What lies beneath the fraud and the ‘magic’?
The “Tarot Baba” revelation which made headlines recently is fascinating. A young person, claiming to have been educated abroad, began what can best be described as “digital fraud,” using tarot cards — a divination method that is still a novelty in Bangladesh.
A charming young man, adept in using the latest technology, sitting in front of cards with intriguing pictures of the hanged man, the fool, a crusader with seven swords, and a wheel of fortune is certainly more appealing than a disheveled old man in rags in some remote corner of the old part of city.
The man in question also joined a radio station, had a show where he provided counsel to people facing an assortment of personal problems involving romantic complications to family rows.
In fact, this approach is only a modernized version of the elaborate supernatural power based scam that had been going on in this country for ages.
Shuta pora, magic mirror, and the special comb
This was a common method adopted in the past to find out the perpetrator when something was stolen in a household. Since large families living together was the norm, money or some ornament getting misplaced was common. And, in such cases, the police was not informed. The local holy man claiming to possess spiritual power and sometimes control of djinns was the first person to run to. The common approach was the shuta pora or the magic thread.
Several pieces of thread were cut in the same size and, then, the shaman used to hand them over to each member of the household with the warning that the thread of the one who stole the money or the object would become longer.
Now this sometimes worked simply because there was no magic involved but a sheer sense of fear which often led the culprit to secretly cut the thread so it would not get bigger. Eventually, the person holding the shortened one would be questioned.
Of course over time, culprits became smarter and nonchalant, with the thread strategy ending in failure.
Since large families living together was the norm, money or some ornament getting misplaced was common. And, in such cases, the police was not informed. The local holy man claiming to possess spiritual power and sometimes control of djinns was the first person to run to
The magic mirror was also a method adopted to win the heart of a woman who was not willing to commit to the proposal of a man. In Old Dhaka, there was an astrologer-cum-spiritual-guru who claimed to be a specialist in winning hearts of rebellious women.
All one had to do is take a mirror and give it to the clairvoyant. In darkness, after midnight, the astrologer sat with the mirror, invoked spirits from the underworlds and, purportedly, locked them inside the glass.
The next day you picked the mirror and either gave it as a gift to the woman in question or had it placed in her room by bribing the domestic help. If she used the mirror once, the spirit locked inside would put a spell on her, implant the man’s image in her mind and voila … she can’t think of anyone else.
From Chelsea to the crematorium
So, here’s a personal anecdote. Way back in the early 90s, one of my uncles who was/is an avowed hedonist living in Chelsea, came up to me and said: “Mama, do you know any tantric guru who can give me the energy of a 25-year-old?” Er … I didn’t know anyone personally but there was a self-proclaimed necromancer who lived in Wise Ghat in Old Dhaka.
He has mastered the art of controlling dark forces from “tantriks” living in the mystical caves of Kamrup and Kamakhya, I was told by a disciple.
One fine day we were on our journey to Wise Ghat to a certain Hotel Minar, where, in a dimly-lit room, lay the guru. He seemed to be in a daze when we knocked. But as soon as we mentioned our business, became exceptionally alert.
“Is there some sort of magic potion which can keep me youthful forever?” Uncle got straight to the point.
Interestingly, people who claim to have supernatural powers dive into a meditative mode when they discover that those sitting before them are half way into believing in his capabilities.
To this, they add a variety of other tactics: Some keep on staring point blank as if they are reading your soul, others simply raise a hand and say: “Please, don’t speak.” In our case, the guru closed his eyes and began to mutter something and then, after a while, just uttered the word softly but purposefully: Shoshaan (crematorium).
To cut a long story short, on a full moon night, we were at a crematorium, the guru deep in meditation by a fire, a bottle of Teacher’s by his side, provided by us to ease his journey to the inner layers of the spiritual dimension.
After a few eerie hours, uncle was given a small vial with the instruction: Wear it on your waist and hold youth forever, (by the way, he loved the whiskey).
Well, for all the adventure and the trouble did it work?
“Mama, no need to get another vial … Viagra works better,” my uncle told me over the phone several years later.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist, teaching at the University of Dhaka.