Igniting fire without matches
Rasna village in Uttar Pradesh, June 2011
With a TV crew on your trail, it is far more difficult to maintain the impression that there is nothing staged about the event. After all you cannot hide a bus full of technical equipments, stage lights, huge directional microphones and TV cameras. Far less a group of Westerners bustling around in a remote village that did not quite make it into the 21st century yet. It’s a great challenge. In Rasna village, however, we are lucky: One of the village elders, taken in confidence, provides us secretly a base camp in his premises to get prepared for the show.
While the village goes through the motions of an uneventful Sunday afternoon, a lonely wandering godman takes silently rest in the shadow of a baniyan tree. In no time, a crowd is emerging on the wall of the compound. More and more people are flocking in. The two assistants of the holy man emerge and unroll a carpet – the stage. As the villagers are mesmerized with the unfolding scene, cameras and microphones can be fixed without attracting much attention. After all, it looks quite normal that the TV is around when extraordinary things are happening.
And this afternoon, extraordinary things do happen indeed! Blood oozes out of a coconut that the godman breaks on the ground:. That is a bad omen for the village, but the holy man promises to help. He lights a fire without matches, just with his mental powers, and chants mantras over a holy book. From between its pages, he then “plucks” flowers, green chilis and small lemons and gifts them to people. Finally, he selects a boy – it happens to be Sudeep – and casts a spell on him. He makes him levitate in front of the amazed audience! When the boy is standing in the air, some inches above the ground, comes the dramatic turning point. Entrance Shubhi: “That are no miracles at all! Just tricks only. There are scientific explanations to all of these! Don’t let this trickster dupe you!”
Sanal Edamaruku appears and turns the show into a lecture. It’s so exciting a lecture that people sometimes hold their breath. It strikes them that to ignite fire like a “godman” you don’t need godly powers, but the right mix of chemicals only! And that every one can perform that late Sai Baba’s trade mark trick producing “holy ash” out of thin air. It only needs enough of these small grey balls, rolled of ash and starch, that you have to hide between thumb and index finger and crumble at the right moment. Sanal takes some ash balls from his pocket and distributes them. Many hands are held out to him. Holy ash starts fluttering through the air. Spontaneous laughter indicates the sudden loss of fear, when Sanal pulls down the “holy man’s” headdress and reveals that he is Rajeev, a rationalist actor of the team. His assistants, Sajan and Gyan, are specialists for the props. They made all the small ash balls in advance and skillfully filled the coconut with “blood”. Great applause!
Many recognise Sanal from his TV appearances. They are excited to have him in their village. Memories do the rounds: did you watch him exposing the Hanuman statue’s fake tears? Courageously eating biscuits during the recent sun eclipse (though astrologers warned it was very dangerous to eat during eclipses)? And, of course, the unforgettable one: most people are at least by hearsay aware of Sanal’s legendary TV encounter with a well known tantrik, who tried to kill him by chanting mantras. Putting his life at stake to prove the tantrik’s killing power hogwash made Sanal a hero in India.
When the sun goes down, everyone seems to be extremely happy. An old lady with a scarf thanks Sanal for enlightening people about the tricks of “holy” charlatans who come to cheat people. One of the village elders reports that people in a neighbouring village were recently betrayed by a wandering tantrik. He pretended that he had ways to multiply their money and made away with the gullibles’ savings that were handed over to him. Our godman – though now without his wig – can also multiply money. He asks for a 10 Rupee note and turns it by a sleight of hand into a crisp hundred. The beaming owner runs to buy sweets for everybody – before the note could reconvert, he says skeptikally.
Then comes Poornima, a village girl of Shubhi’s age. She knew from the beginning that all the miracles were tricks, she says. She was angry, but she did not dare to interfere. Several times she came near the carpet stage and cleared her voice, but did not have the courage to loudly speak up. Next time she will do it, for sure. Next time, says an old lady, when a saffron clad guy comes to cheat us, we’ll beat him up! People laugh in agreement. Poornima wishes to participate in Sanal’s next summer work shop for kids about the science behind miracles. Shubhi and Sudeep told her that it was in such a work shop that they became rationalists and joined the team.
(Photos: Subodh Sinha, Usha D)