I remember going to the circus for the very first time.
I remember it as distinctly and in detail as I remember the first time I saw ‘Casablanca’. Or read ‘The Christmas Carol’. Or learned ballet (Okay this was a little embarrassing). Looking back at my childhood, there are parts of memories that lay around here and there, in bits and pieces. Its like walking in a messed up room with leftover clothes lying around helter-skelter. The socks that lay under the bed and the trousers that hang behind the door. Some clothes may be too easy to find. They may be sitting right on a chair in front of you or lying on the bed right next to you. Going to the circus, I think, might be one such piece of clothing.
I remember it to be the brightest of days, so bright that my Appa nearly refused to take us to the fair. Actually he did refuse, but then I had my weapons. I cried and cried until I could cry no more and refused to eat the lunch that day (It was sambhar-rice anyways). An agreement had been reached, with me completing my math homework and learning the new poetry in English class, in order to go to the fair. It was a small price to pay.
I remember my Amma, the short, dark, beautiful woman. I remember that the huge red bindi on her forehead, shaped in the form of a water droplet, had a few crystals embedded in it. I don’t remember her sari though. Probably green. Or red as to go with the bindi. Again, as I said, that was the hard piece of clothing to find.
I remember her telling me, in her stern voice, “If you leave my hand and got lost, we’re going to leave you here!” Now looking back at the experience I wouldn’t have mind getting lost.
I remember the blend of colours when I first stepped inside ‘The Great Indian Carnival’ for the first time. I remember the yellow of the giant Ferris Wheel, the red and white of the huge ‘Columbus’ ship, the plethora of colours in the merry go round, the cream of the horses, the yellow of the giraffes, the pink of the pigs(Or maybe there weren’t any pigs. You could add these to those god forsaken list of clothings).
Ah! Now I remember. It was the pink of cotton candies. I remember craving for cotton candies, throwing a fit, until my Appa said to my mother to go get me some. I remember my Appa. His tall, dark figure and the black moustache he had. I remember my history teacher telling us about Genghis Khan, how he plundered the cities and how fierce he looked in the photographs. I remember my father, just like I remember Genghis Khan.
My father was talking to one of his colleagues when I came back, relishing over the cotton candy in my hand. It stuck to my cheeks and it felt good. Sticky, but good! I remember his colleague, somebody who had once come for dinner at our place. I remember his son (that little prick who broke my train set) who stood beside his father with a finger up his nostrils.
I saw the tent of the circus at a distance, all the colours that it concealed beneath it. There was a banner outside that read ‘The Bombay Circus. Presenting you our main attractions- ‘the stunt men, the acrobat, the bear who could do a handstand, the lion….’ I wondered how they made a bear do the handstand? Weren’t bears and lions supposed to be in a forest, juts like I saw in the movies? Then why would they be here in a circus doing handstands? How could a bear even do a handstand?
I remember a loud pat on my head from my father that stopped my train of thoughts. “Uncle is asking you something.”, he said.
“Engineer banega? Appa ka jaisa?”, his colleague asked. I remember wondering the meaning of the word he said. Engineer? Was it something to do with the train engine? I loved the engine of my train set. I remember my Appa holding me close and saying “Zaroor banega.” I remember the smell of Pan and cigarettes on him. It was one thing that made me distinguish him from the rest of the crowd.
I remember the wife of my dad’s colleague asking Amma which class I was in. “5th”, she replied. “Oho”, the woman said, “Even Arush is in 5th. He came 3rd in his class this year. And how was his result?”
“He passed”, said Amma. I remember her making the same face she made when Appa used to come home drunk. The woman in front of me shook her head and Amma gave me the “Wait till you get home. I’ll drown you in a pool of math problems” look. Appa then excused us all out of the conversation.
I remember, as I entered the circus, and when the obscure montage of colours finally came to life, was probably the one moment for which I could’ve solved a hundred math problems, mugged up thousands of historical dates and would recite John Keats like I was singing a film song. The quirky, silly music. The Jokers. The stuntmen. The elephants, the lions and the bears. Yes, the bears! We took our seats as the show began.
