The Acrobats by Bhabani Bhattacharya

THE ACROBATS

Bhabani Bhattacharya

Bhabani Bhattacharya (1906 - 1988)

Bhabani Bhattacharya (1906 – 1988)

 

Gug-ga-a!” lisped baby, straining from the arms of the young woman as she pressed herself against the brass rail of the balcony and gazed down upon the quiet, sun-drenched street. “Gug-ga-a.!” he repeated, eyes widening with interest, and thrust out a tight-closed fist, pointing to the pavement.

The young woman’s eyes, too, were wide as she looked.

“Gug-ga-a, indeed!” she echoed in a low voice, approvingly.

Down below stood a man, his mop of thick hair shoulder-long and unkempt, and a wildness in his jet-black eyes. His trim figure of medium height, rippling with muscles, and metallic, was bare save for a strip of cloth, the brown skin darker with a chocolate hue at the edges of the petty wear around the loins. But the proud gleam of sheer strength seemed to cover the bareness, as though draping the stripped limbs with something palpable, and gave them a grace in clear contrast with the trivial moulding of the face, thick-lipped mouth, flattened nose, a narrow crescent of forehead.

He stood erect and rigid, his firm feet planted apart, holding aloft a ten-foot pole at the end of which a boy lay spread-eagled, precariously balanced on his belly. Around his small mouth the boy carried the man’s features in duplicate, but he was small boned, frail in build, his bold feat in the air belied and mocked by the timid tenderness in his face.

“Hoosiar, take heed, Boy!”

The muscles on the acrobat’s right arm stood out as he lifted the pole higher and supported its smoothened end on his shoulder. “Hoosiar!” his voice growled, and the hand holding the pole freed itself, withdrew.

Boy, in mid-air, lay poised for several moments, then twisted himself and turned, slowly, slowly, till he was looking up, balanced on his back. The veil of worry in his eyes slid off with his achievement and he grew confident and uncaring. Then he saw the baby in the balcony with its fist out-flung and the face of the young woman marked with anxiety and tense.

It was the familiar face of his audience and, sprawled on his back, Boy had looked up at it often enough in the course of his wanderings with his father from town to town, for a full twelve-month, ever since they left their Central Indian forest home, an aboriginal settlement. And now, gazing up, Boy wondered in his usual way: Who’s the better acrobat – Father or I? What do the folks say?

With father it was sheer strength. He was like a. lion. With boy, it was skill, great skill. The alarm the folks felt and showed on their faces could not be on Father’s account: nothing would happen to him if his muscles failed. Boy would drop down in a. heap and break his legs or his skull on the stone pavement if he became unwary or lost his sure skill even for a twinkling.

Boy looked up at the rapt face of his audience and the exaltation rose in his heart and made it beat faster. Yet his body was in complete control, tethered to the immutable laws of balance, and all of him was a drawn bowstring. The secret streak of fear somewhere in him lay suppressed under his compulsive, concentrated will as he clenched himself for the peak moment ahead.

The man too acted as though his nerves were copper wires and his heavy hand a mechanical gadget, unrelated to the stuff of feelings. He gripped the pole again, the boy on its top rigid as stone, and moved it inch by inch while he uptilted his head, till he was supporting the pole upon his broad, thick mouth. And his hand withdrew.

Then Boy, ten feet above, came to life. He twisted and turned so that he was propped again on his belly. That was half the victory. Boy waited, breathing at ease, while the pole stood erect as if clamped securely. At this moment he saw his father’s face. And he looked again, for a long while.

His father’s eyes were fixed on the balcony with a. new, curious expression. That expression sank into the youngster’s memory and made a tattoo mark there. At last Boy stirred himself and resumed his feat, turning round on his belly till he was on his back once more.

He looked up at the balcony and knew with a shiver of shock that the young woman had no eye for his performance, she was watching the face of his father, intent. Those two were watching each other in an odd, absorbed way.

A woman of middle age came hustling to the balcony, threw a careless glance on the pavement and cried harshly to the younger one: “Is this the hour for fun? Take baby for his bath. You’re getting more and more lazy every day. You’re not worth half the wages I pay you. Now… go!”

