• The Claimants of Supernatural Powers in Rural India

    The well-known rationalist writes about his experience of debunking supernatural myths and legends, and his friendship with Gauri Lankesh.

    Narendra Nayak

    September 15, 2017

     

    Poster of Narendra Nayak's workshop at Baghpat/ Image courtesy Narendra Nayak

     

    Recently, I conducted a three-day workshop on the exposure of so-called miracles for primary school teachers in a place called Baghpat, about 50 kms from Delhi. Baghpat remains a small town though it is the district headquarter; and a rural area, despite its proximity to the national capital. One of the trainees was a devotee of some baba — probably the recently convicted rapist Ram Rahim. He was desperately trying to cling to every so-called supernatural phenomenon I demonstrated and debunked. He tried his best to perform something I could not expose, and failed miserably every time. Finally, on the last day, he admitted defeat and said, he would try to think rationally, and expose those who claimed to possess supernatural powers. At the valedictory function, he made a grand declaration to that effect before the guests, who included the revenue and education department officers.

     

    Audience at Narendra Nayak's workshop at Baghpat/ Image courtesy Narendra Nayak

     

    I went back to the first time I met her, in connection with the investigation we had conducted together in 1992 or 1993. It was the case of a man from a village called Dyamalapura near Tumkur, about 50 kms to the north of Bengaluru on the highway to Pune. This man was allegedly blessed with a sort of super power by Shani. The claim was that he could read playing cards by looking at the reverse side. It was said he acquired this ability sometime before Independence, and had been using it since to earn huge amounts by playing in clubs and casinos. He had been “tested” by a number of journalists and certified to be genuine.

     

    This brought to mind one of the most powerful tendencies of rural/ semi-urban India — the claim of some phenomenon out of this world. Since I have been conducting workshops for more than 25 years, and have gone to hundreds of such places, I come across many such examples. My familiarity with magic tricks and my rational approach make it relatively easy to reproduce or expose these phenomena. Discreet warnings have also put a stop to many of these.

     

    Narendra Nayak demonstrates a ritual practised in coastal Karnataka and elsewhere that involves burning of camphor on tongues and palms/ Image courtesy The Hindu

     

    On the last but one day of the Baghpat program, at 9 pm, I got the news that my old friend Gauri Lankesh had been shot dead. The next few hours I spent on press interviews, notes and reactions. But once the news sank in my mind, I went back to the first time I met her, in connection with the investigation we had conducted together in 1992 or 1993. It was the case of a man from a village called Dyamalapura near Tumkur, about 50 kms to the north of Bengaluru on the highway to Pune. This man was allegedly blessed with a sort of super power by Shani. The claim was that he could read playing cards by looking at the reverse side. It was said he acquired this ability sometime before Independence, and had been using it since to earn huge amounts by playing in clubs and casinos. He had been “tested” by a number of journalists and certified to be genuine. I was on a tour of Karnataka at that time. Wherever I went, I was asked how the man did it. This made me announce an award of Rs. 10,000 if he could read, from the reverse side, nine of the ten cards that I would deal him. I got a call from Gauri, who wanted me to conduct the test at Bengaluru in her presence, because she had tested him and found that the powers were genuine. She was categorical that it was not sleight of hand because he could correctly read the cards she had dealt him. She said it was up to me to expose him as she was sure no one else could. She was then working as a reporter for Sunday, published by the Anand Bazar Patrika group of Kolkata, and she wanted to write an exclusive report.

    He could tell whether it was a six or a seven or an ace or a king. But he could not say whether it was a diamond, a club or a heart. Dr. H.N. Narasimhaiah was taken aback. He told me that this man appears to be demonstrating supernatural powers. He called Dr. C.R. Chandrashekar, a psychiatrist, to examine the man. Those were the days of landlines only; by the time CR reached the phone I told HN that I had solved the case!

    The test was conducted in the chambers of Dr. H. Narasimhaiah, the former Vice Chancellor of Bangalore University who had, three decades back, constituted the first committee for the scientific investigation of paranormal powers by a university in India. The committee met with stiff resistance, with a number of so-called godmen scheming to get rid of him from his post. Now, at the test, to pre-empt any fraud with a marked deck, I had specified that I would bring the card pack. But the “miracle man” Hanumantarayappa went a step further. He said I had to bring a particular brand of commonly available playing cards, and I could open the seal before dealing the cards. At the appointed time, we went to Narasimhaiah’s chamber. Gauri was also there. I showed the man the seal of the card pack, then tore it open. He asked me to deal the cards. I did it very carefully so that he could not peek under the cards. But just by staring at the reverse side, he could identify them easily. As I dealt the cards, he called them, and he was correct every time. But he had a limitation. He could call only the denomination but not the suit. He could tell whether it was a six or a seven or an ace or a king. But he could not say whether it was a diamond, a club or a heart. Dr. H.N. Narasimhaiah was taken aback. He told me that this man appears to be demonstrating supernatural powers. He called Dr. C.R. Chandrashekar, a psychiatrist, to examine the man. Those were the days of landlines only; by the time CR reached the phone I told HN that I had solved the case!

