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SILGHAT SHOW-BIZ

‘What’s this Bongo? What does that say?’

A hand painted sign held great promise; on one side a crude drawing of someone sitting cross-legged holding a stick, on the other a two headed man.

Bongo sighed his ‘it is my duty’ sigh then began to translate.

‘Lord Shi…’

Before he could get any further he was mown down by a magnificently grubby gypsy; an Indian gypsy, admittedly – but a gypsy just the same. They’re a carnival breed, a strain of rogues and reprobates born to gleefully extract money from every stupid punter they could find. Of course, I liked him straight away.

My gypsy began talking and wasn’t going to stop till I gave him money. Inside, he proclaimed loudly, was Lord Shiva himself – come straight down from Paradise for Assamese New Year. He was floating in this very tent. My gypsy flung his arms out wide.

‘Shiva Magic!’

Well, nothing was going to stop the Dog from tasting that magnificence. He loves a visitation.

‘How much?’

Five rupees. Shiva comes cheap in Silghat.

‘I’ll pay for you, Bongo.’

He shook his head. He was sulking already.

Dog launched in to the tent, eager for his pre-paid miracle. A grubby lad hoiked a flap of plastic sheeting aside and there he was, bathed in a ghostly turquoise light; Lord Shiva himself, fresh from heaven; floating in mid-air, just as advertised, unaided by mortal hand.

Shiva Magic, indeed.

*

Once a year in April a tiny township about half-way down the Brahmaputra is flooded with tens of thousands of the surrounding locals, all drawn together for one reason – the show had come to Silghat. So had I.

First and foremost it was about shopping and eating. Kilometres of stalls had sprouted on either side of the road beside the river. From the township to the fair-grounds hundreds and hundreds of roadside shops flogged the usual range of Indian carnival necessities: blown up pink animals, wooden toys, religious paraphernalia, painted piggy banks, bright green plaster parrots, pictures of Lord Shiva, posters of fat naked babies, garlands of plastic flowers; all the fun of the fair – and promenading along this single street was most of Assam, come in from the country for these two great days.

There was a Ferris-wheel, tied together, as usual, with string; a Well of Death where fearless Indian motor-bikers drove round and round a vertical wall while a hundred spectators crammed above, waiting for their advertised fatality; a children’s roundabout, complete with screaming passengers, games of chance, knock ‘em down booths, balloon shooting stalls, dart throwing games – and, from personal experience, some of the worst sideshows in the world.

Lord Shiva was, of course, a local lad sitting on a platform that extended, not very miraculously, from the back of a nearby truck. He was dressed rather like an orange Father Christmas with a thick cotton-wool beard and cotton wool eyebrows. His hair was white, wound in a knot and balanced on his head. Four dreadlocks curled around his chest. Lord Shiva wiggled his head ferociously. Dogster wiggled cheerfully back and feigned great wonder. Lord Shiva knew as well as I that it was the most pathetic miracle he’d ever seen but felt compelled to keep up his part of the bargain. More head wiggling and what might have been a broad Shiva smile – it was impossible to tell under the cotton-wool.

Lord Shiva and Mr. Dogster parted company. I hoped he didn’t have to sit on that plank all day. It was awfully hot. His cotton wool was on the droop.

Under another flap of canvas right next door was the second promised wonder – the two headed man. Hold on to your hats. Here was another unfortunate carnival boy whose punishment it was to sit pressed up against a large mirror in the dark. One visible leg lay extended on one side, his striped shirt pressed up against one edge of the mirror, his head stuck out at an angle. My God, it truly was a two headed man! Incredible!

The two headed man may just have been smiling but the whole thing was so… woeful, I couldn’t really tell. The poor lad looked very uncomfortable and I beat a hasty retreat – I didn’t want to put his neck out of joint. Bongo was waiting outside with my magnificently grubby gypsy.

‘Amazing,’ I said very seriously, ‘truly amazing.’

Bongo looked at me with disbelief. He thought I was mad.

The owner of the sideshow beamed with pride. This was a man with twinkling eyes, a man who made his living out of the sheer, mind altering gullibility of uneducated people. As my gypsy showed me, there truly is a sucker born every minute.

