front of my door.
'Be at ease,' he whispered, as he lay down on the bedroll. 'I will seize the danger and tear it limb from limb!'
I would constantly remind Hafiz Jan that he was not waiting for a mortal assassin, but an uncovered well-shaft — a hazard I was unlikely to encounter on the upper-most floor of the house. Filling his lungs sharply with air, thrusting his fists upward like pistons, the Pashtun would reply:
'Never underestimate the slyness of Shaitan, the Devil!'
With summer stretching out before us, Hafiz Jan and I spent a great deal of time together. I would teach him tongue-twisters, and he would recount the many remarkable exploits of Jan Fishan Khan. These tales, as with all Hafiz Jan's conversation, were peppered with Pashtun proverbs.
'An intelligent enemy,' he would say, stroking his beard as if it were a bristly pet, 'rather than a foolish friend.' Or, 'He learnt the language of pigeons, and forgot his own.' Or, the favourite of Jan Fishan Khan: 'Hits shay haghase nu dai che khkari ... nothing is what it seems.'
Only when he had done justice to the memory of my ancestors would Hafiz Jan agree to reveal a little more of his bewildering excursion from northern India to our small village. The voyage comprised a series of journeys by container ship and tramp steamer. It had taken in an astonishing array of distant and exotic ports. Aboard ships loaded with alfalfa seeds, pinking shears, salted ox tongues, and hypodermic syringes, Hafiz Jan had earned his passage by peeling potatoes and amusing the crew.
Entertainment, I soon discovered, was the Pashtun's forte.
Over the weeks he stayed, Hafiz Jan disinterred a variety of apparatus and oddities from the depths of his tea chest. The deeper his stout, hairy fingers delved into the crate, the greater the reward. The more I saw, the more alarmed I became that HM Customs at Southampton would have permitted such hazardous belongings ashore.
At the bottom of the tea chest, below a Webley and Scott Mark VI revolver, twin sets of buffalo-hide bandoleers, a flare gun with six distress beacons, and a large dented tin of naswar, a green narcotic snuff, nestled a selection of oversized antique moss-green glass bottles. Speckled with miniature bubbles, plugged with waxed glass stoppers, the collection had been packed in straw. Removing them one at a time, like priceless eggs from a great auk's nest, Hafiz Jan held them up to the light. Each was embossed with skull and crossbones and bore a label advertising a virulent solution.
Arsenic, cyanide and sodium; strychnine, phosphorous and nitric acid: their names read like the tools of a homicidal maniac. So enthralled was I with the newcomer's fine clutch of poisons that I never questioned his motives. For all I knew, Hafiz Jan had resolved to slay us all, to break his ancestral slavery to the tomb. With his tea chest of chemicals, nothing would have been simpler.
But the Pashtun had an unexpected and abiding passion, for which he required all his lethal chemicals. Hafiz Jan loved conjuring tricks.
If not for his hereditary role as guardian of a shrine, he would certainly have become a full-time stage magician. Until the death of his father, five years before, he had studied conjuring and illusion under one of India's greatest masters. Yet now, with a career as a warden already staked out for him, Hafiz Jan was forced to perfect his illusory skills in his spare time.
After breakfast each morning, having wiped his beard like a hand-towel over the full expanse of his face, our guest would lead me into my bedroom and close the door firmly. An assortment of concoctions and equipment would be fished from the crate. Hafiz Jan would, for protection, tuck his swath of beard beneath his shirt. Then, in the silence of my attic retreat, we would begin work.
Each day brought a new conjuring skill. 'Sleight-of-hand' — an act of deception through a furtive movement of the wrist and hand — formed the basis of so many tricks. Under Hafiz Jan's impromptu tuition, I would often practise the basic movements until dawn. 'Sleights' were essential for demonstrating to my parents the new and harmless skills I had acquired. But they lacked the daring, heinous effect which the leaf-green bottles could so effortlessly provide.
Hafiz Jan had noticed my keen interest in chemicals and severe procedures. Within the makeshift laboratory which my bedroom had become, bottles and jars were readied for use. First, a handful of potassium permanganate was sprinkled over a sheet of card on the floor. Pour on a few drops of glycerine and flames were soon licking upward. Then came the 'Bloody Battle' experiment, as Hafiz Jan liked to call it. He always used the word 'experiment', rather than 'illusion', for he felt that it added importance to what we were doing. The Bloody Battle transformed old-fashioned conjuring into high art.
