Fiction: The Ringmaster

Subhash Chandra

- Subhash Chandra 

Year 1992. Place Meerut, a city about 80 miles from Delhi.
#
At the fortnightly meetings of the staff, Mule exhorted them to keep reinventing themselves. “Add something new to your events. Make them more adventurous. Nobody wants to watch the same old tricks over and over again.” And he’d quote Achre’s (Achrekar) example.

But this time, when Achre came up with a proposal, Mule was more worried than excited. No doubt, he was greedy, but he was not foolish. He could not kill the hen that laid golden eggs for him.

Twice earlier when Achre had introduced innovations, Mule was happy, praised him and gave a salary raise. The first time Achre had discarded the protective gear – an iron vest. It was, of course, dangerous, but Mule knew he had the strength of a wrestler. He had heard the story about Achre physically overpowering a tiger, who had strayed into the Housing Society in Bombay, where he worked as a Security Guard. The second time, he proposed keeping his forearm in the mouth of a lion. It was risky! He could lose one arm. But Mule, with his cold professional sense, was sure Achre could control the kings of the jungle with a single arm. If anything, it would add to his and the Circus’ stature.
Both the times, the sales of tickets had zoomed.

“I can’t allow this.” 
 “Why, Mr. Mule?” Achre asked tersely. 
He was the only one who could address Mule by name and question him in that tone. The others were in awe of him. He was a disciplinarian who strictly enforced the rules -- no liquor or ‘drugs,’ no smoking, no food from outside and most important daily exercise and compulsory rehearsals. Violations attracted warnings -- at times fines too. But he blinked at Achre’s occasional transgressions.
“I can’t permit you to commit suicide.”
“It’s my life.” 
“But my fate is tied up with yours.”
“Does that mean you own me?”

Mule was silent. He knew Achre wouldn’t take a ‘no’ for an answer. He was temperamental. A bit eccentric and impulsive too. He got bored with the repetitiveness of work and changed jobs for that reason.  His journey from being a Bodyguard of a Bombay Mafioso, to a Recovery Man for a money-lender, to a Security Guard had brought him to New Age Circus. He had no experience, or training, and yet he earned accolades as the Ringmaster. His intrepidness and courage were unparalleled.
“Okay, come to me tomorrow morning.”
#
Mule took out a contract from the table drawer, placed it before Achre who signed it without batting an eye. The terms of the contract indemnified New Age Circus, in case of any harm to Achre’s limb or life. This was the third in the series.

The dangerous feat of the Ringmaster was widely advertised. Posters were put up. A cycle-rickshaw, mounted with a loudspeaker, went round the city blaring about the Ringmaster’s heroic event.

As expected, a massive crowd converged on Bhainsali Grounds.  Tickets were sold in black – at double the price. Some agreed to watch the show standing on the sides of the stands.

The Ringmaster was the topic of discussion among the crowd waiting for the entry to start. 
“Would he survive?”
“I doubt.”
“He is an idiot.”
“He is a magician. He can cast a spell on the ferocious animals.”
“Yes, or else he would have been one-armed by now.”
“But shoving his head into the jaws of a lion is a different ball game.”
“For all you know, it could be his last day.”
#
Achre entered the Arena with his characteristic swagger. Then went through the routine: took off his shirt, displayed his broad, muscular torso (with a bullet-mark he had received while saving the Mafioso) to demonstrate he was not wearing the protective vest.
One by one, five lions were let into the Enclosure. Achre welcomed each individually, tickled them under the neck, and kissed them. While performing his show, he became chatty with the animals.
“Hi, guys! How’re you today?”
Johny, Robarts, Clark, Stuart and Julie stood in a horizontal line in front of him. Their eyes had a mix of awe and defiance. But Julie’s were inscrutable.

He went on issuing commands and all of them obeyed – going round the Enclosure in a file, standing on their hind legs, and then climbing on to the stools which progressively got smaller. Finally they perched on the smallest stools, precariously balancing themselves, paws joined and bodies shrunk. He provoked them by poking his whip-handle into their necks or flanks. They jerked their heads irritated, and snarled, but remained peaceful. Then they were taken away, leaving Julie behind.

