The Black Magic Is Working
They had been best friends since college, as close as sisters, maybe even too close. They’d giggle over private jokes, swap party dresses, cry with each other through dark hours. Towards the end, though, good fortune was shining on only one of them. Vaishali Singh Kansal, a glamorous Indian entrepreneur in her 30s, owned a clothing line and enjoyed a happy marriage. SJ, on the other hand, was navigating financial struggles and a divorce. The last time the two women met, SJ wasn’t acting like herself.
“She came to stay with me as usual and said she wanted to try on some clothes. It had to be in my bedroom, and not hers. We were comfortable changing in front of each other, but this time she insisted I step out. I remember joking that she should tell me if she was growing a new limb or something. The second odd thing happened when it was time for her to leave. She had forgotten a giant crystal locket on my dresser. She called me back from the lobby and asked me specifically to bring it to her. She didn’t want my husband to do it. When I tried to hand it over, she didn’t want to touch it. I had to drop it straight into her bag.” Kansal was puzzled, but ignored the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, just as she’d ignored the mutual friends who warned her to keep her at a distance, the housekeeper who muttered “that woman isn’t right,” the normally friendly pet dog who growled at SJ and rejected treats from her.
What Kansal found the next morning while cleaning under her dresser was impossible to ignore: a charred lemon. Practically everyone in India knows that the lemon is a potent conduit for kala-jaadu, black magic — so much so that, even in Bangalore, the country’s tech hub, lemons are banned from the legislative assembly. Wildlife researchers sometimes protect their cameras from thieving villagers by strategically placing vermilion-stuffed lemons near them. A lemon is what you curse, burn, or mutilate and leave at an enemy’s home if you’re too chicken to follow the proper tradition of chopping off and depositing a black rooster’s head. “I realized later it was all pre-planned,” said Kansal. “She and her mother were always performing rituals and talking about the evil eye, or some black cloud hovering over them. They wanted to transfer their bad karma to me.” The spell didn’t work, but Kansal has cut off all contact with SJ and is still shaken by the sheer malevolence embodied in the charred lemon and untouchable crystal. “It scared the hell out of me. I don’t understand why someone so close to me would do this, but what I do understand is that people use this vicarious form of darkness to fix their own problems. I don’t believe in black magic, but there are bad individuals who have the urge to do harm. Stay away from such people!”
The lemon Kansal says she found. Apparently, when she cracked it open, she saw it was burned from the inside.
Even for a non-believer like Kansal, the performance of black magic hovers in the murky grey area between evil intent and evil action. She can’t help wondering what SJ, drowning in bitterness and jealousy, might have done to her if she had been allowed into the house again. Might she have slipped something into a drink? What else did she have hidden in her bag? And then the unspoken fear: What if the magic had worked?
It did, apparently, on Ankush Bhasin, a clean-cut young father who works as a coach driver in Melbourne and also financially supports his extended family in India. His troubles began in 2019 when he refused to funnel more money to his sister’s in-laws in the bucolic Indian state of Punjab. His sister’s mother-in law, who often consulted with occult practitioners, was furious. She wanted the money to fund rituals that would help her daughter-in-law to conceive. “She cursed me and said I would take to my bed, be ruined. I didn’t believe in black magic or any of this bullshit then,” Bhasin said. “I didn’t believe it until it happened to me.”
I didn’t believe in black magic or any of this bullshit then. I didn’t believe it until it happened to me.”
On 1 June 2020, his daughter’s first birthday, Bhasin was cutting grass in his garden in Melbourne when he felt an unbearable pain in one knee and fell to the ground. “My knee cap was broken in three places. It was as if someone had cracked it like an almond. Even the doctors were confused. They said they’d never seen a case like it.” The next few months were not much better. Bhasin suffered a series of financial losses and then broke his second knee cap, equally mysteriously. At night, dead relatives would visit his dreams, whispering doom in his ears and sometimes pressing down on his chest until he woke up gasping for air. He is still bedridden and awaiting knee replacement surgery. “I never believed in these things,” he repeated. “If something happens once or twice, you do not care, but when things start going from bad to worse one after the other, you do start to believe.” His family in India consulted a pandit (Hindu priest) who confirmed that Bhasin’s woes were the result of black magic. Lifting the curse would mean undergoing a series of purification rites, but he says the real thing can only happen in India. “There are pandits in Australia too, but they are fake and just want to rip you off.”