As the two women walked off, the older acrobat took the pole at once in his hands and Boy came slipping down to the ground. A silver coin fell at their feet, thrown by someone in another balcony close by. But the man barely saw it. Boy picked up the money. His face was perplexed and his heart unaccountably heavy.

Keeping step with his father, as he walked off, Boy spoke with mockery in his voice: “A free show! She looked, the little one looked, they wouldn’t part with a single paisa!”

His father was bemused and gave no answer. Boy walked on quietly for a minute. Then his mockery grew more pointed: “The woman ogled. The baby ogled. Wanting something for nothing! That’s the kind of folks they are. Making poor people work for them, work so hard the sweat breaks out on the skin. What do they care, those folks?”

The other still maintained his silence with his far, meditative air.

“They ogled, the two pairs of eyes would have dropped down on the street in a minute.” The voice took a shrill tone. “Just one more minute, and…”

“Stop your silly chatter, Boy” snapped his father. “Walk in silence.”

Boy walked in silence, but his face was owlish. He collected saliva in this mouth and spat. There was something new between himself and his father, something that he had to understand. What was it?

Boy had good reason for his query.

Far in the forest settlement, in close companionship with his father, his life had been complete in its way, so that he had never felt the loss of his mother, who had disappeared overnight from the leaf-house, never to return. Boy was then six years of age. Father had filled the gaping emptiness. He had drawn very close to the growing child, with a warmth of heart so intense that it was hard to bear. He became more than a father. He was an eager playmate, a perfect friend. But he was a teacher, too.

He taught his son how best to shoot an arrow. But, clearly, Boy was not going to be strong. The acrobat’s art that ran in the family, a centuries-old inheritance, had to be adapted to suit his capacities. So the father developed a line and started to give lessons.

Boy broke down in a while. He hated the lessons which strained his body and his nature, he was dead scared of feats in mid-air. One day he revolted. Stiff lipped, he refused to do his father’s bidding, he would not budge an inch. He would rather be a peasant, he said, tilling the land or grazing goats in the pasture. He would even be a servant boy.

“And put to shame the fourteen generations of our forefeathers in Heavenland?” his father shouted at him in sudden anger. Bad enough that his son was not strong. To have water in the veins, and not red blood!

The young mouth retained its obstinate hardness. The father controlled his anger and took Boy in his hands and coaxed him gently. He offered to buy him cakes of fried peanuts in molasses as in inducement. Boy sat with downcast face, without a word. At last the father lost his patience. A flame of fury shot through him and he slapped the child hard. His fingers left vivid marks on one tender cheek, then on the other.

“Will you do as I bid you?”

Boy gave no answer. Tears prodded his eyelids, but he thrust them back. His face was like walnut wood.

Father lost his head. He gave a shout of anger and started to beat Boy mercilessly with his hammer like hands. Boy did not cry out. His chest heaved with the rush of breath and his eyes saw darkness; but not a cry of pain escaped from his tight-pressed lips, nor protest.

Father stopped at last.

“Will you do as I bid you?”

Throat clogged, and all his limbs stinging, Boy shook his downcast head, faintly, yet decisively.

Then Father stood very still, gazing down at the little dropping figure on the earth floor. His sight grew blurred as though he was looking through heavy mist. He swung round on his heels and fled, striding away to the depths of the forest. An hour passed before he returned to the hut. Boy was still crouched .on the floor, a figure of walnut wood.

Father sat down beside him and drew him into his arms. He pressed his son’s head against his broad chest and passed a caressing hand over the slender body he had punished, easing off the pain. Tears sprang into his eyes and coursed down his cheeks.

“I grew into a madman, Boy,” he breathed. The minutes wore off and he repeated, “I grew into a madman.”

It was a full hour before Boy was soothed, and then at last his face started to work and he buried it in his father’s chest. His eyes were swimming with tears. He sniffed and moaned intermittently. Father sat very quiet, fondling his son’s ruffled hair and smoothing it down with his fingers. He let Boy cry his fill and then spoke assuringly. “You won’t have to do the feats ever again, Boy,” he said.

