I met Sufi Sheikh Salim Chishti in the lanes of Nizamuddin Basti and had an eye-opening experience. When trying to sell me a dead starfish the Sheikh insisted on pushing a two inch blade behind his eye socket and forcing out his eyeball. You can say what you like, but there’s no denying that the Sheikh had an interesting sales technique.
Drawn to a huddle of people, I peered over the crowd and came face to face with Sheikh Salim Chishti. I was about to have an eye opening experience.
The Sheikh is a very friendly chap, but he has a rather off putting habit of putting the blade of a 2 inch knife behind his eye socket and forcing out his eyeball whenever he spoke to me.
If that wasn’t odd enough, the Sheikh tried to sell me some strange products from his pavement stall. Eyeing me up cautiously, the Sheikh started out by offering me a dead, dried, starfish. I declined the offer.
Perhaps I was in the market for the skin of a dead puffer fish? I wasn’t.
Scanning his wares, he focused in on what looked like dried leaves to my left. It turns out that they were some sort of seaweed or coral. Again, not for me.
This man had done some serious beach combing, but I wasn’t buying for two reason.
Firstly I had very little idea of what most of his products were. Secondly, I didn’t have a clue what the Sheikh wanted me to do with them.
To secure a sale, the Sheikh knew he had to take things to the next level. Then, as if by magic, a man appeared by his side who was about to reveal all.
It was pretty clear that the Sheikh’s sidekick couldn’t see out of one eye. The white shadow covering his pupil seemed to suggest glaucoma. Taking a stick from his stall, the Sheikh placed it in some tap water and let two drops slowly fall into each of the man’s eyes. The man closed his eyelids.
We waited. And it clicked. I was in the presence of a Sufi medicine man. The selection of dried goods from a far away sea shore was his pharmacy.
It turns out the powder from the dried starfish would settle troublesome stomachs and the skin of the puffer fish was a cure for diabetes. But, far more importantly, would the stick dipped in water give the man his sight back in his blind eye?
At that moment the man opened his eyelids. He looked happy, but could he see?
No, but he explained that he felt more comfortable after the Sheikh had given him some treatment. Fair enough, who am I to argue with that?
The Sheikh signaled that I should take my glasses off and come a little closer. Should I?
No, I shouldn’t. But what should I do?
My eyes scanned his stall. Moss. There was some interesting looking moss. I might, at a push, be interested in buying that.
Taking the knife from his eyeball, the Sheikh pointed at his tongue. Could he sense I wasn’t a serious shopper? Did he want to take my tongue out?
No, he wanted to show me another trick. This time, taking a knife and pushing it through his tongue. After persuading him not to do this, we talked some more.
The Sheikh told me that he sourced his goods from the shores of the Bay of Bengal and was set to travel to Bangalore in the next couple of days. Once there, he would offer his cures to customers in that city.
I wasn’t buying today, but he told me he’d be back in the Basti in a couple of months. At the same spot, meeting the same people and selling starfish, puffer fish and coral to his loyal Delhi customer base.
I do hope I meet the Sheikh another time. He was a nice man. I learned a few new Hindi and Urdu words and we had a lot of fun together.
And, if I am honest, I regret not seeing the knife through the tongue trick. Next time, I’ll let him show me.
(A quick note about the photographs. I was dark and difficult to take a decent snap. And in the interests of decency, I’ve held back on the photos that show the true extent of the eye trick. To be honest, they’re not that nice to look at)