They subsided, munching and fidgeting. Silence fell as the curtains parted wide – the widest so far. In lumbered Sundari, swaying and tinkling, her beady eyes looking this way and that way but she seemed to know where exactly her little baby, Sundar, was straying off.
Oh he was so cute and so very naughty. He would scuttle off this way and that way while Sundari would just almost lazily pull him back by his tail. The audience roared with laughter and mothers dearly wished for such a trunk – preferably several!
After a bit of playfulness and a bit of football, Sundar was led away from the ring with his trunk held high in salute to the audience who were rather sad to see him go.
But then Sundari still had quite a few tricks in store – much of which involved eating bunches of bananas, drinking buckets of water (and spraying it – the Suri kids got a dose too) and relieving herself in copious amounts – this too was viewed with much interest and gusto. But the loudest laughs were reserved for the poor clowns who were upended and dangled helplessly from Sundari’s trunks while their own trunks were in danger of slipping off.
Yet the best act was possibly between Sundari and a horseman. They played the most complicated, mesmerizing and perfectly timed game of catch-and-throw with an acrobat spinning from here to there without missing beat.
And all too soon, it was time for Sundari to leave. But wait! She wasn’t too keen to go either – what did she want? Oh she was gunning straight for Chotu.
“Chotu! Give the banana to her. Give it to her!” they screamed in agitation but Chotu bitten by the stubborn and recalcitrant bug, dug in his heels, “No! It’s mine. Why should I give it to her?”
Unfazed, Sundari reached out her long trunk as if that was Sundar not Chotu. Rajani and Shikha screamed and dived under the benches. Chanda hastily dug out another banana and held it out. But Sundari was fixated on Chotu. Finally Chotu took the banana from his mother and held it out to her. Conceding the matter, she delicately sniffed it up from his tiny fingers and tucked it in the vast recesses of her mouth.
With a gentle pat on Chotu’s head, Sundari gave in to her master’s voice and ambled away amidst a thunderous applause, which she acknowledged with a raised trunk and a massive trumpet.
Chotu yelped and shook his hand at the odd feeling. He put a worried hand on his head – had she plucked away his hair or what!
The others stared at him enviously. Why him? Why not any of us – was he some long lost relative of Sundari? The incident was narrated over and over again; with each repetition another layer of embroidery was added. So much that in the final version (at least till I last heard) – Sundari bowed low to Chotu and carried him off on her back for a victory around the ring while he waved to the wildly cheering audience; Sundari refused to let him down and it was only when Sundar came into the ring and protested did she…
Chotu became quite the star. But then as we all know, stardom comes at a price – from that day onwards Chotu was renamed to Hathi (actually hathi ka bachcha but shortened for convenience to Hathi) and when one of his ‘Happy’ moods struck him he became a musth Hathi (Biji’s contribution).
Anyway back to circus…
Next came the jugglers – one climbed a ladder and then proceeded to throw up cups and saucers unerringly one on top of the other – it swayed and wobbled alarmingly but not one dropped. Wide-eyed, the boys especially lapped this one up – Meett made a mental note to hide all the cups and saucers at home.
Then came the girls all riding bicycles – Rajani and Shikha exchanged bored superior looks. They could do this; very easily too – what was there to show off, just hold hands and ride a bike around the ring, then on the tiny plank encircling the ring? Well with a bit of practice, sure, why not? Cycle with their hands – well maybe? And then came in the unicycle. They stared at each other and grudgingly admitted defeat especially when the girl riding the unicycle began twirling batons, which were actually flaming torches. Their eyes went wider and wider as if they were swallowing it all through their eyes.
And indeed there was much to see and marvel at – the birds who rode bicycles and cycle rickshaws, dogs doing tricks at the snap of a finger, jumping, leaping about, showing off in every which way possibly how happy they were to be out in the ring performing, pleasing their master – there playfulness and obvious joy gladdened even Rajani who wasn’t too fond of dogs – after all they barked and growled. But these dogs were so cute and cuddly – Rajani was so enamored and impressed she actively contemplated keeping a dog at home. But what if Papa didn’t agree? What if it licked her or worse bit her? She nibbled her fingers well maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.
Slowly, one by one, the children got restive. They were hot and tired – yet they wanted more. But nothing was happening just more music, some juggling some bars being put up all around the ring, Shikha yawned and leaned against her mother. But then the clowns came in and indulged in some tomfoolery, which was right up their street – they perked up. Absorbed in laughing and following the clowns they failed to notice when the barred cage had been erected. It was only when the cages rolled in rattling and deep low growls reached their ears, they looked around in surprise.
One by one, the cage doors slid open with a grating clang and out padded cats – big ones, restless, annoyed and irritable. They snapped and snarled at each other and the world in general.
And Rajani in particular…
Rajani shrieked in alarm and jumped to take cover behind Kirti. The others jeered and laughed at her but she didn’t care – safety first was her motto. She insisted on watching the lions perform from behind her shield and armor.
A tall handsome well-dressed man in a top hat stood in one corner. He glared at the lions and cracked the whip in his hand. Rajani cowered, as did the lions. Snapping and grumbling, they climbed on to low stools much too small to hold them. But they managed to balance themselves and not only that they played a sort of musical chairs directed and masterminded by the whip holder. They were pretty much like the well-trained dogs – albeit much less cooperative or accommodating!
The lions went through their routines flawlessly, yet to Rajani’s critical eyes, their hearts somehow didn’t seem to be in it. It seemed more mechanical and enforced, unlike the dogs that had seemed to have really enjoyed showing off their skills and lapped up the audience adulation. But the lions cared little for the audience and they made their objections pretty loud and clear. It was pretty much obvious (at least to Rajani) that they submitted only to the crack of the whips leaving Rajani a bit sad and sorry for the poor lions.
She crept out of her hiding place – they needed protection not her.
But the boys lapped it up – they cheered and applauded the ringmaster and trainer who controlled the lions with such practiced ease and nonchalance. They itched to get hold of the whip and crack it – surely the lions would jump to do their bidding as well? The more the lions snarled and bared their teeth, happier they were. They cheered lustily as the lions raged, blustered and then caved in meekly.
It was curtain time already. The lions loped back into their cages and the other participants trooped in for a final wave and a bow. Our friends spontaneously rose to their feet as one clapping furiously, half sad and half relieved that it was over. It was late and it had been a long day – home and bed seemed like the best thing on earth.
Up next Chapter 53: Disaster Strikes