Australian author John Zubrzycki is spell bound by Indian magic
AUSTRALIAN writer John Zubrzycki is not done with India just yet, not even after three books set in the country: The Mysterious Mr Jacob, The Last Nizam and now his latest, Empire of Enchantment or Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns. Tracing the evolution of Indian magic in Empire of Enchantment, he tells us how even after 40 years of exploring India, he still had to dig for fresh material. In the city as a part of the ongoing Australian Fest, the 61-year-old diplomat, journalist and author spoke to Indulge on the sidelines of the Apeejay Literary Festival 2019, about interviewing erstwhile CM Jyoti Basu, his favourite dish of bhetki, and exploring more of Kolkata. Excerpts:
When you first came to Kolkata 40 years ago, you stayed at Salvation Army Guest House. Did you ever visit the place again?
Not really. After that visit, I have ascended from no star to more star hotels. At that time, it was the cheapest bet one could get in Calcutta, especially for a young budget traveller like me, who didn’t care about the mosquitoes and bed bugs. In fact I paid, maybe, `50 or less!
How often did you frequent the city after that? And how much has Calcutta changed since then?
I have come here many times; I don’t even remember the count. I have been here as a diplomat, as an author, as a journalist and lastly, a researcher. Calcutta, of all the major cities, has changed the least, barring the usual infrastructure. I first came to India in 1990, in Delhi. I was never stationed in Calcutta as a diplomat. I was the press and cultural attaché. So I would go to different states, meet editors, writers, academicians, and others. CPI(M) was in power back then and Jyoti Basu was the Chief Minister. I even interviewed him when I came back as a journalist in the 1990s.
Tell us about Empire of Enchantment.
In India, it is known as Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns. In the book, I talk about India as a magical empire that has enchanted the West through centuries. Early travellers to India would encounter the yogis, fakirs, jugglers, madaris, holy men, et al doing extraordinary magic like lying on beds of nails and charming snakes. It was all very exotic. Magic was very much an integral part of India, and in fact, synonymous. The idea of Indian magic would precede the picture of the Taj Mahal in a traveller’s mind.
Any personal experiences that inspired you to follow the Indian magic trail?
The first few times when I went on a tour of important monuments in India, scenes of jadugars and kalandars with dancing bears, and troupes doing acrobats, would fill the space. Once I saw a magic show in Alipurduar, where a boy was put in a basket and stabbed multiple times with a sword. The magic was that the boy later emerged unharmed, but I literally jumped off my seat!
Do you still find magic in India?
I do. In fact, I saw a tight rope walk on Park Street today! It’s magical when I meet established magicians like Uday Shankar whose father was also a famous magician. Again, PC Sorcar Jr and his daughter Maneka, Sam Dalal and many others. Whenever I can, I hunt out local street magicians as well. You have written three books on India so far. Will your fourth book also be about our country? It will definitely be about India. Presently, I am working on a biography of Gogia Pasha or Gily Gily Man. Also there are other projects as well, and they are all about India. There is still so much to explore. Last year, I went to Murshidabad and found it to be a fascinating city. There is still so much to explore in Kolkata.
In your book, you also talk about magic in Lucknow and Madras. How did Calcutta’s magic differ from these states?
Bengal and South India were centres for magic. While Bengali magicians were better known for their conjuring skills, and were associated with black magic cults, South Indian magic was more dexterous involving juggling, sword swallowing, and so on.
Would you happen to be a fan of Kolkata’s cuisine as well?
Certainly! I love the fish curry, especially bhetki.