Sunday, March 28, 2010

the great indian rope trick

How an Indian magician's quest for greatness trapped him in debt.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
March 28, 2010

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.

Monday, March 22, 2010

nepal: the big one?

A looming catastrophic earthquake in Nepal could unleash devastation that surpasses that of Haiti or Chile.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
March 22, 2010

KATHMANDU, Nepal — When disaster specialist Amod Dixit looks out his window in Kathmandu, he sees collapsed bridges, demolished hospitals, schools reduced to rubble and dusty corpses lying in the street, the nightmare of Port-au-Prince revisited on his Himalayan home.

“Unfortunately, that is the reality (of what we are facing), if not worse,” said Dixit. “If Kathmandu is impacted with a shaking of an intensity IX on the Mercalli intensity scale, the aftermath is going to be much worse than in Haiti.”

Unlike the more commonly known Richter scale, which measures the magnitude of an earthquake at its epicenter, the Mercalli scale measures the intensity of shaking in specific locations — basically by measuring the destruction of buildings and natural structures.
Dixit has every reason to be worried. The climax of the collision between tectonic plates that thrust up the Himalayas, Nepal is criss-crossed by geologic fault lines — some of which have been building up pressure for centuries. Even if it happens 185 miles away, an earthquake that measures 6 or 7 in magnitude on the Richter scale at its epicenter could generate level VIII, IX or even X level shaking on the Mercalli scale in Kathmandu.

In other words, many believe Kathmandu is overdue for more devastating shaking than the IX level disaster that flattened Haiti this January. The last time a quake like that struck here, in 1934, a quarter of all the homes in the country were destroyed, dozens of revered ancient monuments collapsed and more than 20,000 people lost their lives. The next “big one” could be much worse — especially here in the Kathmandu Valley, a bowl that will trap and amplify the wave of energy.

“Chile has had a huge magnitude earthquake in the past, and as a medium income country it has the resources and institutions in place that have built earthquake-resistant housing and infrastructure,” said Saurabh Dani, disaster management specialist for the World Bank's South Asia team. “Haiti and Nepal are both low income countries, with poor building standards, (and) even if the magnitude of the earthquake is less than the one in Chile, the impact in loss of life would be catastrophic.”

Since 1997, the population of the Kathmandu Valley has doubled, from about 1.5 million people to more than 3 million. Of more serious concern, the population density has also increased dramatically. Each year, between 10,000 and 20,000 new buildings mushroom, most of them constructed with little more than a wink and a nod to the building code, with higher floors built off the books, concrete watered down to save on material, structural columns eliminated and emergency exits ignored. When the big one comes, two-thirds of them will collapse, and the casualty rate will be high.

“The density of the population in each household has seen dramatic growth, so the lethality of the earthquake will be much higher (than we once expected),” said Dixit. “Our estimate (of 10 years ago) of 40,000 dead and 100,000 people injured and requiring hospitalization could easily be doubled — or make it two-and-a-half times or three times.”

And that's only the beginning. Unlike Haiti, Nepal is a landlocked country, with the high peaks of the Himalayas separating it from neighbors, like India and China, that could aid in relief efforts. The only lifeline for supplies and rescue teams for Kathmandu will likely be the small, single-runway airport. And there are no guarantees that its air traffic control system, or its water, electricity and fuel supply will survive the first wave of tremors.

“There is no emergency response plan for the airport,” said Dixit. “There's a plan for emergency landings, but I've not seen or been told about any earthquake emergency contingency plan for airport operation.”

As witnessed in Haiti, managing the relief effort for a disaster on the scale of the one expected here presents a tremendous challenge — even with the U.S. military's Southern Command only 700 miles away in Miami. The conventional wisdom is that rescuers have just 72 hours to pull people out of the rubble, after which any survivor is considered a fluke. And despite the herculean efforts deployed in Port-au-Prince, relief workers were only able to save about 130 people from among a hundred thousand who were buried alive. The answer clearly lies in prevention — or mitigation — rather than rescue. There, too, Nepal's situation is grim.

“My preoccupation is how do we reduce the number of people we have to extract from the rubble,” said Robert Piper, the head of the United Nations' humanitarian effort in Nepal. “That's the mitigation measures, and that's where our preparedness is nothing short of pathetic.”

Piper is one of the driving forces behind a pioneering effort to change that. Bringing together a consortium including the U.N., the Red Cross, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, the $130 million project aims simultaneously to ramp up Nepal's ability to respond to a major earthquake and mitigate its effects by improving the structures of schools and hospitals — potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

“It's not going to save every life,” said Piper. “We can't retrofit every building in the Kathmandu Valley. But if we retrofit all the schools, if we fix the hospitals, if we shift the bridges, if we put water sources in where people are going to be evacuated ... we're going to have an impact.”