A solution of ferric chloride was painted on to my leg. Before the liquid dried, Hafiz Jan seized a carving knife and surreptitiously dipped it into a solution of sodium sulpho-cyanide. Forcing the knife against the coated section of skin, he motioned melodramatically, as if slicing into my thigh. As I tumbled about, feigning death, Hafiz Jan would roar with delight. Crimson streaks were left where blade had met skin. The Pashtun demonstrated how the scarlet liquid could be wiped away without leaving a mark. Magicians throughout the world, he said, used the experiment to prove they had the power to make wounds vanish at will.
Hafiz Jan's ceaseless stream of chemical enlightenment continued. My family rarely saw me. Brief sightings every so often assured them I had not yet succumbed to the well-shaft. As days turned into weeks, my parents began to consider the hirsute Pashtun's lessons as a malign influence on their prepubescent son.
When collared by either parent on the landing, where he insisted on living, Hafiz Jan would mumble Pashtu aphorisms. His great lugubrious eyes would seem meek and trustworthy. The parent would leave with renewed confidence in our guest. As if by magic, Hafiz Jan would materialise a bottle of mercuric chloride, and grinning a broad conjuror's grin would lead me back to work.
'Now you are ready to mesmerise an audience,' said Hafiz Jan at breakfast one morning. 'We will bewitch them with our magic.'
Smiling broadly, the Pashtun pointed at my parents who were sitting in the garden. Surely he was forgetting that in the circumstances public exposure was unwise. I voiced my apprehension.
'Don't be so modest,' roared Hafiz Jan, 'I want to show you off, my little apprentice!'
'We'll put on a grand display of our work. How about next Saturday night?'
For days I practised sleights and chemical feats, perfecting the new skills. Every spare moment was devoted to magical study. One session took us into the field behind the house. I led the way to a secluded spot in a copse at the far end of the field, where a cottage had once stood. First, Hafiz Jan demonstrated 'burning water'. The magician pours some water into a tin mug, and takes a sip to prove that it's ordinary water. He pours another mug of water from the same jug. As soon as the cup has been filled, the water catches fire. Hidden at the bottom of the second mug is a pea-sized nugget of potassium and three tablespoons of ether. When the water is poured into the mug, the potassium ignites, setting fire to the ether, which surges to the surface of the liquid.
'Now,' announced Hafiz Jan, 'I'll teach you a trick with my magic ring.' He twisted the gold-flecked lapis lazuli ring off the little finger of his right hand. 'But first I'll need three wild mushrooms, can you find some?'
I tramped over to a scrub thicket in search of fungi. In the undergrowth I uncovered an old plimsoll, a coil of rusty wire and a brown beer bottle. No mushrooms in sight. I was just about to report back to Hafiz Jan when my foot caught in an overgrown dip in the ground. I tripped, cutting my knee.
The Pashtun heard my cry and hurried over. He bandaged my leg with a rag ripped from his turban. Then he excavated the mesh of sticks, leaves and soil to see what had cut me. I looked on as his hands tore away at the earth. When the debris had been cleared, we both found ourselves staring at the ground in stupefaction. I had tripped on what appeared to be a disused well.
Filled in long before, the concealed shaft had not posed a life-threatening hazard. Even so, the Pashtun, who was triumphant with his find, spent two full days sealing it with cement.
'Shaitan,' he said, 'will be hungry in Hell tonight!'
The great day of our exposition arrived. A row of chairs was laid out in the kitchen. Hafiz Jan groomed his beard, trimmed his nostril hair. The various chemicals and apparatus were installed in the tea chest, which doubled as a conjuror's cabinet. My parents, sisters, the gardener, housekeeper and secretary were ushered to their seats. The audience waited politely for the show to commence.
As Hafiz Jan clapped his giant hands together like cymbals, alarm bells were sounding in my mind. Fortunately, I had managed to tone down the inventory of illusions at the last minute. The Pashtun had intended to burn a section of mysterious coarse grey bark during the show. He had explained that the bark, of the Indian chaitan, 'devil's tree', is used by Eastern magicians to stun an audience. Some say the bark's hallucinogenic smoke is the secret behind the fabled Indian rope trick.