Here I was – right on time. We laughed and shook hands.

‘You’re in the same business as I am,’ I smiled, ‘the bullshit business.’

He had no idea what I was saying. He wiggled his head furiously. I clapped him on the shoulder.

‘Good luck,’ I said, ‘good luck for your bullshit business.’

The show was just about to start at the Rock ’n Roll Bollywood Pop Star Tent.

I was excited. Bongo sighed another of his sighs and led the way. He was far too grown up for all this, far too good to be looking after this enthusiastic retard at his side. I paid for our tickets – twenty rupees a head for this one – and we made our way in through an iron corridor, divided down the centre by a railing with two locked gates at the far end. Above was a sign. It read:

LADIES    in    JEANS

Make of that what you will.

We sat towards the back inside a large plastic tent. There was quite a wind outside. Suddenly a great chunk of yellow plastic roofing flew up, flapped then settled in a not very gentle cloud, on top of our heads. People ran for cover but the emergency was swiftly rectified. Lithe bodies clambered directly over us and yanked the offending plastic back into place. The show would begin – once the house was full. The locals of Silghat swiftly obliged. It was evident that they didn’t get much razz-ma-tazz in their lives.

Let’s hope they were easily pleased; the wayward sheeting was the highlight of the next thirty minutes. In front of a painted backdrop of somewhere that looked like Korea a ‘groovy’ young couple absently mimed and danced to a recorded song squeezed out through the speakers. They finished to a smattering of dazed applause then yielded to another couple who did the same thing – then another – and another – each dressed in progressively more  ‘groovy’ and ridiculous outfits.

Top of the bill was some ‘stunning beauty’ who appeared in rather fewer clothes than the average Assamese audiences are used to seeing – certainly the ripple that went through the audience when she appeared, a mixture of shock from the women and lust from the men, indicated that something out of the ordinary was going on. Her tiny mini dress was hung with plastic pearls under a pink sequinned belt, her back totally bare but for two thin straps, one holding a pink sequinned brassiere, the other holding up a see-through red creation that covered up the front of her. She looked exactly like a dazed Thai lady-boy on a Phuket bar-top, limp, mechanical and dull.

I was the only one thinking this. I looked around. Bongo was visibly puffed up with the erotic charge, leaning forward in his seat, face lit up and eyes alight. He glanced at me with a manly smile and looked back, all ears, all eyes, all male. My guide wasn’t the only young man suddenly glued to the action on stage. This was ‘hot, man,’ as one youth panted, this was raw; this was sex – or the closest these randy lads were going to get to it. It certainly didn’t take much to get these guys off – they lived in a state of permanent sexual frustration, a simmering broth that could boil over at the slightest provocation.

The star of the show pranced around limply for her mimed moment in the sun then, as the grand finale, the whole cast came out on stage to join her. They all mimed badly to another song. I clapped enthusiastically. Bongo looked over and nodded. He loved it. This was the most animated I’d seen him in days.

The sadhus were out on parade in Silghat. On top of a steep hill, overlooking the carnival site was a temple and a set of steps that must be climbed. At intervals either side of these bloody steps was a sadhu. Some sadhus had a mat filled with religious trinkets, bits of string and magic stuff, did a swift blessing with the transaction and made a profit on the side. But right now they were just performing sadhus, striking their pose, accepting their cheque and settling straight back in the zone.

If it was all a sideshow that was fine by me; I was at the fairground, after all.

They were each about as stoned as it’s possible for a human being to be and still remain upright. They sat impassively, each a living work of art, ignoring this puffing white foreign thing as Dog hove up beside them.

It was exactly as if he’d stuck a coin in the slot. Down fluttered the ten rupee note and at that moment two blood soaked eyes would slowly focus on his face. Dog would raise his camera and, with a deft wiggle of his head, ask permission. Sadhu eyelids would lower in assent then he would ‘assume the pose’.

