NEW DELHI, India —On the roof of his house in West Delhi's Kathputli Colony, Ishamuddin tells the story of his life.
Like most life stories, it's a story about a dream. It's a story about striving for greatness, about success, and, ultimately, about failure. It's also the story of one of India's and the magic world's greatest mysteries — an Orientalist fantasy of fakirs and opium smoke and snake charmers, or the most astounding illusion that the world has ever known. It's the story of the Great Indian Rope Trick.
“Forget the trick!” said Ishamuddin. “Just you show me that long rope, which will go from the earth to the sky. Which company was making that rope in the 14th century? And suppose the rope was there, how would the poor magician carry that long rope? It would take the area of all Delhi!”
Though every cartoon-watching school kid in America has seen it done by Bugs Bunny, Ishamuddin first heard about the rope trick when American author Lee Siegel came to stay with him to do research for a book called "Net of Magic." According to Ishamuddin, Siegel told him that the trick still commanded huge fascination abroad.
“At that time I didn't know how to read and write and speak English and all — but he showed us one page [and from] that we see the Indian rope trick and whoever will do the trick will get $10,000 from American Magic Circle and 20,000 pounds from British Magic Circle,” Ishamuddin said.
A seasoned huckster, Ishamuddin should have known better. But the prize money was more than he could hope to make in three or four years of performing. He was hooked. For the next six years, he dedicated his heart and soul to discovering the secret of the trick. And, eventually, he pulled it off. Almost.
Claimed by some to date back 700 years and more, when it was witnessed by travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta, the Indian rope trick is by all accounts a breathtaking illusion. With nothing but a basket on the roadside and the turban on his head, the magician makes a long length of rope slither into the sky like a serpent rising to the tune of snake charmer's flute, explains Peter Lamont, author of “The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick.”
Miraculously, his boy assistant climbs to the top of the rope and disappears. The magician calls for him to come back, but the boy refuses to return. Angry, the magician picks up a sword and climbs after him. At the top, he also disappears. Suddenly, the boy's severed limbs tumble to the ground in front of the audience, and the magician climbs down. Then he puts the body parts into the basket and produces the boy whole again.
It would be an amazing, impossible trick, a feat to top Siegfried and Roy, David Blaine, and even David Copperfield, who bamboozled Claudia Schiffer into a six-year engagement (six years!). The only trouble is that the Great Indian Rope Trick was a hoax, a myth of exotic India invented by a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, as Lamont discovered.
“It's a pity that no Indian has written about it. Everything was written by Europeans, and they made lots of mistakes,” said Ishamuddin, who says the rope trick was one of many legends spread so that magicians could scare pennypinching crowds to give them alms. “It was just a story that was used to attract people. But I found that it was a big attraction for the world, so I invented it.”
On July 24, 1995, before an audience gathered beneath the open sky, Ishamuddin shook his magic drum above a roughly made basket. Slowly, a fat rope stiffened, uncoiling, and rose into the sky. Swaying a bit, the rope held firm as Ishamuddin's boy assistant climbed halfway up and then down again. Even if there was something mechanical about the trick – magic operating by hand crank – and the frayed end only reached a height of around 20 feet, this was still closer than anybody had come before. Flashbulbs popped. The crowd went wild. But the prize money that launched the magician on his quest turned out to be as mythical as the rope trick itself. The British Magic Circle's reward, for instance, offered in 1934, amounted to only 500 guineas, according to spokesman Nick Fitzherbert. To this day no one — not even Ishamuddin — has claimed it.
“When I did it, CNN, BBC, all the Hindi channels came,” said Ishamuddin. “It was front cover news. Then we called people in the U.S. and asked for the dollars and pounds. But they said this reward was announced very long ago, 200 years ago. The organizations that offered this reward have been dissolved. No one is there, so no reward.”
Thanks to the rope trick, Ishamuddin has appeared with some of the world's most renowned illusionists. He's been feted as the 20th best magician in the world and performed in Austria, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K.
But back in India, nobody knows him. He's just another street performer living in a slum full of street performers. Occasionally he gets a gig to perform at a party. Or maybe a friend among the magicians he's met abroad will float him a loan. But he's probably never had more than a couple hundred dollars to his name, and he's still in debt to a moneylender for the trick that was supposed to make his fortune.
“When I was spending time to research the trick, my mother and my wife used to go for rag picking, and I used to go for street performance and birthday party shows,” Ishamuddin said. “Still I have to pay back like $7,000 that I have spent for the rope trick.”
Nevertheless, the dream won't die. Ishamuddin is still working out the kinks, and he's not fool enough to believe he can make his assistant climb into the heavens and disappear. But he hasn't given up on the rope trick yet. As he demonstrates a bit of sleight of hand with a one-rupee coin, he describes how he can add the expected grand finale to the legendary trick — when he'll chop his son into bits and produce him whole again from his magic basket.
Using back of a napkin math he reckons that all he needs is a loan of another $10,000.