Singapore, 1920: Curtain Call
Priyanath was slowly sinking into the quicksand. The deep yellow mass of sand had the tight consistency of mud. The dense, impenetrable, yellow sludge closed in on him, entering his nostrils, his mouth. Priyanath was choking. Suddenly the deep yellow began to change colour in some places to orange. An unusual coppery orange.
Priyanath tried to recollect where he had seen this particular shade before. But even before he could remember, he had a view of black stripes on a tawny background, and was simultaneously overcome by a sharp, foul stench. It was a familiar smell. The raw odour of tiger urine. It wasn’t just in the jungle but also in its cage that the tiger sprayed its urine to stake its territory.
Even in his benumbed state, Priyanath wanted to laugh, reminded of a strange habit of his own. Wherever he went with his troupe, he always urinated beneath the open sky after the last post of the main tent had been driven into the ground. It was Fatikchandra, mad Fatik, who had been the first to observe this peculiar practice of his. ‘So you’re staking your territory, Priyababu,’ he had brayed one day.
The stripes appeared even clearer now against the tawny background. Priyanath reached out. His fingers sank into coarse, thick fur. A rumbling sound emerged, which he recognised at once. Lakshmi. The Royal Bengal tiger whom he considered no less than his daughter. Lakshmi and Narayan had been tiny balls of cotton when the King of Rewa had gifted them to Priyanath. He used to give them their milk himself, using cottonwool wicks to drip it into their mouths.
Lakshmi was as good as her name, totally obedient and utterly devoted to Priyanath. Narayan wasn’t naughty either. Both of them knew as soon as Priyanath went up to their cages, leaning their heads against the bars and purring for his caresses. But Lakshmi was more than a daughter. As a baby she would often refuse to return to her cage, adamant about staying with him. He would have to let her sleep in his tent, next to his bed. On some winter nights she would even climb into his bed, nestling against him.
Where’s Lakshmi, where are you? Why can’t I see your face? About to lose consciousness, Priyanath tried to keep his eyes open with great effort.
But what was this? This wasn’t Lakshmi! The body was a tiger’s, but the face was a woman’s. Was it a woman or a demoness? What did she want? Why was she slithering up to him like a giant python, bringing her face so close to his?
‘Who are you? What do you want?’ Priyanath screamed.
The woman’s lips tried to form an answer, but all Priyanath could hear was a purring. The kind that his tigers made when they wanted his attention.
But what was she saying? Listening closely, Priyanath detected her slurred speech. ‘Will you kiss me? Give me a kiss. You’re so brave. Why don’t you kiss me?’
The words sounded like groans, but they seemed familiar. Who was it who used to talk this way? Who? Someone he knew very well.
The woman’s face was inches away from Priyanath’s now. Suddenly she said, ‘Kiss me here, right here…’ and turned her face away.
Priyanath gasped. One side of her face was all but gone. Someone had ripped off part of her jaw in a fury, leaving only a misshapen lump of flesh where her neck and shoulders should have been.
Opening his mouth to shriek in horror, Priyanath realised that only a rumbling sound was emerging from his throat. The mangled face was still bleeding profusely. His white vest was soaked, turning red with blood.
He tried to push the face away with both his hands, but his hands only passed through air. The woman broke into peals of laughter, which turned into maniacal rage the very next moment. Heaving with anger, she said, ‘You can’t, Priyababu, you can’t. You can try as hard as you like, but you can’t push me away.’
She clung to his neck with arms that ended not in fingers but in fearsome claws. Priyanath tried in a frenzy to extricate himself. He was panting, desperately trying to draw deep breaths. The bed, the entire room, was awash with blood. It flooded into his nose and mouth, suffocating him.
A terrified Priyanath woke up with a start. He had fallen asleep in the comfortable wicker chair next to his desk. His clothes were sopping wet with perspiration. Beads of sweat streamed down from his face.
He sat there for a while, trying to normalise his breathing. My god, what a horrible nightmare.
An electric bulb was burning brightly in the room. It was hurting his eyes. These lights had been introduced to Calcutta a few years ago. They must have come to Singapore even earlier. But Priyanath was not yet accustomed to them. He had always travelled with his circus from one village to another, performing in the countryside. The glare was painful. He couldn’t open his eyes properly.
Priyanath squinted at the adjoining bathroom. He needed to wipe off his perspiration. The towel was in there. But he staggered as soon as he got on his feet. His head began to reel.