    Everyone was surprised. I opened a brand new pack and asked Hanumantarayappa to check the cards, which he did diligently. I asked him to deal the cards, and I began calling out the denomination along with the suit. Hanumantarayappa was flabbergasted! He came to my side of the table, prostrated at my feet before I could react, and called me his guru. He said I had much greater powers than he did because he could not tell the suit of the cards while I could tell both. He predicted a great career for me (I wonder how that turned out to be a damp squib). He also revealed his trick: he was identifying cards by some microscopic markings at the back which would be hard to point out as deliberate.

    He had become so famous that he was not allowed to play cards in any club. Whenever he entered a club, he would be given refreshment, a few hundred rupees and sent away. He was also very curious about how I had powers superior to him!

    He also confessed that all the tall tales of his prowess at five-star hotels and casinos were fabrications. He got the idea from a Hollywood movie he had seen, and the story of the powers of Shani was to mislead people. The legends that he had made crores from this business were also false. He had earned a few lakhs and was leading a comfortable life with a farm and pump set. He had become so famous that he was not allowed to play cards in any club. Whenever he entered a club, he would be given refreshment, a few hundred rupees and sent away. He was also very curious about how I had powers superior to him! As magicians do not reveal their tricks, rationalists too do not reveal theirs, though they will expose others. So, I told him I would not tell him.

    Once the reports of the secret behind his alleged claims of supernatural powers appeared in the media, those who had lost money to him became active. They began writing to the editors of the publications about how they had lost their hard-earned money to a cheat, and how they wanted revenge.

    What was to be a confrontation turned out to be a friendly meeting and exchange of notes. Gauri made a full page write up for Sunday magazine. There were photos of both of us holding playing cards. Hanumantarayappa was around seventy five at that time but looked quite fit for his age, and he could read without glasses. After that, I made it a point to go to the office of every newspaper and magazine which had reported his supernatural powers, and impressed upon them that they needed to give equal space and prominence to the exposure too. But what followed was an unintended tragic end. Once the reports of the secret behind his alleged claims of supernatural powers appeared in the media, those who had lost money to him became active. They began writing to the editors of the publications about how they had lost their hard-earned money to a cheat, and how they wanted revenge. As a result, whenever Hanumantarayappa tried to enter any club to play cards, they would decline to admit him. With the choicest of rural Kannada abuses, they would tell him that they all knew about his powers and there was no place for him at their establishment. His reputation was in tatters, and many of them thanked me for exposing him.

    Thus came the end of a legend who made news all over Karnataka for his alleged supernatural powers of card reading. But the take-home message for all those who would like to gamble is that commonly available playing cards may have markings on their reverse side which sharp players can read and cheat the gullible. As for my secret: I was using a deck called grandmaster which is used by magicians to do to various types of “psychic readings”!

    In fact, when an attempt was made to “get rid” of me on the 15 March, she called me and asked me to be careful. When I asked her about herself, she said “Adella namage agolrappa” – “We can’t have all that!”

    That was the beginning of my association with Gauri. We were closest in the last few years of her life. In fact, when an attempt was made to “get rid” of me on the 15 March, she called me and asked me to be careful. When I asked her about herself, she said “Adella namage agolrappa” – “We can’t have all that!” Even before the attempt on my life in March, I had been provided with a gunman who was with me during the day. Despite his warnings, I used to go to the swimming pool near my house early in the morning before he came. Then some miscreants, who had been keeping a close watch on my moves, tried to attack me, and my security was upgraded to 24 hours. Would Gauri still be with us if she had accepted security? The same question could be asked about my friend Narendra Dabholkar. He had refused security, saying that if he had security, they (the killers) would get the next one in line. Better me than someone else, he said. And those words turned out to be prophetic.

     


    Also read/ watch:

    Friends and Family Respond to Gauri Lankesh’s Assassination

    The Cultural Fraternity Condemns Gauri Lankesh’s Murder

    We Have Lost Gauri; We Do Not Want to Lose Anyone Else: Megha Pansare in conversation with Souradeep Roy

    “We will not put our pens down…”: Writers Respond to Threat from Hindu Aikya Vedi

    Writers, Academics Respond to Gauri Lankesh’s Murder: Nayantara Sahgal

    Writers, Academics Respond to Gauri Lankesh’s Murder: K Satchidanandan

    Writers, Academics Respond to Gauri Lankesh’s Murder: Anand Teltumbde

    Writers, Academics Respond to Gauri Lankesh’s Murder: Ananya Vajpeyi

    Statement by the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (KKSV) on the Murder of Gauri Lankesh

    AIDWA Condemns the Heinous and Cold-blooded Murder of Gauri Lankesh

    “The murder of Gauri Lankesh follows on the heels of the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi…”

    Friends and Comrades Remember Gauri Lankesh

    They Cannot Silence Us All: Statement from the Indian Writers’ Forum

    They Feared His Words: A Tribute to M. M. Kalburgi

    Why are the Murderers of Dabholkar, Kalburgi and Pansare Still Absconding?

    “Are the murderers of Kalburgi not being nabbed because they’re from the Sanatan Sanstha?”: Keki Daruwalla

    Narendra Nayak is a notable rationalist from Mangalore. He is the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, and the founder-secretary of the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association. He tours the country conducting workshops to promote scientific temper and showing people how to debunk godmen and frauds.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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