One day, returning home at an unexpected hour, he saw Boy practising the feats in the back yard with the pole stuck into earth. He watched, unseen, full of amazement. Boy lay balanced on his belly on top of the tall pole and he turned slowly round till his face was skyward.

Father slunk off on silent feet, his heart quickening with excitement and delight.

The day came when Boy asked to be taught, as before. And Father, testing him, feigned great surprise at his performance. Boy smiled with proud satisfaction.

“The forefathers in Heavenland-are they pleased?” he asked.

“They rejoice, Boy.”

“And you?”

For answer he took the stripling by the arms and whirled him in the air, round and round. “Hey!” screamed Boy, laughing giddily. “My brave son! My own!” The answering voice was husky with unleashed emotion.

What was this thing that had come upon his father and given him the remote look of a stranger? Every day he stood on the pavement at the foot of that balcony with a brass rail, performing feats for the woman with a baby in her arms. A serving woman, plainly, with a tigress for her mistresss, and the baby always lisping the same nonsense word. Not one paisa came from them. Yet, every time Boy spoke of the woman with scorn, Father grew angry. Stop your silly chatter, Boy.

He had not been like that ever before. “What do you think, Boy?” he had often said, on this matter and that, as one said to a friend and equal. For Boy was his partner in the show, and a better acrobat than he; Father did realise that. Was not such skill and boldness worth more than even the strength of a lion?

Propped on his belly, Boy watched his father. Balanced on his back, he watched the woman in the balcony. He could not make out the rapt look they had, a look almost of suffering and fear. Their eyes clung-the eyes of people doomed in some strange way. And Boy knew that he had no existence for them, he was a segment of the tall pole on his father’s mouth. He could feel in his body the mystery of communication that linked those two, and his skin tingled as though touched by a piece of wire live with current. He could not understand it.

Boy felt choked with misery as he brooded. Wildly he thought of running away. But he could not go, he knew. Unbreakable bonds held him tethered, helpless.

Boy grew wretched and desperate with each passing day. And there was nothing to be done.

He looked down one day, as usual, and looked up, and down again. Father’s face was alight with the road caressing smile Boy knew so well, and the smile was not for him. His blood caught fire, and in that instant he made his terrible decision. He trembled with fear and fought the decision a few moments, but it held.

Boy relaxed, went limp, breaking the laws of balance that lay deep in his bones, forcing himself to yield to other laws. The pole reclined and Boy came down on the stone pavement with a shriek and a thud.

When he regained consciousness in hospital, his right leg was in plaster. He opened his eyes and closed them, groaning in pain. He felt Father’s hand pass gently through his hair, a familiar caress.

“Why, Boy?” Father asked, softly, and his voice was pitched so low it could barely be heard, as though he only wondered to himself.

Boy spoke ill a while with curious vehemence, a kind of nervous vigour.

“She puffs her cheeks-so!…and she blows, phooh! She blows a big, big gale, it pulls me off the pole. What can I do?”

“Bop listen…”

“What can I do? The big, big gale comes blowing from her mouth, and I fight, and I fight. The witch-woman laughs and the baby laughs, and the witch-woman puffs her cheeks and blows more gale -phooh! I get chilled, my blood’s like water. What can I do?”

Father listened to this strange talk and let each word sink into his mind, and out of each word he drew out meaning.

Silence again, for a long while, and then: “Boy, look up at me! Look, Boy!”

Their eyes met. With a deep, searching glance, Father, for the first time, caught some of the pain, the protest, the ravaged feelings, the core of his son’s inward storm.

He sat with his face lowered, figh

ting his sore battle, stamping out a strident call of his blood and the warmth of a dream. With his strength of a lion, Father fought his battle.

In the days and weeks that followed, the young woman in the balcony stood leaning out over the brass rail for long spells, watching the bend of the street with tremulous expectation.

She never saw the acrobats again.

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