Hazards Of A Guru Buster
by Arnab Ray Ghatak
Some months back, Delhi, the Indian capital, experienced what makes for
hit graphic novels and Hollywood blockbusters - a mysterious apparition
terrorized the lesser sections of the city. Dubbed by the media as the Monkey
Man, this shadowy simian allegedly scratched hapless victims as the city
went straight into panic mode. Two people were killed - though not by the
Monkey Man, but by their fear - when they jumped off roofs and terraces
hearing screams of their neighbours.
As usual, Delhi police were clueless, while media played up wildly imaginative rumours about this mystery monkey. Robots, trained fundamentalist assassins, terrorists sent by India's favourite neighbouring country (Pakistan)… the "explanations" steadily climbed from plain weird to utterly preposterous.
Then one morning, a gent from the Indian Rationalist Association called a press conference, where he debunked the mystery monkey as a result of mass hysteria. Weeks later, the police came to the same conclusion. This is an interview with Sanal Edamaruku, the gent who took on the simian and won. But this wasn't the only supernatural challenge he's faced in his 20-year career as a paranormal investigator. Edamaruku's resume reads like a home-grown version of The X Files, full of mystery, wonder and frequently blurring the line between the real and the unreal.
Impressed by his close encounters, Discovery Channel is filming his latest 'Say No To Superstition' campaign among rural masses and UK's Channel Four has already aired a documentary on him (titled Guru Buster) in 22 countries. Excerpts:
Have you ever suffered from the "Scully Syndrome" as in The X Files? You know, have you ever investigated a phenomenon that shook your own faith in scientific explanations?
Well, by now I can solve a "miracle" in minutes, since most are variations of a few interesting scientific tricks. They are explainable, but still remain mystical enough to con the masses. However there was the eerie Neerja Bhanot case.
Do you remember Neerja Bhanot Misra? Neerja was a successful model and later, an airhostess with PanAm. A vivacious and warm person, Neerja's also been the sole civilian and the only woman recipient of the Ashok Chakra, India's highest civilian award for gallantry.
Her plane was hijacked and landed in Karachi in 1986. Neerja tried helping the passengers get out of the plane through the emergency doors when the hijackers tried to blow up the plane. The terrorists didn't spare her, killing her on the spot. Today, the Neerja Bhanot PanAm Awards are given to women who've demonstrated exemplary courage.
Well, some months after her death, Neerja's mother claimed her daughter was communicating with her. Media lapped it up, and the entire thing became huge. It was a good story - a combination of a beautiful courageous role model and the supernatural.
What was even more mysterious was how Neerja's mother, who didn't know English, went into trances during which she wrote letters -all in English. These were being ghost-written by Neerja's spirit, the media explained, and very soon the mother became as much of a known figure as was her brave daughter.
This was a delicate issue - I didn't want to expose the family as frauds, which they weren't. At the same time I couldn't believe the "explanations". So I decided to investigate.
I went to Mumbai, where the Bhanots lived, and met the family under the guise of a journalist researching a book on afterlife. The family was extremely nice and hospitable and my first instinctive reaction on meeting Neerja's mother was that this educated upper middle class Punjabi family can't possible be lying. Her mother seemed absolutely sound mentally, thus disproving my doubts of her suffering from shock-induced psychosis.
I spent time with the family, getting more confused as I got to know them. It was hard to understand why they'd do such a thing: was it purely for media attention? And then, while I was in Mumbai, the mother began getting messages from the Kabir, the Sufi saint, as well.
Soon, Maharashtra's ministers were queuing up to get advice from the Sufi mystique, via Neerja's mother. Things were getting political, while I still couldn't unravel the mystery behind the ghost-written sheets, which by now had been splashed in newspapers and magazines.
But this Kabir thing got me thinking. At that time we didn't have satellite TV and therefore the choice of audio-visual inputs was limited to Door Darshan. And DD at that time was airing a serial on Kabir. It had a primetime slot and that really helped bolster my analysis. Patients of shock-induced psychosis often include what they might've heard or seen somewhere else in their supernatural routine.
I told the Bhanots that I needed to consult my mother through Neerja's spirit, who (claimed the family) was hovering in the astral plane, in between heaven and hell. This bit they had acquired from a local medium initially consulted when the mother claimed she was hearing Neerja's laughter at dawn, and getting whiffs of her perfume around her room.
I was present when the mother got into her next trance and penned something. It was unintelligible, later deciphered by the mother to be a communiqué from Neerja, confirming her interaction with my mother. Neerja's family declined further attempts to communicate with their late daughter as she had had a rebirth already. Or so they claimed.
I immediately called up Kerala and spoke to my mother. She's still alive, although at that time I felt a little scared, so this call was actually to pacify myself that she was okay and what I'd been through was a hoax.
