[Book Review] "Sorceror's Apprentice" by Tahir Shah

post by lsusr · 2021-11-20T11:29:21.361Z · LW · GW · 11 comments


    Do not stick your hand in hot oil.
    Do not stick your hand in molten metal.

I don't like cars. Watching the world go by through a car window is like watching television. You're too protected.

There's a book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig. It's about a father-son motorcycle trip. My dad and I liked it so the summer before college I proposed we do a father-son motorcycle trip just like in the book.

Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about being one with your machines. Motorcycles are like bicycles and Arch Linux. You're constantly maintaining your machine. It breaks. You fix it. It breaks again. You fix it again. They crash a lot when you're starting out.

My dad lives by the motto "It's not an adventure if you know you're coming home alive."

I had never ridden a motorcycle before. My first motorcycle crash tore a hole in my brand new woodland camo army jacket.

We camped on a church lawn and on back roads and on farms and in an construction site and on beaches. We carried a machete for self-defense and in case we had to cut the bikes out of cactus patches like my dad had to on his last adventure. We met gold prospectors and the man who held the world record for the fastest wheel-driven vehicle. He flipped over three times in the air when he crashed his bike and even he wouldn't ride on city streets. Motorcycle riding on public roads is insanely dangerous.

We had been on the road for a few days when we rendezvoused with a third biker named Jersey Mike. Jersey Mike and my dad were "terrists" [sic] in the biker club called the Underground Terrist Motorcycle Cult. They were members of the same cell. That's how they met. I tend to use pseudonyms when I write about people without their permission. Not Jersey Mike. A pseudonym wouldn't do Jersey Mike justice. It'd be sacrilege to Loki.

I was riding a Suzuki DR650 modified with handlebars and a fuel tank suitable for long distance adventure. The rest was mostly unsuitable for long distance. It was almost a dirt bike. Jersey Mike asked if I had ridden it in the sand yet. I said no. He asked why not.

  1. I was barely capable of riding a motorcycle on solid ground.
  2. You're not supposed to ride motorcycles on the beach.
  3. The beach was located at the bottom of a cliff, without road access.

Jersey Mike took the obvious course of action and rode my motorcycle straight down the cliff onto the beach. The motorcycle was soon rendered inoperable. Its clutch plates were polished smooth. Jersey Mike left the broken motorcycle on the beach and took off back home to New Jersey. My father and I were left with a single operable motorcycle between us.

The local police showed up. They laughed at us and told us it wasn't their problem.

The federal police showed up. They laughed at us and told us it wasn't their problem.

My dad asked my opinion of what we should do. I proposed we eat lunch.

While we were at the restaurant, the government authorities responsible for the beach discovered our parking infraction. They taped a notice to the DR650 threatening to impound it as soon as they could figure out how.

That's how we ended up disassembling a motorcycle engine on a sandy beach.

The inside of a motorcycle is as precise as the outside is tough. A little sand inside the engine can do a lot of damage. A motorcycle's internals are lubricated with oil and grease. Beaches are windy. Sand sticks to oil and grease.

You know how some beaches have rocky bits where you can get out of the sand? Not this beach. On this beach there was nothing but dry sand between the Pacific Ocean and the cliff. We laid a tarp under the bike and did our best to keep the thing clean.

Motorcycles have manual transmissions. The clutch engages and disengages the connection between the transmission and the engine's drive shaft. With the clutch plates polished smooth, the engine was permanently disengaged from the transmission. The bike wouldn't go anywhere.

We tightened the clutch and reassembled the bike. The engine was no longer permanently disengaged from the transmission. Instead, the engine was permanently engaged to the transmission. This was enough to get the bike off of the beach and the government off our backs but not enough to get us back on the road again.

The shell of the engine is two chunks of steel with a gasket between them. Each time you put the engine together you are supposed to replace the gasket. Gaskets are specific to each model of engine. We fixed the clutch, but to get back on the road again we'd need a new gasket.

The closest available gasket was hundreds of miles away, in another state.

My dad took off to get a new gasket. I was alone, three hundreds miles from home in Newport, Oregon. I had no transprtation but my feet. This was before I owned a smartphone and a computer.

