Tahir Shah, Author . Arcade $25.95 (323p) ISBN 978-1-55970-580-6

The child of Afghan parents living in England, Shah (Beyond the Devil's Teeth: Journeys in Gondwanaland) first witnessed magic at age 11, when an Indian Pashtun named Hafiz Jan visited. Twenty years later, he travels to India to learn the magician's trade from the Pashtun. Hafiz Jan sends Shah to Calcutta to learn from his teacher, a magician named Hakim Feroze, who subjects his new apprentice to tortuous physical and mental exercises before casting him out into the streets to make note of whatever oddities he encounters. Shah learns trade secrets of hangmen and gold scroungers, eats in a restaurant that serves dishes prepared from refuse, visits a skeleton-processing factory, watches a psychic surgeon "operate." Then, accompanied by a 12-year-old scam artist he describes as "a walking crime wave," he travels through India meeting sages, sorcerers, astrologers, mystics, healers, miracle workers and other brokers of the supernatural, including a medium who reads fortunes in eyeballs, a chemist who turns drinking water into petrol and a guru named Sri Gobind who causes Easter eggs to emerge from his ear, candles to ignite spontaneously and flowers to bow to him. Unlike most magicians, Shah reveals the secrets—chemicals, props, sleight-of-hand and dozens of tricks—e.g., Sri Gobind's flowers perform thanks to chloroform and his symbols of "new life and purity" are Safeway's expired chocolate Easter eggs. Despite an unconvincingly tidy final twist, Shah's strange focus and vivid, lurid and amusing descriptions distinguish this travelogue from the crowd. Photos not seen by PW. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/21/2001
Release date: 06/01/2001
Hardcover - 323 pages - 978-0-14-028571-0
Ebook - 226 pages - 978-1-62872-131-7
Paperback - 336 pages - 978-1-78076-025-4
Paperback - 323 pages - 978-1-61145-057-6
Paperback - 546 pages - 978-1-291-52867-1
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