Every sadhu is different; each has his own particular ‘shtick’. One slowly took an enormous breath and blew a trumpet made of buffalo horn, posing sideways for maximum photographic effect. A lengthy to-o-ot and a couple of pictures later he deflated, sank ineffably back into his silence, the pipe and him coming to a total stop at exactly the same time.

The next, a thick-set, strong man in filthy red robes with a top-notch of braided hair that reached in a cone a foot away from his skull slowly raised his Shiva spear, a huge devil’s prong of pantomime delight decorated with red polka dots and assorted dingle-dangles. This poor sadhu was so completely whacked he could barely focus, had to be prodded to stay awake.

The lad who was doing the prodding was a youth of about fourteen. Each of the sadhus had a servant, someone whose chief function, it seemed, was to stuff ganja in chillums and pass them on. He stuck a finger in the sadhu’s bony ribs. Like an automated children’s toy Sadhu Shiva came to life. He raised one hand in blessing, stretched his index finger, lowered it till the tip of that finger rested in a pot of bright pink powder. His eyes met mine. I knew what was coming.

I scored a massive tika, a bright pink splodge between the eyes. He seemed to freeze, finger still poised in the air after my blessing, eyes glazed, locked in time and space. I think he’d forgotten entirely that I was there. His glamorous personal assistant poked him again. He settled back into repose.

The wind whipped up, the Ferris Wheel rocked, the fairground was being blown away. The screams from those trapped on top of the wheel were piteous to hear. My voyage to the skies and back earlier had been marked by terror and that was without the hurricane. I knew how they felt.

I was probably in more danger than them, stuck in the middle of a wobbling tent made of bamboo poles and bits of string. The sun beat through a roof of the finest turquoise plastic, casting an eerie blue light over us all. The stage was set up adorned with a black back curtain, drapes and wings of flowing red material – all flying helplessly in the wind. Children darted around backstage while the star performer seemed to be down in the audience trying to make a cassette player work.

The walls around us were of carnival pink and lime green striped satin, rouched with remarkable flair. They billowed like flapping wings, breathing in and out with a slap. Somehow the tent stayed erect.

Despite the mayhem around me I seemed to be getting more than my fair share of attention. Children were plonked in the rows right in front of me, turned round in their seats, staring at me. I smiled back, wiggled my head, winked and ran through my compliment of stock Mr. Dogster replies. Just my white man celebrity, I thought. I settled back into my fame.

When Dogster and his inevitable renown collide in India, he adopts the noble pose, kind and generous, lots of smiles, as if to the manner born. He’s learnt how to be famous, studied hard for the part. That his great renown is due entirely to the fact he’s white, foreign and just happens to be there is beside the point.

Bongo sat beside me. He wasn’t going to say anything. I smiled away, oblivious, thinking my celebrity thoughts, waving at my admirers, waiting for the show to begin. It was taking a very long time.

Still I was getting looked at. There was a sea of bobbing little boy heads in the rows in front of me. They couldn’t get enough.

I turned around. No, nobody behind me – it was me.

‘Why are they all looking at me, Bongo?’ I said.

He wiggled his head just a little bit and pointed to my nose.

‘What?’

He couldn’t bring himself to say but a broad smile just kept breaking out on his dutiful face. He couldn’t help himself. So, with no mirror close to hand and nobody who would tell him what was going on, the eminent Mr. Dogster took a picture of his face.

There, staring back at him, trapped in time in the digital frame, was the image of an old man with bright pink paint smeared all over his face. An attractive pair of pink black eyes, a sweaty forehead swiped with pink, a slash of pink along the nose, a touch of pink on his cheeks. Dogster looked ridiculous, like a pink Red Indian on the melt.

This is the lesson of the flying tika; don’t forget, don’t perspire and never wipe your face.

Bongo was the kind of man who always kept a clean handkerchief in his pocket. I still marvel at this. To my eternal humiliation, and undoubtedly his, that folded, perfect hanky was dripped with mineral water and, as the crowd watched, he cleaned the pink war-paint from my face. It was exactly like submitting to my mother’s wet hanky in the street when I had covered myself with ice-cream as a kid. He attended to his task with efficiency and barely a smile, cleaned me up sufficiently to be presentable and, that drama attended to, the performance began.