It's Dixit's NSET that's shown the way forward, or at least the first step. Realizing that demolishing and rebuilding 32,000 public schools would be impossible for a country with a per capita income of less than $500, the local organization has shown that it's feasible to retrofit schools to prevent loss of life — if not always the loss of the building — for as little as $30,000. And in outlying areas where costs escalate dramatically for concrete and rebar, almost any material, including traditional adobe, can be adapted to earthquake-safe designs. So far NSET has retrofitted some 200 schools, providing a strong proof of concept.

Dixit says that over the last decade, NSET has shown that preparing for disaster is not as costly as once imagined, that the knowledge and technology to make a difference is available, and developing countries don't have to be distressed that only rich nations can afford safety. But proving that is far from enough.

“Our school program is very famous, and everybody likes it, and we have been invited to other countries to talk about it, but there's a tremendous sense of guilt with us that we have only been able to go out to 200 schools,” said Dixit. “That is a gloomy picture.”

Even for stopgap measures like retrofitting, the challenges are enormous. Awareness of the risks is high, but poor people are still inclined to cut corners to save construction costs. Kathmandu has no mayor to ride herd on building inspectors, fire chiefs and other officials responsible for making the city safe. And national politicians — notoriously reluctant to focus on issues that won't gain them any political capital until years down the road, if at all — are now wrapped up in a complex peace process following a decade-long civil war.

So although everyone knows that if the big one were to hit tomorrow, the loss of life would be nothing short of catastrophic, in Dixit's words it's up to the banks, the ambassadors and the U.N. to take up the baton now.

“It's a crime not to have an earthquake resistant building in Kathmandu. It's a gross crime,” said Dixit.

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Monday, March 08, 2010

delhi's endangered heritage

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
March 8, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — In the crowded neighborhood of Nizamuddin West, the 16th century Do Siriya tomb stands, crumbling, amid a hodgepodge of apartment buildings. Like the rest of this bustling residential area, the streets here throng with men in skullcaps. Here and there a goat or sheep is tethered to the wall. And if anybody knows that there's a supposed archaeological wonder to be preserved, he's more than likely to resent the claim on his property.

“These buildings aren't registered as archaeological monuments, and most of them are private property,” complains Feroz, a white-bearded resident who preferred not to give his real name. “People have been living here for centuries — inside of the very monuments that are now protected. And now the government wants to displace them. What is a monument? If some government minister comes and stays in the hotel over there, will it become a monument?”

First settled more than 2,000 years ago, Delhi boasts a wealth of ancient architecture. Tucked into residential and commercial neighborhoods, its so-called “monuments” give the city a historical richness to rival Rome's. But due to the frustration of citizens like Feroz and the combined pressures of India's huge population, poverty and rural-urban migration, many of Delhi's historical structures may soon be absorbed by a city that's growing out of control. According to the ministry of culture, 12 of Delhi's most important monuments have already been virtually wiped out, and experts say many others are slowly being dismantled or taken over by land-starved citizens.

A center of Indian civilization since before Christ, Delhi has been the capital of many empires — all of which left their mark on the city. From the 12th century Slave Dynasty through a succession of Mughal emperors and the British Raj, Delhi's conquerors left behind an incredible legacy in stone: towering minarets, echoing tombs, crumbling madrasas and — on the modern city's outskirts — entire ruins of centuries-old civilizations. Most have been forgotten.

“All together, in Delhi we have near about 1,200 monuments, but out of those the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has protected only 176,” said K.K. Mohammed, the ASI's superintending archaeologist (Delhi).

All manner of ills threaten Delhi's history. Not long ago, Mohammed was fighting to evict religious leaders who had laid false claim to four ancient Muslim structures in the outlying neighborhood of Mehrauli. In the ruined 14th century fort of Tughlaqabad, rural migrants to the city have set up camp.

But that's not all.

In recent weeks, the ASI has filed a court case against the Indian railways for beginning work on a five-story building within the protective buffer zone of Nila Gumbad, an early Mughal-era monument. It will soon issue show cause notices to 92 more properties throughout Delhi — including two Commonwealth Games projects and a stretch of the Delhi Metro — for violating the 100-meter buffer zone for other protected monuments. And even at the Red Fort itself, where the ASI's headquarters are located, the ASI has identified for demolition 100 tin sheds and toilets built by the Indian army during the period from 1947 to 2003, in which it used the fort as a military building.

The reasons for this chaos are manifold.

