It was the early eighties and I was in my pre-teens - around 11-12 years old, studying in the fourth standard. I was born and brought up in the small town of Suri, district town of Birbhum – around 200 kms north of Kolkata. The business of circus was at its peak during those days and it was almost a regular phenomenon that 2-3 circus troupes used to visit the less urbane small towns across West Bengal in a year- one during school summer vacation, and the others during Durga Puja Holidays or winter vacation. Another major source of attraction was magic shows- almost all, by some or other Sarkar leveraging the lineage of the venerable P.C. Sorkar (Sr).
Looking back those days, I had a special affinity and attraction for the circus. While I can’t explain what all it was about, I used to be there - just standing and holding on to the iron railings on a daily basis after my study hours got over. It used to pull me like opposite poles of magnets would attract or like a bee to the honey, while my contemporaries would spend the hours on a football or cricket game. The mental and motional connect was inseparable with no proper reason that can describe it. After 30 years, today, guess that was my first encounter with infatuation to something rather than someone.
There used to be a small gate with a security guard manning it- shouting at people around the gate from time to time clearing out the crowd around. Over a period of time, being a regular visitor - I could command a different kind of treatment from him. Though there was never any intention of watching the show for free, leveraging the relationship, I used to enjoy the small tit bits of conversation, about where they came from and where they would go next. I have tried to think hard if the bonding was for anything in particular – being in the tender age of adolescence going through puberty, was it for the performers – the female ones in dazzling dresses performing near-impossible acts to the tune of the band. Or was it for the animals under the big canopy?
While the attraction was not for anything in particular (admiration was for the flawless execution of difficult routines) - I guess the connection was with their bohemian lifestyle, moving from place to place. In my visualization of things, circus gives one a platform to see various places, meet different people and get lauded by so many people around - all those used to give me the kick. It did figure out in my list of ambitions to join them as well and in one summer, used to dwell on thoughts of leaving home to be part of the bigger family . During those days, as financial parameters were not prime concern in my life, the compulsion of the performing artists having to adapt to this lifestyle against small payouts and supporting their families - all these complexities were beyond me. The awe about the whole thing kept me mesmerized and engulfed - quite inexplicable to others.
I used to like to spend my “me” time alone with the circus arena with some kind of jealousy and possessiveness. As and when people would start flocking in during the show times, I used to get disenchanted and would return home.
While I know very well that our Indian circus shows might be inferior to their foreign cousins but my feeling about circus was so deep that I feel grateful to Raj Kapoor having made circus immortal through his emotional depiction in movie “Mera Nam Joker”. Still today, any scene from that movie brings back all the memories of those days besides the surge of emotion the movie itself puts ones through. Though the attractions from public at large might have reduced over a period of time pushing this industry on the verge of being extinct - with the animals being moved out and availability of other much more exciting sources of entertainment available through TV in the cozy environment of drawing rooms, I personally don’t miss any opportunity to visit them in case one is going on nearby. This is my rechristening the bond grafted decades back – still fondly cherished in one corner of my heart. Going with the same emotional connect, I took my daughter to the very first opportunity to a circus show when she was just 4 years old. No, it was and is not "Like father, like daughter".
In the midst of all these, two incidents are still vivid in my memory. One of the giant elephants - while returning to the camp after a field day on the outskirts got into a puzzled and somewhat annoyed state beyond the control of the mahout – creating quite a trouble for the locality and attacking people though there was no casualty. The second incident happened during the animal show after the erection of the high steel circular wall in the middle of the arena. That day, we were seated in the invited guest seating area as my father could manage few passes. We were at the front row very close to the central arena shaking hands with the clowns and being part of their acts all through the duration of the show. One of the tigers- quite unmanageable to the trainer- while asked to sit on a high stool jumped out of the steel wall after scaling the perimeter. He fell just in front of a small girl and it was a pandemonium and panic situation all over which might have taken a turn for worse but for the presence of mind of the trainer who pulled the chain in time to dislodge the animal on its feet. In both the cases, I had a sense of personal failures that people would point finger to various aspects including safety and security of the shows.
Inside the tent, the artists on the trapeze, the husband-wife couple in the weightlifting section, the cycle show with girls and ladies of different ages, other different balancing acts, the show with the birds, the multi-daggers/knife acts with the man saving him at the nick of the time – all used to keep me glued after repeated watch - on the outside, it was a different connection that used to bind me with the event. I still remember Ramu – one of the security guards waving his hand while the big truck disappeared in the distance on the last day that summer. The field was deserted and forlorn waiting to welcome another guest some other day, some other time.