Then for several days, I'd talk to the family (particularly the mother) in broken Punjabi and Hindi, and then - without them noticing it - would subtly change to English. Guess what? The mother would reply in English - broken English, but English all the same.
I returned to Delhi and presented the information to the press. I recorded all those multi-lingual chats with the Bhanots and had little difficulty in proving that Mrs Bhanot was actually a patient of psychosis, left shattered by the death of her daughter, of whom she was so proud that she hung giant photos of her in the house and showered visitors with copies of her snaps… I got a legal suit for my efforts.
Coming to occupational hazards. How close have you come to a close and dangerous encounter of the supernatural kind?
Fairly early in my career as a paranormal investigator I crossed one Balti Baba. He'd fill up buckets with milk and then pull out holy artefacts from them. That's' how he got that epithet. Twice I had discredited his claims of being immune to fire. But my last tryst with the baba was a close shave.
Two years back, someone from a television channel rang me up and informed me how Balti Baba (who by now enjoyed political patronage of known politicians like Laloo Prasad Yadav) would perform a miracle in a posh South Delhi locality. Among those who'll be witnessing the miracle would be I K Gujral and several other noted figures. I rushed to the spot to find the venue (a posh villa) already heavily crowded, with religious men and women hailing the baba's presence.
Baba's men had built a stack of wheat husk and had drenched it with petrol. The crowd said it'd be ignited once baba sat on it. During those days I was researching the various fire tricks godmen usually use, and this was an easy one. Any material when treated with alum becomes fire resistant. The baba had treated the inner parts of the stack with alum, so only the outsides of the stack would catch fire, giving the visual impression of him sitting right in the middle of a burning pile of husk.
However, the crowd didn't buy my explanation. They didn't know my intention of being there and took me as a spoil sport. Along the veranda leading up to the pile were clay pots with firewood, which'd be set alight for the baba to hold in his bare hands. These were set afire and the crowds began chanting, creating a truly impressive environment. I checked out the pots, they were really blazing hot.
The baba duly appeared, and to my shock, picked up two burning pots and kept them on his palms. I couldn't believe it - the man was holding two heavy pots that are white hot with burning firewood and not batting even an eyelid. Meanwhile, the crowd fell to his feet, chanting his name and begging for his blessings.
Not thinking of anything else, I felt I just had to check the two pots the baba was holding. I, too, fell at his feet and then, while getting up, managed to touch one of the pots. It was cold. (the bottom was insulated by a padding of wet rice). I took one pot away and held it myself, shouting to the mesmerised crowd that it was all a trick.
The crowd didn't believe it. And the baba was livid. I screamed at the top of my lungs, challenging the baba to pick up any of the other (normal) pots. To my utter surprise, he proceeded to do so. He picked up two pots and then suddenly threw one at my face. It missed me by inches, though setting my shirt on fire. He threw the other one too, before howling out in pain. It was then that I saw that his palms were badly burnt.
True to his name, he needed a balti soon afterwards. But it was full of cold water for a change. The folks who had organised the evening's miracle threw baba out and that - thankfully - was my last encounter with the fraud. And guess how this encounter ended? I come home late with my hair, hands and shirt burnt and turn on the telly - it's me in the news. The entire confrontation was recorded live.
How does one get to be an investigator of the paranormal? It's an offbeat profession, to put it mildly, right? So how did you get to become a 'guru buster'?
Well, guru busting is a family tradition of sorts - my journalist father set up one of Kerala's many rationalist societies. Belonging to parents hailing from two different religions gave me a very balanced and objective perspective on God - my parents never influenced me religiously as a child. And that has been a major factor in approaching an alleged 'miracle' from an impersonal, practical point of view.
Anyway, it was in the early 1970s, when I was a political science undergraduate in Kerala that I got interested in debunking manufactured miracles and so-called unexplained phenomena. Kerala had a thriving intelligentsia, with numerous such groups at different levels that had noted luminaries at their helm. It's because of this scientific renaissance of sorts that Kerala's got to where it is now. Nationally speaking, it's far ahead of the other parts in awareness. I formed a student rationalist society in college.
Then in 1977, I came to Delhi for post graduation in international relations from JNU and brought an upgraded version of the Association with me. Over the 24-odd years, we've organised conferences, seminars; acquired new members and even launched an International Rationalist Society that has internationally-known scientists (www.rationalistinternational.net). Nationally, we have 80,000 members-volunteers in over 700 Indian cities. Despite our efforts, people - many of whom are influential, educated and well-known - still fall prey, dogged by their insecure professional and personal lives.
Currently, our international association is preparing to de-mystify Brazil and Chile, two superstition-ridden nations, where our work in India has inspired local intelligentsia to organise miracle debunking activity.
To contact Edamaruku, contact:
P.O.Box 9110, New Delhi 110 091, India
Or visit the Rationalist International website at
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