With government coffers stretched by so many other pressing problems, the ASI doesn't receive nearly enough funding to protect even the city's most important monuments. Indian governments are notoriously slipshod when it comes to implementing plans for urban development, which not only leaves thousands homeless but also creates a general atmosphere of lawlessness when it comes to publicly owned property. Politicians are reluctant to alienate segments of the population they consider “vote banks” to protect ancient stones. And, overall, India's citizens are more focused on the future's promised prosperity than the past's stories of lost grandeur.

“This is a country where large portions of the population believe that the past is a dark place, a time of colonialism and oppression, and they look forward to an exciting and ultramodern future,” said author William Dalrymple.

Perhaps that's why Delhi has not been able to capitalize on its historical riches. Tourists flock to the Red Fort, Humayun's Tomb and the Qutab Minar — all three of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But many more sites lie anonymous and forgotten, and even at the striking and famous monuments the city has failed to develop the associated programs needed to earn Delhi a place in travelers' minds alongside Cairo, Athens and Rome.

Restricted by rules designed to eliminate graft, the contracts for promoting these monuments must be awarded by government tender to the lowest bidder, leaving little scope for a visionary revolution. Worse still, for the most part the concerned agencies are infected by the same bureaucratic malaise that paralyzes the rest of the country's government-run institutions. The best a tourist can hope for are a few turgid signboards and a gregarious but formulaic (and sometimes misinformed) guide.

“I call it architectural bones without historical flesh,” said Mohammed. “Without historical flesh it is very bare. A historian is able to visualize, but not an individual. It should be a thrilling experience.”

If nothing changes, even Delhi's ancient skeleton may soon be gone.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

the michael jordan of india

Meet Sachin Tendulkar: the best athlete (and corporate sponsor) you've never heard of.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
March 2, 2010

NEW DELH, India — At 7:30 on a sunny Saturday morning, most of the city is still fast asleep. Rush hour won't begin until 10. But three separate cricket matches are already underway at New Delhi's Africa Avenue sports field.

There's a chill in the air as one portly bowler runs up, windmills his throwing arm and fires the ball at the wicket. Then, thwack!, shouts erupt as the batsman swats the delivery high into the sky toward the car park. It's a “six,” cricket's version of the home run.

“Now we play twice in a week,” said 26-year-old Sunil Kumar, who was keeping wickets. “In younger days, we used to play every single day. We come early in the morning, at 6 or 7, so we can play at least four matches before people have to go to work.”

A quick glance at the players tells you everything you need to know about the reason they're here. By turns spindly, pot-bellied, pigeon-toed and bow-legged, these are no fitness freaks. They're not up on the sports field at the crack of dawn out of some misplaced obsession with the peak of their biceps or the cut of their abs.

They're here because, like millions upon millions of Indians, they're mad about the one maddening sport at which this dismally unathletic country excels. And, again like millions upon millions more, they all worship the same hero: a 5-foot, 5-inch tall, curly-haired, 37-year-old cricketer with a reedy, teenager's voice who just might be the Greatest Of All Time — and the best athlete you've never heard of. His name is Sachin Tendulkar. But here in India, he's simply Sachin.

“The only name that we think of when we think of cricket is Sachin,” said Kumar. “Every single record of batting is Sachin. Whatever — centuries, half centuries, sixers, fours, boundaries, runs, test matches, one days — he is the one.”

As Kumar's passion and these early morning games suggest, India's love for cricket verges on the pathological. Walk through any neighborhood at any time of the day, and there's bound to be a match on in an alley (or “gulley,” as it's called here). Drive from Delhi to Agra or Lucknow, and with every sign of civilization you'll find a tea stall and a cricket match. Everything from the schoolyard to the cemetery doubles as a “pitch,” or field, and everybody from the lowliest cowherds to the poshest scions of snooty South Delhi seems to carry a bat and ball.

Maybe it's popular because its gentlemanly style recalls the British benchmarks for native upward mobility — in its classic five-day form, after all, the game is still played in starched white uniforms. Maybe it is that it doesn't require huge muscles or tremendous stamina. Or maybe it is simply that Indians are good at it. But everyone agrees to one thing. Cricket is the one religion that unites Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Jain.

And Sachin?

“They call him 'god of cricket,' and I think he is god of cricket,” said Vijay Lokpally, cricket correspondent for the Hindu newspaper.

Last month, Sachin staked perhaps his strongest claim yet to the title of the greatest batsman of all time with a brilliant performance against South Africa. Parrying and slashing the ball all over the field, he became the first player in the 39-year history of that form of the game to score 200 runs in a one day international, or ODI. But even though it was the cricketing equivalent to Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in the NBA, it was not the statistical milestone — which joins Sachin's long and growing list — so much as the bold and seemingly effortless grace of the “knock” that converted nay-sayers. That's because unlike baseball, which it resembles in other ways, cricket does not reward power and bat speed so much as cleverness and control.