In a 1975 essay, the author Jan Morris observed wryly that Indians “love to reduce the prosaic to the mystic.” This is true, but we also love to reduce the mystic to the prosaic, especially if we’re educated middle and upper class Indians. Much has been written about how worship among Hindus is inherently transactional. We wax eloquent about the scriptures and spiritualism, but our elaborate religious rituals, sacrifices, and fasts are usually performed to bribe the gods into bestowing upon us some worldly reward or the other — a baby son, financial success, a long life for the breadwinning husband. Like in much of the rest of the world, Indians are becoming more religious, and our god economy is continuously growing and evolving to cater to everyone from superstitious villagers to Silicon Valley CEOs. You can even buy wealth- or luck-generating prayer ceremonies online, priced depending on how many priests you hire to officiate in them.
But human beings don’t just turn to religion to benefit themselves. We also desire to cause the downfall of an enemy or rival. Let’s face it, success is sweeter when someone else fails. Schadenfreude is part of human nature. To this end, the standard sacred Hindu texts — the shastra — are not of much use. Enter tantra, an ephemeral term that loosely covers mystical practices and penances, sacred and profane in equal measure, aimed at harnessing occult powers to heal, harm, foretell the future, or control the weather. The most extreme practitioners, known broadly as tantrics, know no taboos. Some lurk in cremation grounds and feast on dead bodies, wallow in their own faeces to summon sex-crazed demon-goddesses, mutilate babies at sacrificial altars. Brahmanical Hinduism is obsessed with purity and the hierarchies of caste, gender, and virtue, but tantra has always been open to anybody willing to get down and dirty enough.
The average Hindu views tantra with a mixture of fear, revulsion, and respect. It is generally understood that if you really want something done, especially if it is morally questionable, tantra is far more powerful than ordinary religion. As the religious historian June McDaniel put it, “when the tantras speak, the traditional Hindu texts…run away in fear.” Yet, many potential customers also run away in fear because of the macabre rituals associated with tantra. As a result, many shrewd practitioners have popularized a sanitized and modernized version of tantra aimed at the affluent urban sections of society.
I live in a well-heeled little city near New Delhi, amongst people who are nothing if not cosmopolitan. The local social media groups I’m in are filled with discussions about the best new K-dramas, keto recipes, the benefits of Montessori playschools, the most authentic shawarmas in town. Every now and then, though, someone mentions black magic. Does it exist? What should you do if you suspect you’re a target? There are two main types of responses: recommendations for reliable occultists and sympathetic sharing about similar experiences (mothers-in-law are frequently blamed). Every fifth person, it seems, has been the victim of black magic, although no one ever confesses to having it done. There’s a third, and rarer, type of response too: the dreary rationalist admonishment. “How can you believe in these things?” The usual response to these naysayers, though, is not to reference the formidable powers of shadowy deities, but to claim that “Tantra is science!” Like I said, we love reducing the mystic to the prosaic. One way of doing this is to try to legitimize our deep-rooted beliefs in the supernatural by invoking scientific concepts like the laws of energy or quantum tunnelling, and also occasionally mixing them with anticolonial arguments about the hegemony of Western science and the importance of honoring indigenous knowledge systems. In this framework, occultists are not mystics, but healers and therapists – and often have quite nice offices in malls.
Every fifth person, it seems, has been the victim of black magic, although no one ever confesses to having it done.
Sidhharrth S. Kumaar is a pharmacy graduate but he has made his mark as a numerologist, astrologer, and expert in the “occult sciences.” His columns on these matters are often published in leading Indian newspapers and he is much sought after for his advice on dealing with curses. A well-spoken man who looks nothing like the ash-smeared ascetics in National Geographic photo features, Kumaar assured me that he uses his powers only to heal the afflicted, and to empower people with the right spiritual tools. He also told me that, alarmingly enough, you don’t need special training to cast a hex. “Anyone can perform black magic, provided that their negative energy is strong enough. All they need is some sort of medium or object in which to transfer it.”
