Over the course of eight decades, Kuda Bux, a self-styled “Hindu mystic,” was a point of intersection for vaudeville, Roald Dahl, spiritualism, paranormal research, precursors to reality TV, the allure of the East, bad PR, brilliant PR, radio programs that needed a time delay, and yogic concentration. He could walk on fire. He was Hollywood in its bury-me-in-Forest Lawn heyday. In fact, in 1981, he was interred exactly there. Above all, Kuda Bux was a self-made American celebrity by way of Kashmir, who reached an almost unimaginable level of fame. But could Kuda Bux really do what his performances seemed to demonstrate? Could he see without eyes?
Testing the Talent
Famed ghost hunter Harry Price was eager to investigate. He had collected press clippings for Bux’s magic shows in theaters around London. On the vaudeville circuit, these performances had names like “Hey Presto!!” and the Great Lyle’s “Cavalcade of Mystery.” Price sent Bux an invitation to take part in an experiment he would lead scheduled for July 10, 1935, in the séance room at the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation. Bux agreed and was insistent: seeing without his eyes was no trick. It took more than a decade of intense meditation to develop his powers, he claimed, and under meticulous laboratory conditions, he intended to prove it.
Any enthusiasm Price had for this test was tempered with skepticism. He had, after all, spent his days mired in bogus ectoplasm (the “evidence” of the paranormal described in his book Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship), doctored spirit photographs, and hack job hypnotism, and he had taken down many a spiritualist grift. Then again, a freak snowstorm swept England in May of that year, the very month of Bux’s departure for the continent. If it could snow in the summer, maybe anything was possible.
“We commenced the proceedings by squeezing a lump of dough into each eye-socket,” Price wrote in Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter. It was 2:30 in the afternoon, and with the help of tape, bandages, a black mask, and cotton pads, Bux’s “head and face were swathed… only the nostrils and mouth free. He was now ready to demonstrate” that he could see without eyes. The investigators, six in total, opened book after book and laid them in front of Bux. He read from their pages instantly.
Astonished, the researchers unbandaged and re-bandaged Bux—the results did not change. Bux read from handwritten notes, including one written behind him (though Price believed his subject could have turned slightly in his chair). Bux’s one outright failure was his inability to tell if the lights were on or off after the researchers covered his already voluminous head with a layer of black cloth. Harry Price was not only in the business of myth busting. Haunted houses, for instance, were real to him, and he claimed to have irrefutable proof from his year-long investigation of the mysterious happenings at Borley Rectory in Essex. Perhaps he had done it again and was on the verge of remapping the bounds of possibility.
Khudah Bukhsh was born in 1905 in Kashmir. Akhnoor, his birthplace, is nestled beside the Chenab, the 605-mile-long river important enough to feature in both the Rig Veda and the Mahabharata. Bux fled the saffron fields of his family’s estate at the age of thirteen, running away to follow an illusionist performing under the name Professor Moor. In 1947, the rest of his family was forced to leave, too, but for reasons devoid of the romance and idealism that fueled their son’s escape. The British partition of the region into India and Pakistan displaced the Bukhshes, though magic historian John Booth noted, “some members were able to leave with gold concealed in their clothing.”
Teenage Bux, who eventually altered the spelling of his name, used his savings to follow Professor Moor by train to Lahore. There he soon lost faith. “For a few weeks [learning from the professor] is very fine, much better than going to school,” he told Roald Dahl for a profile in Argosy Magazine that would be anthologized in Best Articles 1953. “But then what a terrible disaster when it comes to me that there is no real magic in Professor Moor, that all is trickery and quickness of the hand.… My whole mind becomes filled with a very strong longing, a longing to find out about the real magic, to discover and to understand something about the strange power that is called yoga.”
Bux’s curiosity and ambition (“I wanted to acquire yoga powers for two reasons and two reasons only: Fame and Fortune”) led him all over Punjab, where he toured with a theater troupe earning the money needed to pursue his dream. It would take three and a half years for him to land in Lahore, 250 miles southeast of where he started his explorations. He now found himself, finally, in Haridwar, under the tutelage of a disciplined and exacting yogi.
For fans of Dahl, this origin story is familiar. That’s because in “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” Dahl retells it almost verbatim. The above quotations about disaster and fortune from the Argosy article are reproduced word for word, becoming dialogue spoken by pivotal character Imrat Khan.
Khan, an accomplished mystic, also repeats Bux’s descriptions of how he began to train his mind for the next several years by focusing on one mental image for increasing lengths of time. In fact, it’s this character modeled on Bux who sets the plot of “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” in motion. Khan’s incredible achievements inspire the titular playboy to meditate until he too can see without his eyes. Dahl’s story was published to lasting acclaim four years before Bux’s death (the movie adaptation, written and directed by Wes Anderson, began filming in early 2022), effectively overshadowing Bux’s legacy and overwriting it with the imaginary.
Still, Dahl provided Bux with an invaluable opportunity to share his story. The Argosy article is perhaps the most comprehensive source of Bux’s biography told in his own words. Bux informed Dahl that, once again in need of money after his time in Haridwar, he relegated his meditation exercises to the evening, developed his own magic act, and resumed touring. He’d been away from home for more than five years at that point and, in Dhaka, was about to attend his first fire walk. The spectacle changed everything.
