It was the night the circus came to town. The days when cable TV as a word didn’t exist in our dictionary. Maharaja’s Circus, it was called. No malls. Cinemas, yes. But we would wait for the once-a-year show to reach our town. The night the circus came to town is one I would remember all my life. There were just four of us in the neighborhood who were considered old enough to go alone. All of us boys. There was no question of girls being sent alone.
How much we planned it! We were to be the Fabulous Four. That’s what we called ourselves. Vinu was most excited about the tiger’s performance. We scoffed at him. Who cares about a tiger? We were to watch the acrobats! Those live wire performers! The jugglers! And wasn’t there a magician too? Maybe, we might like the elephant playing football. But the tiger? We shook our heads. Vinu was always like that. The quiet one. The one who would speak when spoken to. And the one who always would do what he wanted. In a quiet way, he would get away with it. No one expected him to disobey, so they wouldn’t notice when he did. Rajesha couldn’t. I couldn’t. And Jaggu would never try to quietly disobey.
The night the circus came to town, we pooled together all our rupees. After buying the tickets and the puffed rice, maybe we could even have an ice lolly or two. Jaggu’s father would drop us in his car, the only one to have a car in the neighborhood. We used to wonder where he went around in it because it’s not like there was anything in the town to go to. Maybe, the latest Dr. Rajkumar release. But really…where would you go in a car? The answer came to us now. To the circus, of course! We huddled in the back, knees sticking to each other. Jaggu sat in the front. I turned to Vinu. “Still thinking about the tiger?” It was unkind. But I was known to be unkind, it was the only way I could not be cruel. Vinu smiled. And nodded. Jaggu didn’t tease him, perhaps his father’s presence at the wheel stopped him.
Maharaja’s Circus was small by today’s standards. But for us, it was huge. Crowds thronged. We snaked inside in a queue. Pushing and jostling to get to the front. We sat down on the wooden bench. Jaggu had already gone to get us some puffed rice. I shivered in the cool night air. Vinu sat next to me, looking pensive. The acts began. We screamed at the jugglers. Laughed at the clown. Roared with the acrobats. And giggled at the silly dogs prancing on their buckets. The elephants came and played cricket. Not football! We fell over laughing at that. The last act was to be the disappearing act. The magician. But before that, the tiger! We pushed Vinu when the tiger came over, an old tiger that barely seemed to walk. The trainer made the animal run through a few hoops of fire, but the tiger seemed distracted. Quickly, he pulled the tiger away and we hooted when the magician came on stage! Oh! The tricks he played! Coins and handkerchiefs! Swords and knives! We were awestruck! And then, the finale! The disappearing act! The magician invited one person on stage, and without quite knowing, Jaggu pushed Vinu. He stumbled and fell on the wooden platform. The magician led Vinu, who had his head bowed, to the cage. Locked him inside. Drew the curtains. And then! With a quick flourish, he removed the curtain. There was no Vinu! The crowd went berserk. The magician bowed. He drew the curtain again. And there, snarling in the cage was the tiger. This time, we were on our feet. How could the magician be so crafty? How did he get the tiger in and how did he remove Vinu! In the tumult, we didn’t notice the magician’s face. He seemed to falter in his step. There was no bowing. He seemed struck, looking around at the crowd, before he ran. Running to the cage. Throwing the curtain aside. The tiger. Still there. Only the tiger. He screamed. And I remember that one scream still. It was terror mixed with guilt and shame and the awful feeling when you know that life has sunk you in a grave.
Vinu was never found. The tiger lived for another 3 years. The magician died that same year. The year the circus came to town.