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The Great Indian Rope Trick

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

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.