He clutched the side of the desk to save himself from falling. Sheets of paper were strewn on its surface, all of them prescriptions from European medical practitioners. Doctors in Singapore had tested his blood and diagnosed jaundice. He had led an indisciplined life for years, with irregular meals, on top of which there had been frequent bouts of fever, along with searing headaches. He used to swallow fistfuls of painkillers, which had apparently harmed his liver severely. Visiting Penang with his troupe, he had fallen so ill that he had had to be taken to Singapore for treatment. The doctors had grounded him after a thorough examination, warning him that he wouldn’t survive unless he was treated immediately.
Since then Priyanath had remained imprisoned in this hotel in Singapore. But he was close to losing his mind in worry. He had barely managed to restart his circus after a great deal of trouble, and there was no one besides him to ensure that everyone in the troupe was fed properly and looked after, and that the animals were taken care of.
Priyanath sighed. His elder brother Motilal used to shoulder all the responsibilities of his Great Bengal Circus at one time. Priyanath did not have to concern himself with anything but the performance.
But Mejobabu was extremely bad-tempered. It wasn’t just with outsiders or with other members of the circus, Motilal had often fought bitterly with his own brother too. But then they had always made up. Despite all their conflicts, Priyanath was certain that Motilal would never be able to turn down his younger brother.
But there was no opportunity for patching up after their last feud. Motilal bid goodbye to the world suddenly.
What ensued after this was even more unbearable. Motibabu’s eldest son Motilal decided that he had come of age, and demanded to see the accounts. He even had several arguments with his uncle, claiming that Priyanath was single-handedly destroying the circus founded by his father. But he refused to accompany the troupe on its performances, or to find out for himself how such a large circus was managed.
Priyanath sank into gloom as he mused about all this. None of his own sons had evinced any interest in the circus, concentrating on their education instead. His second son, Abanikrishna, was a lover of the arts, just like Priyanath himself, and had already developed into a skilled artist. He wrote regularly to Priyanath, although each of his letters bore the same message, of the family’s financial hardship.
It was true that they were helpless, unable to cope. Just the other day a letter had arrived to inform him of mounting debts at all the neighbourhood shops. While none of the creditors was yet to visit them at home to demand their dues, they had let it be known that this could not go on.
Everyone at home was hopeful that this time, too, Priyanath would bring some money from his profits, as he usually did. But Priyanath himself was reeling under loans. Whom could he possibly tell that he had borrowed money at high interest rates to pay for this tour his circus was on? He had no idea how he would pay back his loans.
The only person aware of the situation was his friend Kazi Kader Daad, who had lent money to Priyanath in several instalments to help him overcome this difficult time. Priyanath had learnt from Abani’s letters that Kader Dead had even helped his family out in Calcutta with money occasionally.
When would he repay his friend for this favour? And how? Priyanath was at his wits’ end.
He was still discomposed. It was May, a hot month in Singapore. Priyanath felt as though his insides were on fire. He was perspiring profusely, his tongue was coated, he could barely keep his eyes open. He was overcome by exhaustion. Pouring several buckets of water over himself might bring some relief.
Priyanath stumbled towards the bathroom, only half conscious, groping for things to clutch. But halfway there, his head began to reel again.
With nothing to hold on to, Priyanath was about to lose his balance and fall. One of the posts on his four-poster bed appeared to him dimly. He tried to grasp it, but failed. His tall frame spun and collapsed on the corner of the bed.
Made in the western style, the bed had a low upright plank at its foot. Priyanath had fallen across it on his back, his hips resting on the patterned length of wood. The lower half his body was partly dangling, partly on the floor. The portion above the waist was slumped on the bed.
His head, however, had struck the floor with great force. It was a wooden surface, which was why he had not fractured his skull. But two streams of blood were flowing from Priyanath’s ears, pooling on the floor. His eyes were open, and the eyeballs had rolled upwards, inert.
The opening orchestra began to play with the ringing of the third bell. The solemn notes of the trumpet, clarinet, and English horn filled the tent.
Priyanath was still aroused by the sound of this music. it made him joyful, freeing him of all burdens. He remembered none of the financial uncertainty or the trouble of managing the troupe or the worry of how to run his household. On the contrary, he felt as though he were making a fresh start.
Priyanath swung cheerfully on his trapeze, his head pointing towards the ground. The upside-down face of a 12-year-old girl approached and receded alternately. She was also swinging upside down on her trapeze. Her nose-stud glittered, and stray strands of hair were stuck to her sweat-covered brow. Fervour shone in her dazzling eyes.
Priyanath called out to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, Sushila, let go. Let go at the end of the next swing.’ With a covert smile Sushila said, ‘Why should I be afraid? I know you’ll catch me, Priyababu.’