The star of the show was a young man with no talent at all and a very strange Cleopatra haircut. He stumbled across to the centre of stage and swayed alarmingly, looking for all the world like Annette Funicello after too many Quaaludes. He was clearly under the influence of quite a few drugs, and in this confused condition, lurched in front of a chattering crowd of wide-eyed country folk from Silghat and proceeded to swallow a retractable tape measure disguised as a sword. It was the most inept piece of magic I’ve ever seen. That stunning display concluded, a black curtain shuddered across the stage and we settled in for another very long wait.

The Sound system started up, a blur and a crackle blasting out Hindi pop songs. It made a squawk and ground to a halt.  I heard banging and a loud crash, a Hindi oath behind the scenes. The wind whipped up the curtain to reveal the magician’s backside facing the waiting throng. He was kneeling over the prone figure of a young girl who had been scheduled to levitate. Alas, her magic had broken leaving her dazed – or dead, on the floor.

He stood up, swept the curtain aside, his face streaked with tears, made an impassioned speech in Hindi and disappeared behind the curtain again. I had no idea what was going on. The music started up again.

Bongo turned to me and rolled his eyes. ‘Let’s go.’

As we headed out I saw the owner, my long-haired greasy friend, charging into the tent, holding up his arms.

‘No refund!’ he was saying, ‘No refund! No money!’ to the protesting crowd. Their protests got louder, their shouts carried through the fairground on the wind.

Bongo dragged me away and across past a row of men sitting on boxes getting shaved. We kept on walking very fast until we were a football pitch away then turned to watch. Back around the tent a crowd had gathered. I saw a pod of brown policemen pushing through, then more shouts, a flurry and a shove. My gypsy hurtled out of the tent backwards and fell heavily in the mud. The crowd scattered playfully as the police marched two men out by the scruff of their neck and led them up the hill. There was a passing glance at their retreating backs then the fair rolled on, resumed its dance without missing a beat.

‘Everything happens at Bihu,’ Bongo said simply and turned away.

*

The beggar of beggars lay on his back in the dirt. There was nobody at that fair that hadn’t seen the monster – he had the prime real estate, slap bang in the middle of the crossroads – he was epicentre of the Silghat fair.

Imagine a man sitting on the ground cross-legged. Bind his legs together then tip him on his back. Leave him like that for a very long time. Twenty years. Don’t feed him, let his muscle eat itself, let his legs contract till skin hangs tight around bone, the tendons drawn up tight, winding this twisted mass of legs and feet and toes together. Bits of him stuck out at every angle: knees, feet all jutted out, waving in the air, twitching in the dust and the sun.

His head rested on a covered brick, two roving eyes scanned the crowd. No matter what he looked like, inside that extraordinary shape was a person with bright eyes and… well, not much else. His arms thrashed about in front of him locked in their own private ballet, twin sticks waving wildly in the dusty fairground air; they were thin, brown and wrinkled, just bones somehow moving, wrists turned inwards, doubled under, threaded round.

His face was stretched and cadaverous, trapped in a lifelong scream, head thrown back in a stretch of pain, nodding wildly, looking around, squirming slowly in the dirt, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of moving legs, an umbrella of horrified faces. People stumbled on him with a gasp, suddenly on top of this extreme creature.

Bongo giggled. This was his way of expressing embarrassment.

‘He’s always there.’

Behind those knotted limbs, inside the contorted frame was, of course, a man. To my shame I couldn’t see that. All I could see was his deformity. I saw him on many occasions during the day as I criss-crossed the fairground in wonder. Once I watched as he lay on his side, a gentle expression of contentment on his face as a young boy spooned gruel into his mouth.

‘That’s his son,’ whispered Bongo as we passed.

‘His son!’

I looked over at the wife. She was young. I couldn’t bring myself to think about that wedding night. The girl sitting in the dirt bore him three children and together they travelled the fairs. Each day she lay him out in the road and the kids would dutifully attend him while she waited and watched. He was the husband. He was the breadwinner. He was working. This was his job.

