The Wisdom of Coconuts | My Family Travels

“So, you want to learn black magic,” the kindly guru said, bald pate and sea-blue eyes shining with wise amusement.

“Well, uh, I was more hoping to study the role of magic and witchcraft in this community,” I stammered. “Not actually learn to perform it.” Before adding, “Though I guess we could do that too.”

            He chuckled softly at the anxious ignorance of a twenty-two-year-old alone in India for the first time. Compared to my on-edge fascination with this totally foreign Eastern culture, his full-lotus pose radiated the kind of absolute ease that speaks to intimate acquaintance with all things worldly and otherworldly, natural or supernatural. A confidence and poise to convince even the surest skeptic of this otherwise unassuming, vaguely handsome man’s inherent power—power, as I would shortly find out, to see, to predict, even to heal.

            I had traveled to the small coastal town in the Sahyadri Mountains on a research grant sponsored by my university. The original proposal allowed for a 2-week stay at an Ashram, or Hindu temple, including time for fieldwork in the surrounding villages. By collecting “ghost stories” and other firsthand accounts of practicing Hindus’ encounters with sorcery, prominent in rural areas, I hoped to comment on the intersection between Hinduism and belief in witchcraft and magic. In the airwaves above the Arabian Sea, however, a few crossed wires had led the Ashram’s guru to expect a visit from a prospective understudy in black magic; it’s how I found myself face to face with a nationally renowned holy man on a soiled cot in a rusty lean-to that January evening.

            Through the window behind my new spiritual advisor (for I had, albeit hesitantly, agreed to become his youngest disciple) I could see the alabaster peak of the swami’s temple, glowing in the setting sun of an apple crisp-orange sky, hear the cries of monkeys in the dry green of the jungle beyond, and smell, from the shack next door, a simmering yellow dal that already had my eager mouth watering. These sensations were but background music to the drama unfolding right before me: the guru, cross-legged and wide-eyed in an unblinking meditative trance, divining my aura (2-foot wide, and blue, he later pronounced), and combing through the backlogs of my previous lives (that is, what had I left unfinished in each life to necessitate my present incarnation en route to enlightenment?) I was both utterly enthralled and slightly unsettled, knowing next to nothing about what was happening, and willing to believe it even less. That’s when he made the coconut move.

            An ordinary, innocuous coconut, plucked in hairy ripeness from a grove just up the red rock road. He lay the fruit longways flat in his left palm, and concentrated his right hand above it for several minutes. I could just hear him whisper the Hindi equivalent of “Move, please,” when with a come-hither motion of his right fingers the coconut slowly and definitively sat up.

            I wanted to learn black magic. 

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