Friday, May 30, 2008

Joey & Auguste (Letters to Parth 4)

My Dear Parth, My Little Ringmaster,

Over men & horses, hoops & garters, and lastly through a hogs-head of real fire. What fun it was to visit the circus. The first glimpse of the huge tents, the overpowering smell of leftover tiger food, elephant sweat, and horse shit. The light catching the dust as it sneaks out from between joints of the tent. In smaller towns, like when I was at school in a small town in what was then Bihar, now Jharkhand, they would have real powerful searchlights sweeping up into the night sky so that you could see it from miles away, and there would be marches through the town with the jokers and acrobats, horses and elephants, camels and suited-booted billy goats, cyclists and juggler rocking the streets with the band playing old ventures tunes or Hindi film tunes, lots of brass, lots of wind, lots of loud drums and snares, throwing leaflets in the air behind the procession, block printed leaflets on cheap colored paper that taunted you with the mysteries of the female lion tamer from Russia (once you got to the circus, you learned that he trained female lions only), the human fire thrower from Persia (yes, Persia), the lady with the beard, the lady with a snakes body, the two humped camel, the husband and wife knife-throwing act (it wasn't an act really, he just had terrible aim, that's all), and the like.

In the city it was less of a build up. As a matter of fact, one of the popular locations in Kolkata for the circus to set up in is called Park Circus Maidan, though I don't know if the circus sets up there any more. One morning, Dad or Mom would announce, we are going to the circus on Friday, and that would be the start of sleepless nights, and discussing with friends the merits and demerits of the circus then in town, or if there were more than one, debating which was better, and pestering dad to get tickets for the other one, it had the great Iranian wizard who could make a man turn into any height he wanted. You mustn't miss the human cannonball, and remember to close your ears when they do the motorcycle spinning act, and the clown on the trapeze is the best, he is actually the most skilled trapeze guy, but they make him a clown just for impact, in the end, they pull his pants off, and you get to see him running away covering his bum, ha ha ha.

And then the day would come, water bottle and tiffin box firmly packed and slung over, hand hurting from Mom holding it so tightly because of the mad crowd, the dust getting into your mouth, and the smell in your nose, finally make our way into the tent, down shabbily carpeted aisles to our rickety seats, the sections cordoned off by gaudily painted dividers, black, red, yellow, stripes and dots. Then you start looking around and you see how huge and how high the place is, the ring, the entrance to the ring with shiny velvet drapes that get lifted magically whenever someone comes through, the bandstand on top of the entrance, the band, dressed in sgt peppers costumes, and oompah-oompahing away, the huge towers with the trapeze stands, the ladders that seemed to be endless.

The show begins, the jugglers, the clowns, the horses, the dogs, the parrots, the cockatoo, the donkey who can do arithmetic, and then, tara-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra, the flying trapeze, the heartbeat skipping near misses in mid air, and the colorful lithe bodies setting up a gentle symphony against the dark of the circus tent, and of course the clown and his bum. As it gets over, and you look down again, lo and behold, huge iron grills, chained together to form a cage for the whole circus ring, and fires blazing around them, yes, the lions and the tigers. They don't have lions and tigers now, but in those days, they did, and they would make them sit on stools and crack the whip, and invariably, one of the lions or tigers would be very rebellious, but in the end they would sit, jump through hoops, sit on their hind feet, etc. In Enid Blyton stories, inevitably the crucial clue would be hidden away in the boards of the lion's cage, and only the boy who cleaned the cage and fed the lion would be able to find it, and it would turn out that he was actually the son of a wealthy man who had got lost in a carnival as a kid and had moved with the circus and would in the process end up saving his father who was now being framed by the owner to cover up for his losses.

Because a circus is a business, often conditions are not so good, the workers and the animals have to survive somehow, and often the animals would get ill-treated and abused, sometime underfed, or put up in unhygienic conditions. Over the years, most of the circuses have been forced to drop animal acts, especially with wild animals or with endangered species.

There would be stilt walkers, motorcycle stunts, dancing horse, cart-pulling dogs, balancing acts on a unicycle, a human cannonball, and lots of clown acts. I would scream and shout and laugh till I was hoarse, and then the band would start playing the national anthem, which meant the show was over. One arm sticking up where either mom or dad would hold it almost like they would break it, empty water bottle dangling from my neck, i would stumble out between trousers and skirts and sarees of grown ups and other kids, all with one arm sticking in the air and water bottle dangling. Outside, the air would be full of wailing kids, either suffocated, or scolded because they wanted to have pani puris or ice-cream which their parents would not buy them. I had got used to the Bengali tradition of "pet kharab hobe" and "thanda lege jaabe" quite early in life and had resigned myself to mom-made tomato cucumber sandwiches and my water bottle, so I just looked at sympathetically at those kids as they stood still with one arm sticking up, which wasn't unusual, even my arm was up, waiting for taxis and buses to take their tired bodies home to bathe (you had to wash off the dirt and the germs of the circus), eat, and fall asleep, dreaming of running away from home to join the circus and learning how to play the fife from the Ukrainian girl in the tight shiny dress.

The circus, like in the work of Enid Blyton, has been used by many creative people as the setting for their work. Raj Kapoor's Mera Naam Joker is a classic, as is Federico Fellini's film La Strada. When I started trying to write about Janardan, one of the many crazy things that I made him do was to run away from a nagging wife and join the circus, becoming a successful and famous clown. Years later, when the circus came back to town, at one show, Janardan's wife see him during his act, recognizes him from his red nose and goes hysterical trying to get his attention, and to get him to quit the circus and come back home. The audience thinks it is part of the act, and roars with laughter and approval. From that day on, she comes to the circus, for all three shows, and once Janardan's act starts, she starts hers. The audience roars with laughter and approval. The circus moves on. It is time for the next crazy thing.

As one gets older, the magic of the circus wears off. In today's world, the Age of Empires seems more exciting, it seems more fun to sit at a computer and browse the internet rather than to brave the dust and smell and go watch a circus show. By the time you grow up and read this, you might not even know what Age of Empires was, but in our times, it was one of the more exciting (and educational) games for the digital world. But once in a while, one is taken back to days when mystery lurked round every corner, when secret clubs were formed with strange passwords that would allow you into their meetings, where bonfires burnt bridges, and kisses healed hurt, when the wind spoke to you and plants had first names, when the stars in the night sky were your dead ancestors, and the web was what spiders spun. That is when with a flourish of the drums and trumpets, the horses would fly out with the sequined young girls standing in the stirrups into the air above the ring from behind the curtains and you knew for sure that wishes really were wings.

Dont rub your eyes when you get dust in them, just let it tear up from the irritation and wash out on its own.

Till next time,


PS: This post has continued to pick up significant traffic over the years. Many of the links have had to be removed over time since the sites are no longer up. Please leave a comment if you find any of the links broken.

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