The clown made its way through first, riding a unicycle, with a pump horn in his hand. I hated the clown, I still do. I wondered how people found his tricks and foolery to be funny. For me, somebody who had been hiding behind all those colours and clothes, seemed both peculiar and haunting. Then I remember the stuntmen, riding motorcycles that leap over a dozen cars. And then the animal gigs started…
I remember seeing the trainer making his way through, riding on an elephant. He had a black whip in his hand. It reminded me of our Geography teacher, who walked around with a cane in his hand. He then stood in front of the elephant and lashed his whip in front of him. The elephant then stood on its two bear hindlegs. Then came in the lion in a cage. The trainer held a huge ring in front of the lion and again whipped his lash in front of him. The lion jumped through the ring. Then came in one of their main attraction, the bear. He was a huge black, furry bear. I wondered how he could do the handstand? Why isn’t he in the forest? Why aren’t any of these animals in the forest? Why are they doing something they’re not supposed to do?
The trainer yet again whipped his lash. The bear bent to the ground and made the most vigorous effort to stand on his hands. He fell to the ground though, much to the “Ohhh” in disappointment from the crowd. The trainer whipped his lash again as the bear made another effort to stand on his arms. He fell yet again and rolled over and let out a silent moan. The crowd burst into laughter as he rolled to the ground. I didn’t find it hilarious. I remember the trainer whipping his lash again and again in front of the bear. I remember my geography teacher canning me when I couldn’t tell her the capital of Switzerland….
On his third attempt, the bear did manage to do the handstand. His arms trembled and he rolled over again as the crowd cheered and applauded and whistled. After a few moments of resting on the ground, the trainer lashed his whip and the bear rose and left.
And then came in the acrobats. I remember one of them arriving in, doing the cartwheel over and over until he reached the other end. I could do the cartwheel too. I had maxed out a record of 6 continuous cartwheels just a few days and had won the bet with Raman who had challenged me I couldn’t do more than 3 at a time. He owed me his Beyblade. He still does.
I remember the acrobats swinging in the air to-and-fro, grabbing hold of another acrobat with their arms and then passing them on to another one. Nothing, at that moment, could’ve fascinated me more. All I longed for, was to be one of them. To swing in the air, to perform cartwheels and flips and tricks. And to get applauded at the end of the performance! I didn’t remember being applauded for doing the cartwheel in the playground. I didn’t even remember being applauded ever! The students in the class were always applauded for reciting poetry, or for reciting the table of 18, or for winning debates and quiz competitions. I had never been able to do any of those. Performing the cartwheel was much easier. And somehow, performing the acrobatics I saw seemed much easier to me than learning the names of the various Prime Ministers, or understanding plant biology, or reciting the poem of William Word- what was his name? Yes, Wordsworth.
As the circus ended and we made our way out of the tent, I remember asking Appa if I could go in and meet those acrobats in there. He had stared at me, with his eyes full of rage and shook his head. “But Appa. Even I want to be an acrobat.”, I had said.
“Oh so now you want to be an acrobat”, he said. Then he looked at my mother and said, “First he nags to come to the fair in such hot weather, then he embarrasses me in front of my colleague, and now your son wants to be an acrobat. Can you see what is happening? Can’t you control him?”
My mother didn’t say anything to my father. She twisted my ear and said, “I’ve had enough of you. Now you’ll go straight home and finish the math homework.”
“But I don’t wanna go home”, I said. “I want to stay in the circus. I WANT TO BE AN ACROBAT”, I said and struggled out of my mother’s grip and sat on the ground, cross-legged, folding my hands and looking towards the ground.
My father looked around at the crowd of people staring at us, walked towards me and whacked me hard on the cheeks.
I don’t remember the pain. After some time, you don’t remember the pain. As I said earlier, pain might be the hardest of the clothing to find. All I remember is the trainer whipping his lash in front of the bear.And I remember my Geography teacher and her cane….
I remember falling flat on the ground. I remember seeing the bright sky, so bright it made my eyes hurt. I remember seeing the birds flying high above. I remember seeing the acrobats swing in the air. So unconstrained. So free.
And then it came to me how they made the bear do the handstand….