Kumaar confirmed that crystals and lemons of the kind that SJ used on Kansal are popular because of their ability to “absorb negative energy,” but anything else can work too. “People use clothes, lipstick, shoes, or even edibles to cast a spell. One client was given a chocolate by a man and she suddenly fell in love with him to the point that she became suicidal. Luckily, I was able to help her out and she made a full recovery.” According to him, not everyone is equally affected by black magic. “Some people have greater spiritual immunity than others and so the magic doesn’t cause as much harm.” Kumaar recommends bolstering this psychic immunity by bathing with saltwater and keeping healing crystals in the house. Above all, he advises steering clear of experimenting with the occult to hurt others. “People sometimes ask me to use black magic to make a business competitor fail or to make a girl fall in love. I always refuse such requests. Black magic always backfires. That bad energy comes back with greater force on anyone who tries to harm others. The bad karma gets transmitted from generation to generation. I have seen many such cases. It’s a kind of science.”
But, black magic does not have to be a “science” to cause chaos, injury, and maybe even death. It just has to be believed, or sensed.
When life gives you lemons, use them to hex people. A shot from an instructional video on how to destroy enemies using just a lemon and a porcupine’s quill.
Rajani Jain, an elfin and chirpy food vlogger, told me she was immediately unwell and felt a “presence” hovering near her when she inadvertently stepped on a black magic parcel that had been left festering on the side of the road. “It wasn’t even intended for me and it had this effect,” she said. In faraway Mexico, where black magic and witchcraft are also imbued in the culture, the anthropologist Anthony Zavaleta fell physically ill at a black magic site strewn with the defiled photos and belongings of men, women, and children that someone wanted to hurt. He had to let Christian healers “cleanse” him of the maleficence that had slicked on to him.
Obviously, as Kansal and Bhasin have attested, the horror is magnified when you know you are the target. How would you feel if you found black magic items — pumpkin flowers, vermilion, limes, a scarf you thought you had misplaced, maybe a rat’s foot — just outside your gate? You might go mad trying to guess which of your “friends,” relatives, or acquaintances may be holding a grudge against you. You might feel sick, vulnerable, persecuted. And what then, in the throes of your paranoia, might you be capable of?
The Bible speaks of how the “evil eye,” malignant envy, is one of the things that “proceed from within…and defile a man.” However, those who think themselves targets of the evil eye or, worse, black magic, can also be defiled and twisted by fear and suspicion. They see these curses as a real threat to their survival, and retaliation can be commensurately ugly. This phenomenon, of course, is not unique to India. In her research on witchcraft in France, for instance, the ethnologist Jeanne Favret-Saada noted that “unwitchers” justify extreme actions against suspected witches. They believe that they are “on the right side of good” and the enemy is “on the side of excess or evil” for having made the “first move in the magic aggression.” From then on,” she wrote, “whatever he suffers only serves him right.” In September, an elderly couple in central India were hacked to death by neighbors who suspected them of performing black magic. A couple of weeks ago, a young woman called Jyoti poisoned and stabbed her two stepchildren. She thought their mother had performed black magic on her to induce a miscarriage. Every few days, in fact, a death linked to black magic is reported in India.
Every few days, a death linked to black magic is reported in India.
Because of this, some Indian states have laws against occult practices, but even some educated Indians still quietly believe and consult tantrics. To ascribe this to mere superstition or mental illness is incorrect, although these factors can sometimes play a role. The allure of sorcery lies in its usefulness as a frame of reference for misfortune and its redress. Amid the randomness and chaos of the world, black magic is a ready explanation for adversity, and one with a relatively straightforward solution – usually paying a mystic to perform a purification ritual. The sense that bad things don’t just happen but are inflicted purposefully, returns to sufferers an illusion of control, while simultaneously allowing them to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their own choices and mistakes.
Indian society values conformity, loyalty, passivity, duty, and obedience but black magic offers a transgressive system within which people can project as well as enact their forbidden desires, and yet always be able to see themselves as victims. Sometimes, this works to soothe guilt and shame. For example, a woman who has sex outside of marriage may convince herself that she could only be seduced because her lover cast a spell on some chocolate he gave her. Then, there is envy, a humiliating emotion that gnaws at our own self-esteem. Black magic can come to the rescue here too. We may believe that a rival in business or love is only better off than we are because they cast a spell to make us fail. Or we may believe that a friend is doing better than us because they’re drawing more than their due from a shared pool of good fortune, and that recourse to the occult can correct this inequity. Black magic can empower us when we feel wronged or victimized: we can cast spells to bring down our enemies, or we can accuse them of casting spells so we can do worldly harm to them with a clear conscience.
Most importantly, black magic works if you do it right. Just skewer a photo of your target to a lemon and leave it somewhere they’ll find it. At the very least, they won’t get any sleep that night.