The clown that was not
The baby was bawling and young mother could not comfort it in the crowded compartment. Maybe the heat and dust of the desert added to its discomfiture. It kept on crying, the shrill notes drowning the other voices, as the train hurtled down.
“Why cannot you make it quiet, woman?” asked her bewhiskered and tall husband, his large head encased in a saffron-coloured turban. He carried the long sword and the proud demeanor of a warrior. The imposing personality, the khol-lined eyes, fierce and glittering, left us in awe. The man carried himself in dignity and sat alert and erect. Often, his right hand twirled long whiskers. Nobody could hold his stare for long. His wife—in her 20s—cowered in the corner seat, face averted, trying to make the baby sleep but to no avail. The un-reserved compartment was full of the peasants and workers, every inch taken by the sweating bodies. Even the passage to the toilet was occupied by families.
“Try harder, woman!” The warrior barked. The woman in veil tried harder. The baby cried louder. The man glowered at her and the baby, upset by the bawling—and, maybe, the inability of a wife to execute a stern command.
The howling continued for minutes.
The warrior was getting annoyed. The woman was in panic—and the baby unstoppable. As the husband tried to snatch the child from the lap of a hapless mother, a calm voice rang out: “Hey, kid! Look here!”
Not only the baby but we all looked at the source of this majestic command that made the chatter die down in that car, almost on fire under an angry sun. The dunes slipped by and the bleak land continued to rise and fall for miles. Nothing but golden sand!
Our eyes stung and burnt and uncovered face and skin got singed. Now quiet, the fellow passengers looked around and saw the new entrant into a familiar Indian family drama seen often in the public places like airports, bus and railway stations.
It was an unlikely figure: A short guy, on the opposite wooden bench, now talking to the baby. He snapped fingers, sang in a sing-song voice and, in a jiffy, took out some items from an old bag and put on a red nose, a crimson wig, white beard and multi-hued cap.
The transformation from being an ordinary man into a clown was complete in an instant.
The baby got distracted by the startling change. He clapped, nodded and sang a ditty in a sonorous voice. The baby started laughing—and soon fell asleep, to the relief of the spectators.
“You are a great guy!” The husband remarked. “Thanks. His cries were making me sleepless. The kids of warriors do not cry.”
His wife also nodded silent thanks. Her big eyes conveyed a sincere gratitude to the strange savior who smiled happily.
The baby was in deep sleep, oblivious to the racket around and the clatter of the wheels and the hot winds and the dust that filtered in through the slits of the shuttered windows.
“Please! It is my lifelong passion. To make folks smile through tears. Especially, children. These are special gifts of God. My way of worshipping Him through this humble service to His creation.” The clown said in a pleasant tone, kindness radiating a weather-beaten broad face.
We all nodded in admiration.
“You are kind man.” Somebody remarked.
“And a wonderful soul!” Another exclaimed.
The clown beamed.
“Are you working in some circus?” asked a young farmer, wide eyed.
“A long story, sir.” The clown sighed.
“Tell me your story, please.” The warrior requested.
“Please. The journey is long. It will kill the tedium.” The farmer requested.
“OK.” The clown relented. “Listen.”
An amazing tale of courage, grit and nobility, in a big circus run by a selfish tyrant, greedy for profit only.
A tale of sacrifice, pain, humiliation, torture and dedicated community service.
Here, his story in his words:
I never intended to begin a career in a circus. Born in a little village in Nepal, I was recruited by an agent of the Rio Circus who promised heavens for my six siblings and poor parents and at the age of eleven, I left home for a new world of travelling circus. Over the years, I realized that my limp, seven fingers and squint eyes were the main reasons for my selection as a clown in a place full of freaks and exhibited before a callous public as odd entertainers—seven-feet giant; a hirsute man looking like mini gorilla; a two-feet dwarf; Siamese twins; a pair of albinos and pygmy hunters, among others. It was a strange place! The owner called the Boss was initially kind and supportive but later on, in order to attract more crowds, tried to model himself as the new-age avatar of P. T. Barnum. “I am the greatest showman on this part of the earth! Ha! Me and my menagerie! The more the freaks, the better the revenue. But I will share the profits with you guys. I will balance you with animals. A big family of entertainers.” We all nodded. “I will take you to Russia and America. Mine will be a unique show on the planet. I will add music, dance, mimicry, acting and shows by the freaks and animals. A three-hour family package.” The Boss brought some failed artists from film industry and animals from illegal markets. Bribed the authorities. Managed the media outlets. Within a decade, his circus became the top draw. Whole towns rushed in for his daily three shows. The house was always full. He took care of everybody as his family but soon international recognition for his skills and managerial ability made him go mad. He became ruthless megalomaniac. He wanted to conquer the world. And our nightmare began!
