I met Ishamudin Khan in October, while the days were still hot and dusty, at his ramshackle residence atop a hillock in Anand Parbat. It was a single stuffy room, among hundreds of others just like it, at the temporary resettlement camp for the Kathputli Colony inhabitants. The story was on how the street magician, who has performed around the globe, a pioneer of the folkloric Great Indian Rope Trick, is keeping a dying tradition alive. The plan was to talk to him for an hour, get my facts, and get out.
What took place was an almost three-hour-long conversation on his travels, which started out on the unicycle at the corner of his room and winded its way around cities in Europe and Japan, magic, money, personal history, prime ministers, culture, community and so on. Khan speaks effortless English with an unidentifiable accent, both of which he picked up from foreign lands. As a journalist, you are always talking to people, but some conversations stick. And this was one of them. Here was a man who insisted that India was a country of snake charmers and street magicians, who is fighting the law to perform on the streets and not the stage, whose fondest childhood memory was how people used to feed him food from their kitchen when he tagged along with his grandfather and went from house to house, performing tricks. And there I sat, college educated and with strict ‘postcolonial’ notions about what to take pride in.
Heidi J Shrager of the TIME magazine wrote that Kathputli colony is “a thriving paradox. Its denizens invite their audiences into lofty worlds where anything is possible… only to return to homes without running water, electricity or sanitation.” Sitting in one of those homes, with a man who can make a rope stand straight for a child to climb, I underwent a thorough personal disillusionment. Khan is convinced that the rich history of the country everyone’s talking about is only a history of the rich. He’s no Marxist, but he says “what people have here, here and here,” – he pointed to his heart, then head and mouth—“is not synchronised”.
One of the charms of the job is getting to meet people like Khan, who can conjure up flowers from Delhi’s thick air, having conversations that might change you, or at least make you look at things differently. “There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams,” wrote Arundhati Roy. Khan’s is a different dream. One only a magician can have. And I got to put it on paper.