No people," remarked the historian Victor Kiernan, "is easily understood, and India has always been a separate world, hard for any outsider, eastern or western, to penetrate." Unsurprisingly, therefore, western notions of India have tended either to denigrate the land and its people or to regard them with awe. One can find no better illustration for the latter than India's image as a land of potent, incomprehensible and often malevolent magic. Think of the clairvoyant gang in Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone , or the evil "Oriental necromancer" Khar ma in John Buchan's The Three Hostages , or (my personal favourite) Kala Persad, a "little wizened old Hindoo... playing with a basket of cobras", who sits in a back room in the heart of London and uses his psychic powers to help an English detective solve mysteries in Headon Hill's sadly forgotten collection, The Divinations of Kala Persad (1895). In the present volume, the ex-magician Peter Lamont shows us that the truth behind India's image as a land of mysteries unfathomable to western reason - is far stranger than its many depictions in fiction.
Lamont's book is devoted to the most celebrated item in the annals of Indian magic, the rope trick. This, of course, begins with a magician - a juggler in colonial parlance - uncoiling a thick rope and throwing it up in the air. Instead of falling to the ground, the rope stands erect - is it too vulgar to think of Freud here? - and its upper end stretches beyond vision. A little boy then climbs up the rope and eventually disappears into the mists. If this weren't enough, there is a more sanguinary version: after the boy has vanished, the juggler calls up to him several times, but getting no answer, angrily climbs the rope, clutching a big knife; as he reaches the top, he, too, disappears. Soon, the audience hears the noise of scuffles and then shrieks as the bleeding, freshly butchered limbs of the boy drop from the heavens. The juggler then descends with his dripping knife, to be greeted by the boy, who reappears, alive and well, from a basket.
Surely this must be the greatest feat of magic ever accomplished, and generations of magicians - and doubters - have been obsessed by it. It was always far more than a trick - it was the perfect symbol of India, that land of miracles lying beyond the limits of science and reason. The only small problem was that although many people knew somebody who had reported seeing the trick, nobody had seen it being performed themselves and so they could not establish the claim.
Magician after magician, in West as well as East, tried to discover the secret of the trick and replicate it - there were theories galore (some of them almost as bizarre as the trick itself), several partial renderings on stage but not one documented instance of a successful performance of the full trick. Perhaps, some suggested, there was no rope trick at all but only an audience that had been hypnotised into believing that it had seen the trick being performed. Experts and professional magicians, however, scoffed at the possibility of mass hypnotism. So how was the rope trick done?
The answer, Lamont asserts, is that it had never been done at all. The rope trick was a hoax dreamt up by a 19th-century American journalist, John E.
Wilkie, with bits and pieces drawn from Marco Polo and Ibn-Battuta's accounts of their travels in China. It is a mystery why the locale was changed to India (it would be an understandable switch in Kipling's Lahore, but this was in 19th-century Chicago) but it was surely appropriate that the imaginative Wilkie ended his life as a leading figure in the US secret service. His story got detached from him and acquired a life of its own. It was defended by believers, copied by magicians, dismissed by sceptics, "explained" by investigators and marketed by pedlars of the mystic East such as Madame Blavatsky.
Lamont guides us expertly through these twists and turns and finally reveals the rather dull kernel of truth hiding under the layers of myth. He destroys an old and enchanted corner of the western imagination but does so relatively painlessly, and he seems to relish the legend almost as much as he enjoys exposing it. His book is meticulously researched but addresses a wide readership, avoiding earnestness, jargon and ideological blather. One shudders to imagine what an English professor, waving his regulation copy of Edward Said's Orientalism , might have done to this story.
Chandak Sengoopta is senior lecturer in history, Birkbeck College, London.
The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: The Biography of a Legend
Author - Peter Lamont
Publisher - Little, Brown
Pages - 264
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 316 72430 0