At the end of the performance, the fire walker asked the gathered crowd if anyone wanted to walk across the hot coals, confident that no one could match his feat. And while the other three audience members who participated burned themselves, Bux relied on the fruits of his diligent mental training and became a fire walker himself. “[After the thrill of it] I am remembering a thing the old yogi in Har[i]dwar had once said,” Bux recalled, “‘Certain holy people have been known to develop so great a concentration that they could see without the use of their physical eyes.’”
This was the goal Bux for which had been searching. Tweaking his exercises, he now focused intently on a candle flame, studying its disparate colors, and staring at its black center so that nothing else existed. Only then would he shut his eyes and return to the mental image on which he had been focusing since meeting his mentor, the yogi. Eventually, he developed an “inner sight.” By 1933, he boasted, Bux could read a book without looking at its words.
A Blow for Bux
Kuda Bux had only been in England for a matter of weeks when he agreed to Harry Price’s experiment at the psychical research lab in July 1935. Now Price’s team of investigators had reached their conclusion: “During our test Bux would not allow us to adopt measures that absolutely precluded his seeing down the side of his nostrils and, although we witnessed a clever performance, all we learnt that afternoon was how extremely difficult it is to blindfold a person, using ordinary methods.” It was a blow for Bux, who was building his career and mystique through the endorsements of doctors and other trusted experts.
Disappointments kept coming. In October 1935, Bux once again found himself in a research laboratory, this time at the University of Manchester, invited by psychologist T. H. Pear. The demonstration Bux gave went from bad to worse. Afterwards, Pear wrote to the founding editor of the news magazine The Listener to recount the tense experiment.
After apologizing for not writing sooner—“the conference in Cambridge, a League of Nations address last week-end, and the process of settling my son and daughter into a flat in London (by post) have occupied every spare moment except those which were given to collecting and assimilating the enclosed reports” —Pear stated flatly that Bux failed to convince anyone present of his eyeless sight. It was Pear’s opinion that Bux could see “down the sides of his nose.”
But accusations of nose peeking could not deter Bux. His talents weren’t meant for a lab, anyway. Performing at London’s storied Trocadero Restaurant in June of that same year, Bux baffled the doctors who comprised his audience with his feats of eyeless sight. The media attention in this instance was favorable and gave Bux the credibility and exposure he sought. Maybe it was a mistake to later submit to laboratory testing of his “x-ray eyes” when there was another way to prove his powers were real.
A Fire Walk in the Countryside
On September 9, 1935, Kuda Bux was once again in the company of Harry Price. Instead of the séance room, however, Price and his team were waiting for a fire to burn hot enough for Bux to walk across. It had taken six hours of trench digging the day before and the entire morning and afternoon to complete arrangements at a country house in Surrey. Now Bux was poised to walk across 800°F coals—the same temperature as sunlit side of the planet Mercury. Members of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation wanted an exploit that was provable, real. This time, Bux knew he could deliver.
The fire walk on this day was intended as a test run. Price noted that nothing like it had ever been conducted in the country, and he wanted to perfect the logistics in advance of a better-attended spectacle. At 2:45 p.m., in the beautiful countryside known for its lavender fields, there was nothing left to be planned. Standing at the edge of the trench, Bux lifted one foot. The observers held their breath.
The coals burned red as Bux took the first step. One foot in front of the other, he did what seemed impossible. Eight days later, fit, energetic, and dressed in a dark suit and long black coat, the striking Kuda Bux did it again. The temperature recordings said it all. His feet were 93.2°F before he began and two tenths of a degree cooler after the fire walk.
The British public had never heard of such a thing. By and large, laymen did not believe a human body, any part of it, could withstand flames. The accounts of what happened in Surrey, published in newspapers and in the British Medical Journal, catapulted Bux to fame. He immediately planned more vaudeville shows, promoting them by bandaging his eyes and riding a bicycle through London traffic.
A Flawless Performance
As entertainment evolved, so did Kuda Bux. But for the remainder his career—the 1938 fire walk in New York City (his final performance of that particular feat), broadcast over the radio for the program Ripley’s Believe It or Not; an appearance on the first episode of Ripley’s TV incarnation; Bux’s own short-lived television show, Kuda Bux, Hindu Mystic; the television show You Asked for It! (“TV’s most varied variety show,” according to TV Guide in 1954),which was deluged with requests for Bux to appear (producers reported nearly 10,000 viewers wrote in hoping to see Bux’s x-ray vision for themselves); a return to radio on “Long John” Nebel’s all-night show devoted to the paranormal, a program so unpredictable it was rumored to be a reason for the invention of radio broadcast delay; performances at the illustrious Magic Castle in Hollywood, which continued until his death in 1981; two performances on tour with Joan Rivers as his assistant (her first job after graduating from Barnard College); through all the fame and his big, big life—Bux always maintained his gift was real: “All I know is that it depends entirely on an inner faculty of the mind. I see with the mind’s eye—with my intense concentrative powers.”
As cataracts ravaged his eyesight, the show went as flawlessly as the day he sat in the séance room with Harry Price. Among his friends at the Magic Castle, conjurers, illusionists, masters of sleight-of-hand all, Bux was met with incredulity, a chorus of “How does he do that?” No one ever knew for sure.