He came out of the Enclosure.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, now get ready to watch the act you’ve been waiting for. It might be my ‘Good Bye’ to you. But no. I am going to be with you for sure. Achre was nothing, if not a show off. 
He went near to Julie. “Hey beautiful. We are friends, aren’t we?”
Then he stroked her forehead and caressed her neck. She did not react in any way.
“Come on let us check your teeth. Are they okay?”
He forcibly opened her jaws and slowly pushed his head between them. She quickly brought down her upper jaw on his neck and there was a loud collective gasp from the audience. After thirty or so seconds, he stood erect. The lioness licked her mouth with her wet tongue. Achre had tended Julie for a week inside her cage, when she suffered from an infection.
 
The canvas amphitheatre erupted into a roar of clapping. The spectators stood up to give him a standing ovation. There were hoots of applause from the young. Achre got a heady sensation, bent low to thank the audience for the praise and waived in all directions.

A week went by. All the three shows went House Full. Mule’s cash box was overflowing. Every day, he was raking in close to twenty thousand rupees – a huge amount at the time -- something unprecedented in the history of New Age Circus.
#
One morning Achre entered Mule’s office. Mule had decided to give him a handsome reward in cash. But before he could speak, Achre said, “I am leaving.”
“What?”
“Yes.”
“But why?” Mule gaped. “And where are you going?” He always worried Achre might leave him for Eagle Circus, their competitor.
“To my home town near Pune. It’s more than five years that I saw my wife and son. He must be a young lad of about eighteen now.”
Mule knew it was futile trying to hold him back. “When do you intend to leave?”
“Tomorrow morning.”
Mule consulted his accounts clerk, gave Achre a full month’s salary and added five thousand as reward. Achre seemed happy and thanked him.
“When will you be back?”
“Can’t say.”
“Come back soon... and to New Age, okay?” Mule said with a forced smile.
“Yes, sure.”     
#
Three agonising months passed.  New Age business slumped and the takings reduced drastically, leaving Mule dejected. Every passing day he prayed, Achre would get back soon. Mule economised on all fronts, but still the Circus managed to just about scrape through. He looked lost most of the time. 

It was around 11:30 PM. The third show had just been over and Mule was in his office, brooding and despondent, thinking how the Circus would carry through one more month in Meerut. Suddenly, he literally jumped out of his chair. He could not believe his eyes. Achre was standing in front of him and smiling.
“Achre?”
“Yes.”
Mule felt like giving him a hug, but resisted the impulse and said, “Welcome … welcome back, dear Achre. I can’t begin to tell you how pleased I am! And how happy everyone here would be! We missed you every single day.”
Achre just kept smiling.
“So, when do you start?”
“Tomorrow.”
“Excellent!”
Mule called for the man he had employed as the Ringmaster on temporary basis.
“Our regular Ringmaster is back,” Mule told him pointing to Achre. “I will settle your dues tomorrow.”
The man looked at Achre in a strange way and went out of the cabin.
#
Achre had become rasher and bolder. He would perform all the feats he used to, including putting his head into the mouth of a lion. But he did much more besides. He would now keep his head between the jaws of all the five lions and for a much longer time. Or suddenly he would lift one of them, walk around the enclosure and then toss him down to the ground. Sometimes, he would make a lion lie on the ground, sit on him smirking and going through the action of combing his hair. But the lions did not snarl or snap at him.  On the contrary, they would begin to cower, the moment, Achre entered the Enclosure.
New Age Circus regained its lost glory. Big money started flowing in again. Mule’s joy knew no bounds.

It was early in the morning. Mule had just finished overseeing the staff exercise and was in his office. There was a knock on the door.
“Come in.”
A strapping youth of about twenty entered. He was tall, broad-chested and muscular.
“Sir, I am Mr. Achrekar’s son. I want to work as the Ringmaster,” he said with a smile that resembled his father’s.
Mule was flummoxed. “But we have your father as the Ringmaster.”

The smile on the youth’s face gave way to consternation. “How is that possible, Sir?”
“Why?”
Soon after coming home, Bapa (father) bought a second hand motor cycle and raced all over the town at maddening speed. One day, he lost control, crashed into a tree and all was over.  

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