It was years before I learned to program too. The only job I had ever held was "street magician". I rented a campsite and pitched a tent. It was the most I'd spend on accomodations until we hit Mexico. I did a few magic tricks for the family in the neighboring campsite.

Magic changes slowly. I learned magic from big dusty books written years before I was born. I read every decent book on magic at my local library. Buying books was an expensive gamble. I owned only a few of them.

I wandered into town where I checked out the magic section of the local library. That's how I discovered Sorceror's Apprentice by Tahir Shah.


In Sorceror's Apprentice, Tahir Shah describes learning to do magic from Hafiz Jan, keeper of Tahir's great-great-great-grandfather’s tomb. Tahir learns everything he can from Hafiz Jan. Having exhausted Hafiz Jan's knowledge, Tahir journeys to India in search of Hafiz Jan's mentor Hakim Feroze.

Tahir tracks down Hakim Feroze in India. Hakim Feroze teaches Tahir the fundamentals of misdirection, and then informs Tahir that the real experts are the sadhus (godmen) who use magic tricks to deceive people into believing the sadhus are avatars of the gods.

Sorceror's Apprentice is a book that defies categorization. The Newport library housed Sorceror's Apprentice in the nonfiction section because it's a fact-based travelogue. My university library classified it as fiction because Hakim Feroze never existed. Sorceror's Apprentice is better-researched than many nonfiction books I've read. The focus is on magic tricks, but there's lots of other fascinating stuff going on too. Ghamelawallas pay for the privilege of cleaning others' shops.

Gold dealers in the West value the dirt swept from workshop floors. An old Hasid jeweller in Manhattan once told me he had sold the antique floorboards from his factory. Their purchaser incinerated the planks to extract the gold dust which had worked its way into the crevices over the years. But as I came to realise, the clan of the ghamelawallas, Calcutta’s unofficial army of gold-scroungers, put even the great recyclers of New York to shame.

Taking their name from their ghamela, heavy iron pans, the city’s ghamelawallas begin work in the middle of the night. Long before the bazaar’s jewellers are open for business, they turn up to sweep out the workshops. Like the tiny birds which peck the teeth inside crocodile mouths, ghamelawallas perform a vital, if not uncelebrated, service. Every grain of dust is meticulously collected. Handing the business’ owner a few rupees, the precious dirt is taken away to be treated.

Many ghamelawallas make their homes on the streets of Calcutta. Nearly all are migrant workers, with wives and children who they see once a year. Most begin their careers as apprentice ghamelawallas, arriving to work alongside their fathers at the age of six or seven. They sleep on charpoys, rope beds, in alleyways, and wash at hand-pumps. Wander the back-streets near the Bow Bazaar and you’ll see them sitting on the pavements, toiling over the jewellers’ dirt. Mixed amid the jumble of pavement life, one could easily dismiss the huddle of squatting figures without a second glance. But like so many in Calcutta, the ghamelawallas are masters of creating a living from almost nothing. The tattered sweepers, squatting at shin-level perform an intricate scientific procedure.

First, the scraps of paper and straw and larger pieces of rubbish are removed. These will be sold later to ruddiwallas, ‘rag-pickers’. Then the actual dirt is washed in clean water. When it has been swilled about, a few drops of nitric acid are added. This dissolves all the metals except for the gold. The residue is then treated with a solution of barium, which amalgamates the gold particles. After this, the remaining compound is burned in a crucible, on a choolah, a small stove. As miniature hand-driven bellows blast air into the embers, a tiny nugget of gold is formed at the base of the crucible.

Some other Indian cities have ghamelawallas as well. But those in Calcutta dismiss their rivals as impostors. For nowhere on Earth has recycling been taken to such exalted levels as in Calcutta. Whereas ghamelawallas working in, say, Bombay, treat the salvaged dirt once, their fellow gold-seekers in Calcutta are far more ingenious. When the initial burning is over, the first group of ghamelawallas sell the dirt from which they have extracted gold to another group of ghamelawallas. More impoverished than the first, the second group repeat the process, removing even more minute traces of the precious metal. These ghamelawallas sell the dust on to yet another team of washers, who pan it on the banks of the Hoogly. When they are finished with the dust, they peddle it to builders, who turn it into bricks.

