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March 14, 2024 9 mins

Curious things happen whenever people are involved. And these two stories are a great example of that.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales right there on display, just waiting
for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

For as long as humans have walked the earth, we've
wondered what happens after we die. But in the mid
nineteen seventies, a poor merchant from northern India found out
the hard way. His name was Lal Bihari. In nineteen
seventy seven, he was twenty two years old and getting
ready to expand his small hand loom business. In order
to apply for the bank loan, he traveled to his
birth city to collect proof of identity. But when he

met with his local village officer who controlled the documents,
he got some shocking news. Lal Bahari was dead. The
bureaucrat told him the official registry indicated that he had
died just the previous year. When the surprise wore off,
Bihari started asking questions. This wasn't a joke and it
wasn't an innocent clerical error either. Bihari would soon learn

that he was the victim of a bizarre and sinister
form of fraud. His own uncle had bribed public officials
to falsely record Bihari's death, allowing Bihari's cousins to inherit
a plot of ancestral land that should have gone to him.
The young businessman could accept the loss of the tiny
plot of land, which didn't even amount to an acre,
but being dead, just even on paper, presented a serious problem.

If Bihari couldn't prove that he was in fact alive,
he couldn't get the loans or licenses that he needed,
and his business would never have a chance at success.
As it turned out, getting the government to correct the
records was more difficult than Bihari could have ever dreamed.
For several years, his letters to public officials went ignored,
but rather than giving up, he became more determined to

get the government to acknowledge his existence. So he started
to cause trouble. Bihari interrupted a meeting of state legislators
and had to be dragged out by guards. He intentionally
got himself arrested and then ran for public office, all
in an attempt to get his name on official records,
but none of that worked. Bihari threw himself a funeral
and added the Hindi word for departed to his name.

He also applied for widow's pension for his wife, but
was denied without explanation. Bihari eventually became so frustrated that
he resorted to kidnapping his cousin, the child of that
uncle who had defrauded him. For five days, he took
the boy to the movies, then waited to be arrested,
but the police never came. Bihari considered sending his uncle
the boy's shirt soaked in goat's blood as a scare tactic,

but he lost his nerve and sent his cousin home instead.
Almost a decade after his crusade began, Bihari's cheeky spectacles
finally got the attention of a journalist. His story was
published in a state newspaper, but the government still did
not act. Lal Bahari remained legally dead to the world.
By this point, he learned that he was not alone

in his plight. He had met countless others who had
been recorded dead in fraud schemes, usually by family members
like his to champion their cause, he created the Association
of Dead People. Under Bihari's leadership, the organization continued to
organize protests and exert political pressure on the state government
to address the epidemic of the living dead. For Bihari,

at least, the story has a happy ending. In nineteen
ninety four, the government finally hurt his complaints, changing its
registry to record him as alive. His ancestral land was
officially returned, but Bihari decided to let his uncle's family
keep it. It never had been about the land for
him anyway. Bihari had been fighting for his life. He

had lost almost two decades to the crusade, though, but
he wasn't done yet. For years to come, Bihari continued
to lead the Association for Dead People to raise awareness
for the organization. He actually ran for a seat in
Parliament and did surprisingly well, and in two thousand and
three he received these satirically named Ignobel Prize, honoring those
who quote make people laugh and then make them think.

Most recently, Bihari's life has become the subject of a
Bollywood film, turning him into something of a celebrity. Not
bad for a man who spent two decades dead on paper.

There's nothing like receiving the perfect gift. When a friend
or loved one gets us something that really speaks to us,
it makes us feel seen and appreciated. It doesn't matter
if the gift was made by hand or bought in
a store. It could be something as original as a
handwritten poem or as classic as a fruit basket. But
in nineteen sixty eight, some factory workers in China received

a gift unlike anything they had gotten before. This present
took on such importance a cult soon emerged to venerate it.
People bled and died for it. What was the gift Mangoes?
It all started in nineteen sixty six, when Mao Zetung
launched his Cultural Revolution, calling for workers and students to
overthrow the bourgeois academic authorities across the country. Students banded

together in paramilitary groups known as the Red Guards. While
the many factions that made up the Red Guards were
loyal to Mao, they did not get along with each other.
As the revolution took off, skirmishes between the groups became
increasingly violent. Then, in the spring of nineteen sixty eight,
the in fighting came to a head. At Singua University,
fighting broke out between two rival Red Guard groups. Students

hurled spears, stones, and even acid at each other. The
fighting wore on for several months before July twenty seventh,
when Mao got fed up. He summoned thirty thousand Beijing
factory workers and so them to intervene. The student Red
Guards immediately turned on the workers, and the fierce battle
broke out. The workers great numbers eventually prevailed, but not

before five of their members were killed and over seven
hundred were injured. The next day, Mao responded by officially
disbanding the Red Guards for good. To show his appreciation
for the factory workers, he sent them a box of
forty mangoes, which he had recently received as a gift
from the Foreign Minister of Pakistan. Now, clearly, forty mangoes
split between thirty thousand people might not seem like the

most sincere thank you gift, especially after what the workers
had been through, But the fruit wasn't common in China
at that point, and few of the workers had ever
seen them before, let alone tasted them. They may even
have believed that the mangoes were peaches of immortality, an
important fruit from Chinese legends. One of their most memorable
appearances comes from the Journey to the West, where the

mischievous Monkey King steals and consumes an orchard full of
the magical peaches, causing his power to increase many times over.
The workers were amazed by the gift and responded by
praising Chairman Mao's limitless generosity. Rather than attempting to divide
the mangoes up amongst themselves, they decided to preserve the
fruit so that everyone could appreciate them. The mangoes were

submerged in formaldehyde, taken through the country, and paraded through
the streets. Within months, mangoes took on a cult like
status across China. Wax replicas were created and distributed. Images
of mangoes began to appear in communist artwork. A massive
mango adorned float became the centerpiece of the National Day parade. Meanwhile,

anyone who disrespected the mangoes were severely punished. One dentist
was executed for simply suggesting that they looked like boring
old sweet potatoes. Eventually, the mango mania dwindled, then died
when Mao passed away in nineteen seventy six, but for
a brief period, mangoes served as an unexpected but potent

symbol for the promises of the Cultural Revolution. For centuries,
China's emperors had been viewed as semi divine figures, benevolent
envoys of heaven who had stepped out of myth to
rule over mortals. By calling back to the peaches of immortality,
Mao had once again transformed myth into reality, only this
time the power of heaven had been handed over to

the common people. It's hard to say for sure whether
Mao expected the extreme reaction to his gift. Supposedly he
disliked mango's which would explain why he regifted the fruit.
Most likely, he never guessed that by sending them to
the workers, he would effectively transform ancient Chinese myth into
communist propaganda. And it just goes to show the impact

that a single sweet gesture can make. I hope you've
enjoyed today's guided tour of the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe
for free on Apple Podcasts, or learn more about the
show by visiting Curiosities podcast dot com. This show was
created by me Aaron Manke in partnership with how Stuff Works,

I make another award winning show called Lore, which is
a podcast, book series, and television show and you can
learn all about it over at Theworldoflore dot com. And
until next time, stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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