“In the history of cricket, four individuals have had a definitive impact on the game; the Englishman W. G. Grace, the Australian Don Bradman, the West Indian Garfield Sobers and the Indian Sachin Tendulkar,” said historian Ram Guha, the author of "A Corner of a Foreign Field." “He is certainly one of the four greatest cricketers ever.”

Wedge-shaped and flat on one side, the cricket bat is more like a paddle or broadsword than a club. And the gold standard of batting is the ability to wield its blade to slice and steer the ball at will to the spots in the field where there are no defenders — employing a daring and creative variety of swings, cuts, chops and blocks that commentators evocatively describe as “swashbuckling.” Sachin was arguably the first Indian player to embrace this free-flowing and aggressive style of play — emerging at a time when India was a puny, Third World-upstart vying for respect.

“India suffered from a combination of self-loathing and a feeling that it was not getting its due recognition,” said Santosh Desai, CEO of FutureBrands.

Sachin changed that. India's Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali rolled into one, Sachin's rise prefigured and paralleled that of the country. When he first walked onto the pitch against Pakistan in hostile Karachi in 1989, Sachin was a pint-sized 16-year-old with a squeaky voice and a wild 'fro. More Harry Potter than LeBron James, he was David facing Goliath, and a nation of mothers held their breath when Waqar Younis rushed toward him to fire a 100-kilometer fastball at his skull. Watching him beaned repeatedly and then unceremoniously bowled out for a mere 15 runs, many softhearted souls cried out that the boy batsman had been brought along too fast.

“The general impression was that he was being pushed too early,” said Lokpally.

But on the last day of the match, again against Younis, a legend was born. Decked by a fastball to the face, Sachin picked himself up, dusted himself off, and went on to post 57 runs with blood streaming from his nose. “That convinced everybody that this boy was different,” said Lokpally.

A fan club soon followed. Then accolades, then unprecedented riches, and, finally, as the years marched on, a cascade of statistical records.

Begun around the same time that India liberalized its economy and allowed the introduction of private television channels (in 1991), Sachin's career drove an “economic renaissance” in a sport that had never been lucrative, according to Desai. When Sachin first signed an endorsement deal worth about $5 million at today's exchange rate, he changed the scale of cricketing — and Indian — economics by several orders of magnitude.

Before long, he was selling everything from laundry detergent to Pepsi, and on the way to an estimated net worth of about $60 million today, he'd help make the celebrity endorsement a vital part of the marketing strategy for any brand that wanted to compete. The key to his appeal was simple. To Indians, he showed that the fearless underdog — no matter how small — was not only capable of standing up to the larger players from swaggering England, South Africa and Australia, but was also able to dominate them.

“What Sachin did was for the first time he gave India a sense of domination. Sunil Gavaskar played a defensive role. He proved that Indians could face up to the fastest bowlers in the world. But it was about facing up, navigating and negotiating, rather than dominating,” said Desai. “In Sachin's case, he was this cherubic 16-, 18-year-old boy with a reedy voice, and that only made it more distinctive and more magical. When you had very little to back and look up to, Sachin became something that everyone could feed off.”

For a long time, he was virtually India's only hero. And his career suffered as a result. Through his long innings he has amassed more than 12,000 runs in Test (or five-day) cricket and more than 30,000 runs in international cricket — thousands more than any player in history. He holds the record for the highest number of “centuries” (100-run games) in both Test and One Day cricket, and his tally is still rising.

As of last week, he's the only man to score 200 runs in a single one-day match. And he did it all despite adverse conditions. In the '80s and '90s Sachin labored like the proverbial Casey at the Bat. India's batting lineup was compared disparagingly to a bicycle stand: When one falls, they all fall. Sachin carried the heavy burden of the hopes and dreams of a billion Indians on his shoulders. And as he grew and became one of the team's senior players, sometimes he could not help but temper his naturally aggressive and inventive style of play.

That's why last week's performance was especially exhilarating for so many Indians. Over the past five years, Sachin's team has been transformed by an infusion of brash, young players from the new, booming India. The pressure is as great as ever. But their level of confidence is unprecedented.

Today India's giant, growing consumer market provides the advertising dollars that fund the game — giving India more muscle than England or Australia when it comes to the business of the sport. And just as India's entrepreneurs are now acquiring companies like Jaguar and Land Rover and threatening to overtake the biggest markets in the world, India's cricketers no longer play “not to lose.” That means that even at 37 years old, with his best days as an athlete behind him, Sachin has been freed to play like he was meant to do since he was 17.

And India can't get enough.

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