RATIONALIST INTERNATIONAL

http://www.rationalistinternational.net

For the godman a hack on the shin

Kudiyagarhi village in Uttar Pradesh, September 2011

Kudiyagarhi is a rather rough village in Uttar Pradesh’s “Wild West”. Its young chief receives us with two gunmen at his side at the highway crossing. We follow his jeep over a long and bumpy road and land up right in the village centre. In a court yard, the elders are sitting around a water pipe. They watch us sceptically; nobody knows exactly what we are going to do. There seem to be no women in the village. But scores of vivacious children come running from all sides and marvel at the foreign TV crew. The blond Allison, the presenter of the program, attracts much attention. We use the opportunity to escape to a flat roof and get ready for the show. No time for rehearsals or refreshments, just dressing up the godman and arranging the props, while at downstairs a member of our team keeps the curious flock engaged with a grand percussion solo. And here we go!

Deepali and Gyan assist “godman” Amaljith with the make-up
Deepali and Gyan assist “godman” Amaljith with the make-up
Sanal, Amaljith and presenter Allison sharing a lighter moment before the show
Sanal, Amaljith and presenter Allison sharing a lighter moment before the show

The godman commands great respect. When he raises his hand to bless the crowd, there is silence. He sits down on a charpoy, the traditional bed of ropes, meditates and murmurs strange mantras. Suddenly the fire wood in a little haven in front of him bursts into flames, obviously sparked by his godly powers. The audience is stunned. He opens his holy book, leaves through the pages and casually takes out yellow flowers, then toffees. The book seems inexhaustible, more and more toffees are coming out. He throws them to the kids in the crowd. It is enough for all – what a sweet miracle! For the elder ones, he produces holy ash. It is trickling down from the fingers of his empty hands. While people are scrambling for some flakes of it, Sanal Edamaruku appears on the scene.

Sanal challenges the “dhongi baba”
Sanal challenges the “dhongi baba”
(Meantime some veiled village women have joined the crowd)

“Is this really holy ash?” he asks. Murmuring arises. “Look, I can do the same without having any supernatural power!” he insists. “Anybody can do that, it’s just a trick!” Sceptic looks. Sanal raises his hand and moves his fingers as the godman did. Ash is trickling down. Once more, people hold out their hands to snatch a bit of it. An old man makes the nose test. After carefully comparing the smell of the two samples, he declares categorically: “His is holy, yours is not: I smell the difference!” How belief can betray the senses! The old man does not yet know that both samples have the same origin: those small grey balls made of ash and starch, from the rationalist props box. Others repeat the test and finally agree: both are the same. Now Sanal demonstrates the trick. More starch balls go from hand to hand and are crumbled all around as if it was raining ash. The godman protests, but his authority is already lost. “He is a dhongi baba (charlatan in holy robes)!” says Sanal. Immediately some kids in the crowd, still chewing their miraculous toffees, take the cue: “Dhongi baba! Dhongi baba!”

Great demand for those small grey ash balls
Great demand for those small grey ash balls
A sleight of hand – but it needs some training
A sleight of hand – but it needs some training

Sanal challenges the discredited baba to do some of the classical “miracles”. When he blunders, the crowd ridicules him by chanting their refrain:“Dhongi baba!” And it is Sanal’s turn to demonstrate and explain. The rope trick is a hit. A thick white rope is cut into two pieces and reconnected by a knot. But in Sanal’s hand, the knot vanishes and the rope is one piece again! He reveals how he does it; it’s a simple sleight of hand. Everybody wants to try it. The baba sits sullen on his bed. “What should we do with him?” asks Sanal. “We beat him up!” shouts the crowd. High time to rescue our man! Sanal asks for silence and introduces Amaljith as a member of the rationalist team. When Amaljith removes his wig and waves his hands, there is laughter, howling and applause. But the turn of events does not stop some wicked little boys from giving him a good hack on the shin, when nobody is watching.

It’s getting dark. While the show went on, a huge fire has been made at the sidelines. Sanal announces that there will be people walking barefoot over a bed of glowing embers tonight! Excitement is in the air. While we wait for the flames to go down, it erupts into a wild and playful scene. Some village boys ask our percussionist to take up the drums again. They start performing exotic dances and stunning acrobatics at the fire site. A skinny old man surprises with a break dance. The audience claps enthusiastically. This should have been a great warm-up for the fire walk. But when the time comes, there is silence. Nobody musters the courage to be the first.

Saarthak’s percussion solo inspires an unlikely break dancer
Saarthak’s percussion solo inspires an unlikely break dancer
Gyan breaks the spell
Gyan breaks the spell

There is nothing divine about fire walking, everybody can do it. Sanal explains the physics of it: The time your foot is in contact with the ground is too short to induce a burn. The skin on our feet is thick, and the embers are not good conductors of heat. As long as you keep walking, nothing happens to your feet; just don’t stop.” Silence. Somebody has to break the spell. Gyan ventures to do it. He is a member of the rationalist team, but he has never done it before. This is his day. He runs from one side to the other. People clap. He feels so happy that he repeats his feat two, three times, running back and fro. Great applause. Now people queu, some tough young musclemen first, then two acrobat boys, a middle aged farmer and many others, finally even two young girls.

Meantime the village chiefs have arranged a feast for us. One by one, they come to shake hands with Sanal and thank him for the unforgettable day.

A great day for the villagers, Sanal’s rationalist team and the Australian TV crew
A great day for the villagers, Sanal’s rationalist team and the Australian TV crew

Photos: Subodh Sinha