Locked away in the minds of all Chennai residents are a name and number that they have seen either on a rusted electricity box, or the shutter of a corner shop, or a freshly whitewashed street-facing wall – P James Magic Show, Ph: 98410 72571.

The guerrilla advertisement was once ubiquitous. Anyone who lived in Chennai in the 1990s or 2000s would have seen the message. “I think I’ve subconsciously memorised his number,” said one travel blogger. Another lamented that they “still haven’t had the nerve to call him up”.

Scores of blogs on the internet still discuss the enigma. The few who have seen P James deepen the intrigue. In a post on Quora, tech entrepreneur Ajit Narayanan claimed that the person who took his money and the person who performed the magic were different. “Was P James a shape-shifter and an animagus in addition to being a street magician?” Narayanan wondered. Another blogger said that the two things he brought to his show were “an undersized coat that he wore during the magic show which had accumulated dust from half a century and a barely alive snake”.

The mystery, unsolved for so long, has seeped into Chennai’s DNA: art cafes aspiring to reflect the city’s culture on their walls with mosaics of memorabilia reproduce the P James graffiti. “If this guy spends half as much time on his act as he does scrawling his name and number on every vacant square foot of concrete wall in the city, he could be the next Houdini,” said a post on an online forum.

So who really is P James, and where is he now?

Up a narrow building in Saidapet, at the end of a dingy staircase, is a two-room apartment with floral floor tiles. The apartment opens out onto a small terrace, where a faded pink wall bears a familiar name painted in recognisable lettering.

In one of the rooms, a woman in her late 30s, clad in a blue nightgown, combs the tresses of her 15-year-old daughter, as another girl, barely 12 years of age, watches them with alert eyes. Two younger boys run around them in circles before darting into the next room where their father sits cross-legged in front of the television.

V Kennedy is a middle-aged man of average build and with a receding hairline. Dressed in a green checked shirt, he watches a Tamil entertainment programme with a vacant, wide-eyed expression. It was Kennedy who once cycled around the streets of Chennai every night, with a dozen spray cans, spelling out his stage name and phone number on any surface that he could find.

The graffiti, Kennedy said, was his father’s idea.

Kennedy is the son of magician P James, who in the 1950s and 1960s, worked as assistant to PC Sorcar, the legendary magician known for his signature Floating Lady trick. P James, too, found notable success in his time, performing grand shows that featured flying doves and rabbits emerging out of hats. In 1989, Kennedy adopted his cheerful father’s name to carry on the family business.

The guerrilla advertising started in 1991. Every day, the family would buy paints and write the now-famous name and number on the city’s streets. It was a perfect idea, a low-cost, unconventional marketing strategy with far-reaching impact on consumers.

Kennedy with his two sons, Amalraj and Jacob. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Sometime in the next decade, though, the marketing appeared to stop – and fewer P James ads could be found in Chennai.

“I don’t have much business anymore because my family asked me to stop putting up advertisements,” said Kennedy. When asked why, he beckoned to his wife, Margaret, to reply. “We kept getting calls from the police and angry residents who would shout at us for spraying on their walls,” she said. A confirmation of this can be found on P James’s Wikipedia page: in 2007, after receiving numerous complaints, the police commissioner told him to stop spray-painting his advertisements.

Kennedy has no work now. His earnings as a landlord let him run the house and send his five children to school. Still, he is optimistic. With a chuckle, he announces that he plans to resume the wall art again. “We will get shouted at, but we have to bear it. Once I start advertising again, my business will pick up. I have high hopes.”

No abracadabra, no hocus pocus

Unlike his father, magic was never Kennedy’s passion. He stepped into the business when his father fell ill. He had Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in history, completed through correspondence, from Madras University. “I just did that to have some qualification,” he said, smiling vaguely. “If not for the magic business I would have been a bus conductor or train ticket collector.”

Charging Rs 3,000 per hour, Kennedy performed at birthday parties, wedding receptions, corporate functions – any event that would hire him. His tricks were basic at best, he conceded with diffidence, although his tone turned more confident while performing them. He pulled out a rope from his bag, and demonstrated its flexibility. “Now say gilli gilli,” he said. Not abracadabra or hocus pocus.

“Gilli gilli.”

“See now the rope is straight like a stick,” he said. The rope drooped forlornly at one end, but was mostly straight.

Next, with a flick of his wrist, three independent loops of rope became a chain. A blank notebook turned into a colourful picture book.

“He does a lot more tricks,” interjected his younger daughter, anxiously.

Kennedy hardly gets calls anymore, except from old, familiar customers. The phone number that he had spent thousands of hours painting across the city had been given to his late brother, who was also a magician – the two used to take turns in adopting the persona of P James, the magician.

Now, the number is no longer in use, and nobody knows Kennedy’s new number.

Did he know that P James is almost an urban myth, a part of the memories of Chennai? Kennedy nodded. “He was a very famous magician, that’s why,” said his wife, proudly.

Indeed, he was, though not for his magic – and perhaps that was his greatest trick.