Swami and Mantra by Sam Dalal
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii June, 1997)
One can't help but notice of late the seeming race between publishers to scoop up the
bones of deceased journals and breathe life into them for quick profits. After all, when
you publish an old journal, more often than not you add a table of contents, slap the
pages between hard covers, think up a dustjacket (well, not always), and voila, a new
ride is added to the catalog! Certainly saves the wear and tear of actually finding authors
and illustrators, designers and editors, and all that other publishing bother.
Forgive my spasm of cynicism. I know of course that publishers have only their readers'
best interests at heart, blessing us with material that we might otherwise find difficult or
nigh impossible to obtain. Hence this humble reader is certainly grateful for such
reproductions. On the other hand, it must be noted that, just as popular culture's
noxious nostalgia for the recent past seems to increasingly put the emphasis on the
modifier, "recent," similarly, the reprints of more modern journals seem decidedly less
precious to me than those of a century ago. And even the most kindly purchaser must
crack a wry grin in the face of the fanciful claim that a volume such as this one is
"limited" to 1000 un-numbered copies.
Against this background we find ourselves now presented with two related journals in
one handy volume, namely Swami and Mantra, published successively in the 1970s by
Indian magician (and later dealer) Sam Dalal. For those who might be unfamiliar with
these titles, Swami made its debut in January of 1972, ending its run in December of
1974. Mantra appeared in April of 1975 and suddenly vanished, like so many conjuring
Journals, in July of 1977. As Mr. Dalal relates in his after-the-fact introduction entitled
The Last Word, "The Swami was the dream of a twenty-four year old upstart who had
also accumulated issues of the Jinx in his collection of various magic magazines and
thought, 'I'd like to put out a sheet like that.' Not in terms of aspirations to immortality like the Jinx, but in terms of the 'medium being appropriate for the message.' What I
wanted wasn't right for a formal publication like Abra, Genii or The Gen".
Hence we are presented here with a reprint of the invariably hodge-podge nature of such
one-man productions, complete with typed text, hand-lettered titles, coarse illustrations
and the like from the admittedly "pre-desktop publishing era," as Mr. Dalal aptly deems
the time. And like such journals, from such revered rides as The Jinx and The Phoenix to
lesser lights, we are also presented with a freewheeling catalog of material, from card
tricks by Ed Marlo to bizarre traditional Indian yogic stunts described by Mr. Dalal. And
so there are contributions here from the likes of not only Mr. Marlo, but Peter Warlock,
Milt Kort, Phil Goldstein, Martin Gardner, Tan Hock Chuan, Arthur Emerson and many
others, alongside lesser-known Indian contributors. The material is varied, with an
emphasis of sorts on mentalism and close-up card magic, and as is virtually inevitable in
this kind of pastiche, there is at least one entry that begins with the terrifying remark, "If
you are looking for diabolically clever new moves read no further. If you want first class
entertainment this is it, please don't pass it up because it 'reads' simple." Thanks
anyway, but how about I pass it up just because it sucks, okay?
Of course, the reason that Swami/ Mantra may sell despite any reservations is the
marketing-tag-line-cum-disclaimer featured prominently in the advertisements and on
the otherwise blank back cover: "Caution-This book is not to be sold to anyone under 21
years of age for any reason." Why the "cautionary" note? Because Sam Dalal contributed
about 25 installments of a column entitled Yoga-Maya to Swami, featuring potentially
dangerous yogic sideshow stunts, including the bed of nails, glass eating, razor blade
eating, the acid test, tongue cutting, fire eating, needle from eye, and other fun party
games. Then in Mantra, J. B. Surty contributes a handful of items under the banner title
Jadoo, including blockhead (nail up nose), the blade ladder, biting a nail, Jumping on
broken glass and other playful pastimes.
The publisher and his co-conspirators assure us that these descriptions are merely for
our amusement and we're not supposed to try it. In some cases it does appear that Mr.
Dalal in particular is offering up the real work on some of these timeless performing
arts, but only a madman would use the few paragraphs allegedly describing the
blockhead act as a reliable guide. The truth is that the only way to learn these genuinely
dangerous and always difficult feats is via the oral tradition; that is, to receive personal
instruction by an experienced master. Good luck finding one.
So, read these hair-raising stunts for your edification and amusement, and be prepared
to sift through the rest of the material to mine the rare nuggets of gold that inevitably
lurk within such rich compendiums. Note that without much fanfare or information, the
longstanding publishing house of Kaufman and Greenberg now seems to have become
Kaufman and Company (the Company seems mostly intended to keep the old logo
looking symmetrical). But Kaufman and Company have gone so far as to provide a table
of contents and even a three-color dustjacket, so what the hell, this must be good!