The beggar of beggars was a proud family man. He lay on his back in the dirt, working hard. He saw every grimace; he heard every taunt, caught the eye of the crowd as they stumbled upon him, lay there and twitched his arms and determinedly stayed alive, mutely crying out:

‘Look at me! Look at me and weep! Count your blessings!’

If that’s not hard work, I don’t know what is.

*

The New Diamond Circus was the biggest show in Silghat and running performances virtually back to back to cope with the demand. Any seasonal profits had definitely not been spent on maintenance – this was the rattiest circus in the world and for this reason, and this alone, I loved it.

The Great Performing Goat of Silghat was not the only entertainer of course, but after seeing her goatlie magnificence – the jugglers, the trapeze artists, the contortionists, even the terrifying dwarf with a painted face and clown costume just didn’t get me excited.

Well, perhaps the dwarf did, a little. Here was an image of such brutish extremity that I found myself watching him more than the show. He prowled the stage, his dark little dwarf face streaked in war paint, angry dwarfie eyes staring out from angry dwarfie face.

‘Bugger you pal!’ he was saying, ‘bugger you and you mother as well. I’m as good as you ever could be. I’m better. I’m different!’

That’s how he earns his money – by being a nasty little dwarf. Quite frankly, I’d be nasty too, if I was a dwarf.

His little baggy clown costume, complete with frilly ruff, bunched up around his fat dwarf thighs as he thundered around the circus ring clasping his clacker – two long thin flaps of wood that, when hit against the palm of his hand, resounded with a loud ‘clack!’. This was the signal for applause. I clapped.

The star of the show, Ms. Goat, solo artiste, was dragged unwillingly into the arena where she stood, looking stupidly around. In front of her was a steep wooden plank that led from the floor up about five feet to a tiny platform on a steel triangle, held up by more Indian string. She was given the traditional pre-show whack around the ears to get her started then took a few tentative steps up the plank. A couple more steps – just one more…

The trainer stepped away and held out his arm.

‘Look at my magnificent goat,’ he was saying with that gesture.

The dwarf clacked the clacker. She promptly fell off. I clapped.

Now the goat was lying on her back with all four legs waving wildly in the air with her trainer bearing down. A kick and she was upright, a cuff to the head pointed her in the right direction, a whack to her arse and she was trotting back along that plank, up and up to her goat roost in the sky.

The plank was removed with a flourish – and there she stood, a beautiful white female with a perky tail and a look of great concentration, hit by a shaft of sunlight, her four thin goat legs meeting in a pure point of contact on the perch.

Ms. Goat, paragon of balance, was standing on a platform no bigger than my palm – she then turned a full 360 degrees, still perfectly poised on this tiny surface and as I watched, walked slowly along a piece of narrow steel not half an inch wide, stretched between her first perch and a second weeny perch – then one second strip of steel that culminated in one final tiny destination.

Clack, clack, clack!

Clap, clap, clap!

That was me.

I confess I was the only man in this circus tent that found this quite so thrilling. I could see about five hundred of the rest of the audience in the cheap seats on the other side, staring down with confusion at this very peculiar sight – a white goat standing on a platform, turning circles. But that’s exactly what this talented goat did – but this time with a variation. Now the goat could lift one leg, crook it and lower its head – in a perfect little bow.

Clack, clack, clack!

Clap, clap, clap!

Me again.

The Great Performing Goat of Silghat walked all the way across to that third tiny platform, turned in a circle, bowed, then walked calmly back all the way to the first one, paused for her invisible applause – then leapt into freedom with one joyous bound. Her trainer grabbed the rope around her neck and they both trotted proudly out of the tent to – well, I do have to say it – ‘less than generous’ applause.

Clack, clack, clack!

Clack, clack, clack!

Clack, clack, you buggers – CLACK!

I had seen the glory; I had been to the Promised Land – this was the Maria Callas of goat performers, the Edith Piaf of goats – I loved her. That old goat: beaten and abused, bashed into submission: that damn goat got up and did her thing regardless – with a goat-ish resilience and a modicum of style. She was star of my personal circus, the goddess of Silghat in my eyes.

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