One Sunday afternoon I settled on the couch, adamant not to budge until I had penned something note-worthy. A bag of chips by my side and surrounded with a legion of journals, I puttered around in the ostentatious hope that something would ‘inspire’ me to write. My concentration was broken by the sound of drumbeat outside. Ta ta ra ta ta ra tun tun tun… like a marching brigade. It would run for a while and then turn to a rolling drumbeat, then stop… and start again. Intrigued, I rambled to the balcony. The spectacle saddened my heart.
A circus act was taking place in the street below. A rope had been tied between two bamboo poles; and a sickly girl walked the rope, balancing herself with a beanpole. A boy sat on one end of the rope, ensuring that the bamboo didn’t move. A gauntly man, probably her father, was timing her beat with a dhol; a woman in a cotton sari stood beside him. I watched her traverse the rope over and again, first bare foot, then on slippers. The final act was one of pure daredevilry. She placed one foot on a metal loop, pushed it forward, and very carefully put her second foot on it. In this fashion the child walked ten feet high in the air. I hurried downstairs. The drumbeat rolled to a stop. The girl walked to each person standing, holding out a bowl. Her younger brother did the same. The moment she caught sight of me, her hand reached out. I fumbled in my pockets for a ten rupee note. People watched from the balconies. Some brought food and clothes. But no one said a word to the little family. I noticed there was a baby, wrapped and bundled in a basket.
The performance over, the father untied the bamboo poles and rope and put it in one side of a pair of baskets, hanging on a pole like a huge balance. The baby lay precariously in the other. He lifted both on his shoulders, everyone pitching with a little bit of stuff. And I stood watching, like all the other colony-wallahs. Suddenly I felt an urge to talk to the girl. I followed them for a few metres, not sure what I was doing. Then I patted her head and asked, “Tujha naav ki?”. “Brajesh”, she said in a sprightly voice. I didn’t catch the name correctly, so I asked again. “She thinks she is a boy, that’s why her name is Brajesh”, her mother laughed and replied, in chaste Hindi. “Where are you from?” I asked. Chattisgarh. Have you been away from home since many years? No, we go home every Holi. And suddenly, I was lost for questions. Suddenly conscious of walking down the road with a bunch of vagrants, me in my tracks and “One India” tee, I stopped in my tracks. The neighbourhood aunties eyed me oddly. When I turned to look the family of itinerant acrobats had disappeared down the bend.
I wish I had walked down the road and carried the conversation to its end. I wish I had bought the little girl a chocolate, that I had not let myself be shamed into thinking that she was any different from the shiny faced kids in the vicinity.
When one of the kids in the colony sings a song for Children’s day celebrations, what do you do? Pat her on the head and say “Very nice, beta”? This child was surrounded by so many people who watched a truly breathtaking performance; and they put money into her hands like they were afraid of contracting some disease. Why? They were not beggars. They were earning a livelihood doing something.The little they knew. The little they could pass on to their children. Making a spectacle, a circus act of their lives; so they could save enough to be home for Holi.