He would beat us and the poor animals for minor mistakes. Abuse the women. We got terrified of him, especially when he was drunk and nasty. He would make us perform, even if we were not well. Did not pay us for months and if anybody tried escaping the hell, chained and starved the fugitive. During the days, he was an angel, especially before the public and nights, a monster in search of fresh human flesh. Once I saw him naked with the wife of his trusted friend, the ring master. He pointed a gun at me, saying softly, eyes cold: “Tell this to anybody and you are dead meat, you hideous clown!” The woman openly laughed and added: “Such a repelling figure!”
It totally devastated me—the humiliation of a popular clown and the betrayal of friendship and trust. The Boss was like that—unethical, pleasure-seeking devil. I began hating his dark side. The wife of the ring master would jeer at me, whenever we met. I came to hate that slut also. Then, one day, he seduced my sweetheart, a kind girl, and told me afterwards, this Boss, before the entire staff, in a drunken stupor: “Your girl says you are hopeless in bed. Ha! She is my new slave!”
I felt like revolting. During one of the stormy nights, I ran away. Few miles down the swamp, his goons caught me and thrashed me before the circus staff. “Next time, kill this bastard!” The Boss yelled, almost hoarsely. Everybody laughed at me, so degraded each of us had become, enjoying the misery and humiliation of a fellow victim and sufferer and driving sadistic pleasure out of the misfortune of a friend or colleague! It saddened me further—my alienation was complete. What was earlier a source of joy for me—making the lonely, sick, kids and old persons laugh by my antics, every day for years—became a painful burden. Circuses these days are positive and places of joy and humane treatment of certain animal species but those days were more primitive and brutal. The Boss came to believe he owed all the creatures and could do what he wanted to do without any sense of scruple or shame. He bent everybody to his will and desire and dissidents were whipped or thrown out of his running caravan into wild gorges or mad rivers.
So that day, he shamed me. Something died within as the family mocked me.
Except the Gorilla!
At this point, the listeners asked in unison, Gorilla? He smiled and nodded. Then resumed the gripping tale— the compartment as his audience.
Over the years at the Rio Circus I had come to develop a bond with the animals and learnt their ways and languages. Among the menagerie, the closest was the Gorilla. I would chatter with him on dull nights or mornings, when the family slept.
“Why sad, human?” The Gorilla asked.
I began crying before his huge cage kept in a corner of the barricaded property, outside the city.
I told him of my public insult and humiliation. Of my wish to take my life rather than suffer daily.
He thumped his chest lightly and then grunted, “Human! Your master is brutal like rest of humanity. You and few others are an exception. Look at me. Has put me in prison. My fate is worse.”
This simple revelation prompted me to see him—and other innocent animals imprisoned in horrible enclosures or cages in that travelling circus—in a totally different light. The brutality, sheer torture and misery of these gentle souls made me angry.
“We are not to be put on display like exotics before a crowd that cheers our misery. We are different species but that does not grant the Boss to treat us as inferior, as slaves.”
I was surprised by his smart observations.
“Look, you can get even with that mean human!”
I looked at the Gorilla, “How?”
He said, “Easy. Set me free. Release me from the cage and then see.”
And I immediately saw his point!
We all grew quiet; the compartment became one in asking the clown, “What happened next?” He kept silent. Drank water from an old bottle and then told us rest of the story.
On the appointed night, when moon was low and storm clouds were there in an ominous sky, I unleashed mayhem by releasing the Gorilla and other animals kept in chains or small box-like cages, one by one. The Gorilla tiptoed to the main tent of the Boss and emitted a blood-curdling laugh. At that point, clouds came and obscured the moon. Rain began in angry torrents and thunder struck. The laughter of Gorilla began rising up and he tore down the grand tent. The Boss got scared by the towering gorilla. He tried to train his gun on the beast but the gun and the man stood no chances against an infuriated gorilla. He flung the gun and the Boss against the cages of the tigers and lions and then ran after his trainer. It was a mad scene—animals chasing their tormentors in rain and gloom, the latter scattered and running blind. The animals tore down the circus. Then they ran down the streets of the small town on the edge of a deep jungle. The combined roar of the released animals—wounded and broken in spirit, chained and beaten for years—shook the houses. The tigers and lions growled and elephants trumpeted and thunder clapped. The town shook. The cops hid underground. I rode with the animals.
The Beasts had taken over!
Next morning, the free animals roamed a deserted town. The townspeople were shut inside. Gorilla saved a kid who had fallen from a balcony and placed it back on the steps of a panicky home. Then, the beasts retreated into the jungle.
“What did you do afterwards?” The warrior asked.
“Oh! Never joined any circus. Became a travelling clown. My mission: to make sad folks smile. The world needs clowns.”
Everybody clapped and even the baby, now awake, smiled…
Sunil Sharma, a senior academic and author-freelance journalist from the suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 20 books so far, some solo and joint. He edits Setu: