Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Great Indian Vanishing Act

Hours would be spent rallying the parents for just one quick peek, backed by days’ worth of impeccable behaviour. Friends, neighbours and cousins would be enlisted to rustle up a respectable number. And finally the much-awaited day would arrive. Armed with various goodies (yes, we all did carry a mini-picnic basket everywhere in those days!), and wide-eyed with anticipation, we would make our way to the end of town, where a magical world awaited.

Upon entering the colourful tents fluttering madly in the breeze, the awful stink and jostling crowds would fade away, the half-opened bar of chocolate forgotten and the cold Gold Spot in my hand would just sputter and fizz out, as I watched the delights unfold within that cramped space. The stale air would resonate with the roar of animals, mixed with loud yells, whistles and hoots from the audience.

For such was the magic of Baby Jyoooootsnaaaaa! Now, till this day, I have no idea if the said Baby Jo (of Amar Circus fame, if I recall correctly) was the nimble little lady who comfortably fit into the mouth of the hippopotamus or Lady Hippo herself, but the name and the flourish with which it was announced are burned into memory, the words as clear as if it were yesterday. Sadly, though the memory survives, the origin of this childhood fascination is dying a slow, painful death.

For, almost 130 years after the circus as we know it first made its debut in India, it’s slowly fading into oblivion, hit by rising costs, ban on the use of wild animals, animal rights activism and the rise and rise of malls, multiplexes and amusement parks. Though it continues to exist on the fringes of some little towns or neighbourhoods, its days as mainstream entertainment are definitely over, barring a miracle.

I read somewhere that only one-fifth of Indian circus troupes are still around, and those too are barely hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Sadly, while we are enamoured by the latest state-of-the-art stunts in mobike advertisements, there seem to be no takers for those with the real josh who would spin their deadly motorcycles round and round in a metal globe suspended from the ceiling, while we craned our necks to marvel at this great feat that we would never get to see on any street. Suitably called the “Chamber of Death” or some such fearsome title, the guys who dared to enter it were the closest you got to cool!

In fact, it seems that this generation has no idea that King Khan was once part of a very famous circus group! On TV. Way back in 1989. In the hugely popular telly serial Circus, on Doordarshan. And the audiences lapped it up. Just like we slurped at our melting ice-creams, awestruck and trying not to cower as the lions and tigers were brought on stage, nearly jumping out of our skins every time the trainer cracked his whip nearby. There were no cages as the magnificent animals strutted their stuff, while doing strange antics with footballs and hula hoops and what not. And those growls...

Then there were the brightly dressed ladies with their sequined ballet tights and heavily made up faces, who swung with both grace and uncanny ease from ropes strung a mile high, or so it seemed to us little ones. The ease with which similarly bedecked male trapeze artists caught the swinging ladies brought forth gasps and claps in equal measure.

Now I often hear the same gasps from those who think that a circus is the greatest exploiter of both animals and humans. While that may be true in part, a circus troupe is also a great community –bridging the gap between master and animal in its larger-than-life magnificence. It’s sad that an art that has the potential to lift us above the ordinary – without any computer-generated tricks or big ticket stars – is slowly disappearing in India, while it continues to sizzle in newer forms in some countries.

The world-famous Cirque du Soleil (French for ‘Circus of the Sun’) has given a modern twist to the good ol’ circus routine. Without animals on stage or performing rings, it is a fusion of circus styles from around the world and its daily show in Las Vegas alone draws a crowd of thousands each night! Maybe I'll catch it someday soon, after having passed up the chance once... But how I wish I could magically transport half its success back here, and then maybe get to see a real smile on those sad sad clowns with the painted faces.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Holi-er than thou

Slippery stats, eh? Not as slippery as I was planning to be this Holi. Alas, it's back to the boonies after three long years, where the family awaits with open arms and an open-er bar, and bucketfuls of colour and melodrama. Tradition has it that to make a right honourable splash on Holi, all members must be truly sloshed! So, here I am, setting sail for yet another dip in the holy (vodka and tonic) water.

I guess I'll have more than my fair share this year. The fact is: I'm suddenly petrified of Holi. Yes, its the same me, who used to give the local pests a run for their pichkaris. I simply loved the darn festival! Come to think of it, what's not to love?

You wake up (sometimes with obscene drawings on your face, if you're familiar with boarding school rules), oil yourself up like the reigning champion of the akhara, check the ammo, attack first, at random, and make sure that the first strike leaves enough for the others to retaliate (poor strategy, but it's Holi dammit! How would you feel if no one threw anything at you?), then you run around like a headless chicken for the next few hours, blindly ducking missiles you can't see, briefly stopping to re-hydrate with some chilled beer and re-energise with sweet squiggly gujiyas (clean ones; we're bhang-averse, for some strange reason, the origins of which are rather hazy now), till you stumble into the shower in an exhaustion-cum-liquor induced daze, only to scrub and clean furiously/half-heartedly (depending on your state of inebriation), till your heavily-depleted sobriety helps you to stagger into a clean bed that's sure to later bear the scars of many an unholy ambush, as retaining traces of these are gonna help you stagger back to office the next morning, armed with tall battle tales of a wet'n'wild one...

Which would probably help to distinguish you from the pseudo-types, who ever-so-gently-profess: " Oh, Gawd! I just can't stand Holi... I'm allergic, you know... it's so rowdy and pointless... Diwali is so much more civilised... only organic, homemade gulaal for my little ones this year... we had a few people come over this year for a quiet lunch at our farmhouse... the city's maddening, with all those people running around drunk and uff, those loudspeakers with the rang barse crap... it's so scary and stressful... and people just don't leave you alone! Don't they know all that colour can make you go blind with cancer?? "

Phew! Just thinking about all of the above makes me feel old. Because I can't believe what a rowdy I once was, and equally can't believe the dowdy I'm turning into.

Holi cow! It's almost time for the office party in the "backside" parking lot. Now where's that excuse I was looking for??

Friday, March 6, 2009

Hey daam!

So, Gandhiji's glasses have finally found their way home and all true patriots are busy rolling out the red carpet for Bapu's chappals and feast the return of his katori thaali and what not. And here I am, indulging a rather traitorous thought. What's the big bloody deal?

Now, as for the rest of you who are true Gandhians, you must forever fly Kingfisher to repay your eternal debt to the Baron, its soaring prices and plunging necklines be damned. All is forgiven, brother. Much beer under the bridge. After successfully acquiring Tipu Sultan's sword, Vijay Mallya seems to have won another bloody battle by snatching joy for a billion plus, from right under the hammer in just a wee minus 2 million. Wah wah, Mallya! Taaliyan Taaliyan...

But the government, never missing the bandwagon, was quick to climb aboard, huffing and puffing, with some heavy duty self-patting on the back - the very same one it had almost turned against the Mahatma's memorabilia, for fear of being taken to the cleaners. In fact, I am quite surprised the bidding stopped at 1.8 million. I mean, Mr. Otis could have cleaned out our entire foreign exchange reserves if he so wished! What's a few hundred billion when national pride is on the line, man?! Won't you bail out your own father? And this little guy is the father of the NATION, duuuuude!!

Alas, my conspiracy theories have met a sad, lonely end. There was no mysterious bugger planted by the Pakis to proxy bid, no Zionist cabal to make a dog-in-the-manger India think that the Palestinians were rigging all counter bids, and (sigh!) no national crisis in which all the Indian maa-behens were asked to take off their gold and load it onto a ship leaving for American shores. No mass mela of charkha weavers who maniacally started weaving right into China's lead in textile exports. Life's so darn unfair! We're back to sqaure one and community service on Oct 2nd, on a holiday that still unfairly eludes a few.

Finally, I couldn't help but think that had poor Bapu's soul, may it rest in peace, been hovering over the auction somewhere, watching Sant and Toni bid away - the might of firangi butter chicken pitted against desi beer - might he not have gasped yet again and hollered "yeh daam????!!"