Wheel of Destiny
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Mudra Books (New Delhi)
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FACE TO FACE Of magic and mythology Japanese author Mami Yamada talks about street magic and the links between Japan and India. by MEENA MENON "You donft know about the 'Mango Tree' trick?" asks Mami Yamada, her eyes widening in surprise. "But you are from Kerala," she persists. The next thing she tells me is that she learnt Malayalam to speak to mango tree magicians and rattles off a few sentences to prove her point. Yamada, 47, is currently on a lecture tour of India under the Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy fellowship from the Sahitya Akademi. Her book on Indian magic, Wheel of Destiny, is being republished and will be released in New Delhi on October 29. It was published in 1998 as Mango No Ki or Mango Tree in Japan. She has authored several fiction and non fiction books, including Black Umbrella on polyandry in South India and another novel in 1997 about an Indian magician who can stay under water for hours. Her association with India goes back to 1990 when she first came here at the behest of Dalbir Singh, former Union Minister. The effervescent author was invited as a research scholar by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). "The ICCR wanted me to suggest a topic for my research and on the spur of the moment I said Indian magic!" Search for the trick She heard about the mango tree trick as a child. "Itfs a popular street magic where the magician creates a mango tree from a seed right in front of you. Itfs not a tall tree but itfs complete with fruit," she explains. "When I came to India, I thought there would be magicians everywhere," she giggles. "But it was all so modern. I kept asking people about the mango tree magic; they thought I was crazy. I had three months to finish my work and I searched all over the country." Almost at the end of her research, Yamada heard from a contact in Lucknow about a mango tree magician in New Delhi. "I had three hours to catch my flight back," she recalls. She finally tracked the manfs house to a Delhi slum but it was empty. He had died three days earlier. "I felt so empty then but I was determined to come back. Again in 1996 I got an ICCR fellowship and my focus this time was on comparisons between Indian and Japanese mythology." Japanese deity Benzai Ten. She lived in Delhi for a few years with her family; this time she was luckier. While chatting with a friend, she saw a TV news story about a magic school in Kerala. "Like Hogwarts, you know... I could not believe it," her eyes twinkle. She found herself in Kerala again and got in touch with Gopinath Muthukad, executive director of Asiafs only Magic Academy at Thiruvananthapuram. "He told me the mango tree magicians only spoke Malayalam, that too a dialect. So I learnt Malayalam for three months to communicate with the magicians." Finally Muthukad accompanied her to meet the magician in 1998. Most mango tree trick performers are Muslims and Yamada recalls that his name was Shamsuddin. "I wanted to invite him to Japan and asked him if he could do the trick with the cherry tree. He said no, it can only be done with the mango." She goes on, "Itfs purely a matter of presentation. He was a terrific person. I still remember eating the fruit of the mango tree; it was so sweet." It takes years to master this trick and few can do it perfectly. For this brilliant trick, street magicians earn peanuts. Dwindling number What saddens her is the dwindling number of street magicians. "Itfs such a beautiful art, and few in this country know about it," she points out. Magic is all psychology and mathematics, she maintains. She is also fond of the Indian Rope trick. "Itfs so easy," she whispers, bursting into laughter. Yamada is now busy with a new book on the popularity of Goddess Saraswati in Japan where she is fondly called Benzai Ten. "The funniest thing is that even though Saraswati, along with Mahakal and Kubera, are popular in Japan no one knows she is actually from India. She is topmost among the seven major deities in Japan," she says. Like in India, the Japanese Saraswati also has a musical instrument called the biwa. There are five main Saraswati temples in Japan. However, she is the Hidden Deity. In fact, Yamada says, in one temple, she can be seen only once in 60 years. As she leaves, Yamada paraphrases a line by writer Yukio Mishima: there are two types of people; those who can go to India and those who canft. And again her eyes crinkle in laughter.
Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, India