Sorceror's Apprentice is among my favorite books on capitalism. There's a man who rents babies to beggar women (because a woman can earn more money begging if she's holding a crying baby) and a woman who "hires [a] cow each day, once the milkman’s finished with it, and she lets strangers pay her money to feed it…. The milkman milks the cow and then, instead of looking after it all day, gives it to a woman who pays him for the privilege of looking after the animal."

The sun was going down but it was summer. The tent was yet warm enough. I clicked on my headlamp and turned another page.

One of my favorite magic tricks in Sorceror's Apprentice is the one where you pretend to stick your hand in a pot of boiling oil. If you stuck your hand in a pot of boiling oil for real you'd maim yourself. To do the magic trick, the magician fills a pot mostly with oil and sneak a thin of lemon juice on the bottom. Lemon juice stays at the bottom because water is denser than oil. Lemon juice has a low boiling point—even lower than water. Heat is applied to the bottom of the pot. The lemon juice begins to boil at a temperature much lower than the actual boiling point of oil but to someone who only saw the oil go in, it looks like you have a pot of boiling oil. Thanks to the temperature differential between the bottom and top of the pot, the temperature of the oil at the top is even cooler than the lemon juice. Do it right and the oil is cool enough to stick your hand into. (Do it wrong and you will maim yourself.) I have performed the trick multiple times for real audiences.

Do not stick your hand in hot oil.

The scariest magic trick in Sorceror's Apprentice is where you stick your hand in molten lead. Lead melts at 327.5°C. There is no cheating involved. You actually stick your hand into molten lead. You have to do it quickly, your hand has to be perfectly dry and you have to not splash yourself. I haven't tried it myself, but Tahir Shah is confident it really works and this guy on YouTube appears to be splashing his hand through molten metal.

Do not stick your hand in molten metal.

A day passed. Then another night. I had only a couple chapters left when my dad arrived back with the gasket. We quickly reassembled the motorcycle. I returned the unfinished book back to the library and we returned to our adventure.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Raemon · 2021-11-20T12:04:28.467Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This was a very entertaining read. I’m… trying to figure out if I also learned something, but whether I did or not this was a well written version of whatever it is.

Replies from: aphyer
comment by aphyer · 2021-11-20T15:10:38.516Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have learned that I do not want to go on an adventure.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2021-11-20T21:55:08.737Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh neat. I’ve been on adventures and think they are good for me and found this post to roughly hold constant my desire for more of them.

comment by justinpombrio · 2021-11-21T00:35:38.615Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From what I've heard, the trick with lead is to wet your hand first. Then the lead boils the water, which presumably turns into a layer of steam that briefly pushes the lead away from your hand.

This is not advice. Do not stick you hand in molten metal.

Replies from: Pattern
comment by Pattern · 2021-11-22T22:53:37.719Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do not stick your hand in molten metal.

Bold, or other effects can be added by:

Copying text with the effect.

Highlighting it and selecting B, etc. Some options, like strikethrough text are not apparent in some editors, like Draft-JS. (Copy your text out before switching so you don't lose it.)

comment by Vaniver · 2021-11-23T03:59:28.284Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You have to do it quickly, your hand has to be perfectly dry and you have to not splash yourself.

Also, if this is anything like other tricks like this, you probably don't want to have any hairs on your hand.

comment by YimbyGeorge (mardukofbabylon) · 2021-11-24T12:29:34.745Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good to find someone else who appreciates this book. Probably the best book on India in a long time. 

comment by Pattern · 2021-11-22T22:48:19.446Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
and he even wouldn't ride on city streets.

and even he wouldn't ride on city streets.

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2021-11-23T08:18:37.025Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fixed. Thanks.

Replies from: Pattern
comment by Pattern · 2021-11-24T16:55:40.303Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

By the way, this was a cool book review.

(The table of contents on the left, didn't really follow the structure, but as per usual I just read the whole thing without looking at that until afterward.)

Does the review start with how you found the book in order to give the reader a taste of what reading that book is like, or just because how you find a book affects things like whether you finish it, and how you understand it?

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2021-11-24T20:16:41.782Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wanted to give readers the experience of what it was like for me to read the book.