Miracles Don't Happen ; in a Country Where Superstition Is Rampant, One Man Is Risking His Life to Ridicule Gurus and Spread the Gospel of Rationalism. Beatrice Newbery Meets B Premanand, India's Chief Fakir-Buster
Newbery, Beatrice, The Independent (London, England)
To a blast of Bollywood music, the make-shift curtain is pulled back to reveal the first young magician. Wearing a tailcoat, a pistachio green frilly shirt and long black gloves studded with plastic diamonds, the teenaged Indian boy already looks hot, as well he might. It is midday and sweltering in southern India. He begins to hide and reveal polystyrene balls under three tin cups, rapping the cups loudly with a magic wand. "This is our famous Keralan Cups and Balls trick," my neighbour whispers. One of the cups falls over, but as everyone in the audience is either a magician or friend, it doesn't matter. The young performer has trouble lighting a match for his cigarette trick, as the fans are whirring overhead, but he bravely battles on. As each stunt ends, he tosses his props into a top hat. There's the bottle-top trick with a lot of blowing on hands; a card special; and finally a lame pigeon produced from nowhere and accidentally dropped on the floor. After his short performance, he bows out to encouraging applause, and emerges grinning to join his friends.
It is the first day of the International Brotherhood of Magicians' Magic Fiesta, held in a dilapidated hall in the small town of Kannur, north Kerala. For weeks, the Brotherhood's Indian members have been looking forward to the three-day get-together. The atmosphere is one of reunion and hilarity. After five more performances from the young, amateur members of the group, there is a break for lunch, and the magicians burst outside talking and laughing. "Let me introduce you to a fire-eater from Karnataka," says the Brotherhood's vice-president, B Dayanand. "He also rides motorbikes blindfold." I am torn away from watching one of the group put 6in nails up his nose. Next, I am introduced to a nurse who does magic tricks for his patients, and a ticket-puncher for the Indian railways, who performs on trains. Finally, I spot the man I have been looking for - Dayanand's older brother. With his long grey beard, he looks like Harry Potter's benign wizard, Dumbledore, and is doing an impromptu impression of Uri Geller, bending spoons effortlessly in the courtyard. "How do you do that?" I ask, as the spoon snaps in half between his fingers. He winks. "Easy. All miracles are just the simplest of tricks."
At 71, B Premanand is the oldest member of the group and its youngest at heart. "I already have nine years of bonus," he laughs, "as the average mortality rate in India is 62." This is despite the several attempts that have been made on his life over the years - which say something about the kind of magic that Premanand performs. For while other members of India's International Brotherhood of Magicians are hobbyists, Premanand's mission is more ambitious - to expose any man who pretends his magic tricks are miracles.
To this end he has spent nearly 50 years touring Indian villages, drawing crowds of people by demonstrating how "miracles" are performed. "See these scars," he says, pointing at one on his nose, and another on his lip. "These are from stones, thrown by the followers of one guru whom I exposed as a fraud. He used to walk on water - until I made sure he fell in."
India is a haven for gurus, yogis and godmen, all making easy money from the most ludicrous claims. "There are even godmen going about with cups and balls, pretending they are performing miracles," Premanand says. His recent opponents include a 600-year-old man, a yogi who had not eaten for 45 years, and a man who claimed that even the flowers bowed down to him. They were all eventually shown to be frauds, although the last should be applauded for his ingenuity - he was spraying the flowers with anaesthetic. In Premanand's view, the godmen share one goal - to make money by false means. "There was one guru who went from village to village, building huge bonfires. He would invite everybody to throw their gold pieces into the fire, then he would pull out a big silver statue of Ganesh. …