Young magician pulls out all the tricks for performance of his life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 May, 2008, 12:00am

One of magician Ashley Vanistrell's favourite stage tricks is to make a big bunch of flowers appear out of an empty box. It is one of a handful of acts his life depends on.

At nine years old, Ashley is among some of the youngest magicians in India. From his home in a grim block of flats in the Mumbai suburb of Santa Cruz, Ashley travels all over the country with his mother, Andrea, to perform and raise money for the expensive medical treatment he needs every month.

He suffers from hypogammaglobulinaemia, a rare disorder caused by a lack of B lymphocytes and a resulting low level of immunoglobulins (antibodies) in the blood. The lack of antibodies means that his body struggles to resist infection.

Doctors identified the disorder after Ashley fell seriously ill with pneumonia at the age of five.

Since then, one day a month has been spent receiving a transfusion of purified gamma globulin, costing 64,000 rupees (HK$11,760) a time.

Ashley chose to fund his own treatment because his parents are poor. His father, Clive, works on an oil rig in Iran. The job, while far away, at least gives him long holidays.

When he was six, Ashley began asking his mother what would happen to him if his parents were no longer able to afford this monthly bill. 'I told him that as long as I was alive, he would go on getting it, no matter what. But he decided that he should also do something to help raise this money - and so he took to magic,' Mrs Vanistrell said.

For the time her husband is away, she looks after Ashley on her own, devoting herself to providing him with as normal a life as possible.

'He goes to school and is doing well,' Mrs Vanistrell said. 'But we can't let him play on the streets. As long as he gets the monthly treatment, he leads a normal life. What's frightening is if he doesn't. American doctors said it could take 20 to 40 years for a cure from gene therapy.'

Ashley performs at school functions, children's birthday parties and office parties, making scarves, doves and balls apparently appear out of nowhere. His mother assists either by dressing up as a clown or being her son's assistant.

More helpful than his small fee of US$43 are the generous donations from audiences after they hear about Ashley's illness and offer to help pay for his treatment.

'I end every show by asking people in the audience to pray for me,' said Ashley, who looks up to the famous American magician and endurance artist David Blaine.

'When I grow up, I want to be a magician, actor and director.'

Well-known Indian magician and escapologist Gopinath Muthukad, who saw Ashley perform at a festival last month, said he inspired audiences with his courage. 'He's a natural performer. He is a lively, energetic and a very intelligent child,' he said.

Being a magician has helped boost Ashley's profile. He has played small roles in Bollywood films and featured in television ads for Dulux paint and Surf washing powder.

He has also set up a trust to help raise awareness and promote cheaper treatments for the estimated 28,000 other children around the world who are born with the disorder every year. The Trust also aims to promote cheaper treatments.