Last month, a magician known as Jadugar Mandrake died tragically near Howrah Bridge in Kolkata in India during an attempt at an escape stunt underwater. This wasn’t the first time in India or the world that a trick had gone wrong and a magician had died while performing his art and served to underline that magic can be mesmerising when all goes well but dangerous when things don’t work out the way they’ve been planned. Jadugar Mandrake’s death and the dangers inherent in magic set me thinking about the almost magical changes of form in the spirit world. There are no risks of death involved here for the spirits who change form because the spirits have already put the life-death transition behind them. But believe it or not, there are ordinary, living people too who can change form and though their kind of changing form is regarded as an art, it does not fall under the heading of magic or indeed belong to the domain of magic.

Fairy tales and old stories often mention changes of form. Hindu mythology is replete with instances of roop badalna or changing of form. Voodoo and witchcraft too recognise changing form as an art. And in many villages in Garwhal, Kumaon and the Northeast changing form is an accepted practice. Far from Delhi, in a stretch of villages in Jaun-sar-Bawar, a polyandrous area which lies close to the route to Yamunotri—the source of the Yamuna —several “ordinary” villagers possess the power, the ability to change form. Curiously, in a majority of cases I encountered, the villager concerned used this power to try and level scores with another villager, or steal newly acquired gold or silver.

Bali Ram, a young lad from a small village near Nagthat, had, after just a few visits to town, developed a taste for jeans, tape recorders and mobile phones. To indulge himself, he needed hard cash but he was unwilling to work on his ancestral land. Instead he struck a bargain with an old bajgi or drummer and for a hefty sum, it was rumoured, learnt the art of changing form. Once he had mastered the intricacies, it was easy for him to change form, enter the hut of a family which he knew had done well selling their produce, and take away whatever valuables he wanted or could find without detection. However, the theft would soon be detected and before long the villagers got wise to what was happening. At their wits end, they requested the panchayat to ban Bali Ram from living in or entering the village. This was done but proved to be effective only upto a point as Bali Ram made his entries simply by changing form. Nobody for instance, could suspect that a crow or a rabbit could actually be Bali Ram. After many brainstorming sessions, the village panchayat devised a strategy. There was no way they could find to deprive Bali Ram of the powers he had acquired of changing form at will and “raiding” village homes. 

But they realised that though he could change form, even in the assumed form he could not pass through solid obstructions such as a door or wall like a spirit or ghost. Neither could he neither “fly” nor cover distances in a jiffy. Therefore, the best way of containing him would be to somehow have him sent behind bars. Even if he changed into a rat and got out of jail, his absence would be noticed and the police would hunt for him. The panchayat, with the help of the rest of the village, including Bali Ram’s upright family, and the patwari—a local official usually dealing with land issues but very influential, often with ‘police’ powers in remote areas—succeeded in trapping Bali Ram in a fraud and theft case. Bali Ram was sent to jail, but began biding his time. The villagers knew this and began looking for someone who could nullify Bali Ram’s powers of changing form at will, but that’s another story.

In some villages in Jaunsar, I met quite a few women who possessed the ability of changing form. They explained that it was an art form passed down in their families from generation to generation. In earlier times, almost everyone possessed it, because it was an invaluable asset to escape from enemies and attacks from wild animals. Nowadays, they used it chiefly to protect themselves if the need arose from bears or leopards. In fact, a couple of women said they always assumed a bear’s form while collecting wood in the higher reaches of the mountains and changed back into their own form when they were within safe distance of their village.

 However, I did come across a deviation from this peacable transition in a village called Lakhamandal. I have written about this earlier, but briefly, a woman changed form and entered the house of another villager to settle scores. This was not the first attack on the “victim”, who was fully aware of what was afoot and spent some time studying counter measures. On that fateful night, the moment the woman in changed form entered the targeted hut and sprang on the sleeping “victim”, he reacted by grabbing her. Apparently, when somebody is in a changed form, ordinary contact with others does not affect the change in form. But if somebody else manages to grip hard, even momentarily, the ‘changed form’ is forced to return to its original form. In grabbing the woman, the transition to the old form took place and fortunately, the victim was able to tear away the nose ring of the attacker. A panchayat was called immediately even though it was night time and the story was narrated, with the nose ring being a prime piece of evidence. Further investigations revealed amongst other things, the woman’s “torn” nose and she was heavily penalised by the panchayat.

I have written too about another incident in this same village when the late Victor Zorza, the renowned Kremlinologist and I were walking along a narrow mountain path and were suddenly confronted by a confounding “change of form” phenomenon—a bear, a stamping wild boar, a weird, laughing human—all in quick succession. It was only later that we discovered, to our amazement, that it was a villager who had effected those awesome changes of form so effectively. For both of us, it was our first such encounte, and till his last days Victor Zorza was convinced that though there was no doubt about our strange experience, there must be a “perfectly rational” explanation for it. Perhaps he was right—perhaps such an explanation exists but nobody has yet been able to find it. And just as well too that it isn’t easy to find a “master” who can teach you the art. Imagine the mayhem if everybody could change form.

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