Hafiz Jan began by performing a selection of sleights; materialising objects from thin air. The gardener was invited up to the front. His wristwatch vanished as the Pashtun shook hands with him. A moment later, the watch was pulled from my sister's pocket. I scanned the room. My parents seemed relaxed. So far, so good.
Next, a pot of boiling vegetable oil was taken from the stove and placed before me. Without hesitation, I thrust my left arm into it. The audience breathed in deeply, tricked by the simple illusion. Lime juice is added to the oil before it's heated. The juice boils when only tepid, sending a cascade of bubbles to the surface, and giving the appearance that the oil is boiling.
As I wiped the oil from my arm, Hafiz Jan pulled a fired poker from the oven, and began to lick it. An alarming sizzling sound, and the fragrance of barbecued flesh billowed outwards as tongue met iron. Hafiz Jan had washed his mouth out moments before with liquid storax, which absorbs the heat.
My parents seemed impressed. I wondered how long their enthusiasm would last. Bloody Battle came and went, as did a variety of inoffensive illusions.
The next trick was austere by any standards. An ordinary light-bulb was materialised from nowhere by Hafiz Jan. Placing it in a handkerchief, the Pashtun crushed it with his right foot. He handed me a banana, which I ate. He ate one, too, then placed a shard of glass on his tongue and began to chew. Then it was my turn. Positioning a jagged piece of glass in my mouth, I began to munch.
My father looked on in disbelief, overwhelmed that his son had been taught to eat glass and relish it. The shock quickly turned to anger, but he suppressed his rage for fear of insulting the visitor. The tiny fragments of glass, which get embedded in the banana, pass easily through the body. Hafiz Jan had taught me to always use clear light-bulbs, as the opaque ones contain poisonous mercury oxide.
Moving swiftly along, the Pashtun got ready to perform the pièce de résistance. It was a brave decision. He lit a large beeswax church candle, placed before our stage. Its wick was at the audience's eye level. Then, pulling a fistful of dust from beneath his shirt, he murmured a magic phrase, and hurled the fine powder at the candle. Covering his eyes with the end of his turban, Hafiz Jan winced with pleasure as a golden fireball rocketed sideways towards my family and their associates.
The conjuror had not anticipated the remarkable force of the combustion. He had been more used to igniting powdered camphor outside. As the spectators rubbed at their singed hair and blackened faces, I wondered what to say. Silence seemed safest.
Hafiz Jan was up at dawn the next day. I could hear him moving uneasily about the landing on tiptoe. By seven o'clock the tea chest was packed with his possessions. Padded with the horsehair mattress, the half-filled bottles of poison sloshed about as the crate was hauled downstairs.
The front door was pulled inwards once again. The great Pashtun lifted me by the cheeks and smiled sombrely.
'Now that the well-shaft — that vile tunnel to Hell — is covered over,' he said, 'I ought to be on my way. I must return to the mausoleum, it's there that I belong. Jan Fishan,' he said softly, 'will be waiting for me.'
As Hafiz Jan, son of Mohammed ibn Maqbul, prepared to retrace his wayward route back to northern India, I made my own pledge. One day — although I did not know when — I would seek him out, and continue with my magical pupillage.
|1||He Who Scatters Souls||3|
|2||Snake-Jugglers and Liposuction||11|
|3||Land of Warriors||21|
|4||City of Light||30|
|5||Waiting Out the Jinns||46|
|12||Curse of the Skeleton Dealers||147|
|13||Dick Whittington and the Black Hole||165|
|14||The Secret Army||176|
|16||No Little Girls||205|
|17||Disneyland of the Soul||217|
|18||The Yogi's Last Breath||231|
|20||The Penniless Billionare||257|
|21||Take One Live Murrel Fish...||265|
|23||Duel of Miracles||282|
|24||Jimmy, the Part-time God||297|
Posted January 12, 2002
For a good dose of humor combined with absolutely fascinating insights in the strange world of India and Illusion try this book. Crammed full of interesting information with lively characters and great writing. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.