Savara travelled from town to town, living by the marvels he presented in his street shows. I remember asking him once who had given him his unusual name. He merely flashed his celebrated smile, revealing a row of shiny gold teeth—a smile he reserved for the finale of his performance, as he pulled metres of multicoloured ribbons out of his mouth. He delighted in speaking of himself in the third person: Savara will go to bed now… Savara loves to eat pigeon peas… Savara will have some tea.
The first time he came to our village he was with a big-built woman—Malli the bamboo-queen. She’d climb on the top of a bamboo pole and spin on her belly, like a wheel. Savara would cut her into pieces and then make her whole again. He’d hypnotise her and ask her what he’d hidden in the pockets of the people in the crowd. She always came up with the right answers.
He’d stuff her into a wooden box and push swords into it so forcefully that some would go right through. Then he’d tie a rope around the box and, ignoring the gasps and protests of the audience, throw it into a large tub of water. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, he’d place a large stone on the box. You could hear a pin drop while all this was going on. But right afterwards a beaming Malli would spring out of the box, no longer wearing the dirty striped sari she had on before but a gorgeous dress. The applause that followed would be thunderous and coins would rain onto Savara’s plate, some falling on the ground. Putting aside his showman airs he’d pick them out of the dust, count them, and put them in a cloth bag hanging from his waist. Then, bowing low to the audience, he’d announce, “That’s all for today, sirs and masters.”
On his next visit, Malli was missing. She had run away. This time there was a boy named Bhagia with him, a chubby fellow with large sleepy eyes and complexion the colour of cow dung. He was not half as good-looking as Malli, and the shows just weren’t the same. We had closed our eyes in terror when Malli was hacked to pieces; we’d danced in joy when she emerged from the dreaded black box, her soft belly bobbing up and down and her enormous breasts threatening to escape the confines of her skimpy blouse. But now this smart aleck in blue silk trousers and a knitted red vest would jump out of the box winking broadly at the audience. It simply wasn’t as good. Unlike Malli, he couldn’t lose himself in the performance. In the evening, hovering around Savara’s camp, we’d see Bhagia cooking dinner and getting roughed up by the old man. It was apparent that one day, he, too, would desert Savara.
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I can’t recall exactly how or when Savara hooked me. Without Malli, the crowds weren’t too big. His business was failing, although his own tricks were a lot better now. In one of them, Savara would hold up a piece of paper to Bhagia sitting a little away with his back to him. On it was scrawled “Om Sri Hari”. Without looking at Savara, Bhagia would quietly call out, ‘Come to me, come to me! Come!’ Unbelievably, the paper, as if hypnotised, would slip out of the old man’s clenched fist and float towards the boy. Then Savara would take a blank piece of paper, burn it, and ask someone in the crowd to rub the ashes on his bare back. When we leaned forward we’d see, “Om Sri Hari” written there, while the same words had vanished from the paper Bhagia was holding. It was terrific, and I doubt any of us had ever seen anything like it. But when it came to giving Savara a large round of applause, I was all alone. I guess that was when he decided to work on me. I don’t remember what words or tricks he used; all I know is I left my parents, my home and my village to follow him like a puppy.
In the beginning I knew as little about the secrets of the show as about keeping house for the troupe. I wondered why Savara had duped me into joining him and Bhagia when, with the pitifully small pickings, it was hard to scrounge enough food for three people.
I got him to teach me the ropes and, once I got over my shyness I gave a much better account of myself. In fact, there was one particular effect you’d have had to see to realise how good I’d become. Dressed in all my finery, I’d spin on top of a bamboo pole. Bhagia would then cut off a section of the pole, and with me still spinning on it Savara would pick it up, balance it on his head, and whirl around like a dust devil.
Savara bought me some lovely saris, fake jewellery, blouses, and also you-know-whats to wear under the blouses. The first time I got myself dolled up I nearly died of shame, but you get used to anything. Moreover, it was a blessing in disguise because no one could recognise me.
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Touring my village was great fun; no one figured out who I was! All the more surprising, considering I’d been brought up there. To my horror though, all through our show my childhood friend Mangulia kept leering at me. In the evening he came and hung around the camp and even had the cheek to offer Savara money to spend the night with me. Poor fellow! If it hadn’t been for Savara’s threats he wouldn’t have left us in peace. Next morning Bhagia and I went in to the village to try and raise some money. At each house he’d call out for alms, although we didn’t really qualify as beggars. Bhagia would speak so outlandishly that the lady of the house would smile and toss a coin or two into our palms. Then he’d execute a neat somersault, and we were off to the next house, beating the change drum. I was just an ornamental adjunct. When Malli was still around she used to put in a catchy song or two.
My heart skipped a beat when we reached our house; I was scared out of my wits. You can fool almost anyone but not your own mother: no matter how good your disguise, she can see right through it.
“Oh, mother of sons!” Bhagia called out, “Oh, mistress of the large house! Give the beggars something, mother!”
I slipped my hand into Bhagia’s and leaned against the doorpost, nibbling nervously at the end of my sari, my heart in my mouth. My oldest brother strode out in a huff. As peevish as ever, he was about to toss a coin at us and go back in, when his eyes lighted on me. Had he…? He seemed lost in thought for a few moments. He gave us more money than we’d expected, all the time searching my face. I heaved a sigh of relief when he suddenly turned and left.
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Not one to waste a double somersault when there was no one to see it, Bhagia was about to move on to the next house.
“Stop, you bugger!” I whispered to him. “This is my house!”
He gave me a mischievous smile, whistled under his breath, and called out, “Oh, mother of sons! Oh, mistress of the large house! Give the beggars a drink, mother!”
My poor old mother came out with a jug of water. I couldn’t help staring at her from under my veil. My running away must have caused her a lot of grief. After Bhagia had had his fill she turned to me, but I shook my head. A close shave! A single word and the game would have been up. Bhagia, his mouth hanging open, was waiting for me to break into sobs or something; the bugger was always after cheap thrills.
As long as Bhagia was around I had a jolly good time. Savara was never hard on me. He’d pet me, kiss me and whisper into my ear, “My darling, I love you. You’re my wife, my Malli. This Bhagia is riff-raff, just a servant.” He insisted that I wear the sari, jewellery, and all the works, at home. It didn’t take long to find out why poor Malli had run off. Savara’s old gun wouldn’t fire, which didn’t mean he fussed any less.
I never learned who spirited Bhagia away; one fine morning he was gone. The bastard cleaned us out—not even one paisa left in the kitty. There wasn’t any money for the next meal, and he also stole the deck of magic cards, the spool of invisible wire and the foam rubber egg Savara would pass off as a real one.
I had to do all the chores, in addition to my bamboo-queen shows. But as the saying goes, a queen doesn’t make a good maid, or vice versa. I couldn’t ruin my hands scouring the pots and pans and still shine as the bamboo-queen.
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A change came over Savara too; he was no longer loving. He became crabby, throwing pots and pans at me and scolding me on the slightest pretext.
“This bloody bitch is my ruin!” he shouted one day, after giving me a sound thrashing. Later though, pulled me to his chest. “It’s not your fault, my darling, it’s my fate. But from now on everything will be fine. Just wait and see. Goddess Lakshmi looks after those who look out for themselves, doesn’t she?” Then he outlined his plan.
The next day we hit the road before dawn. In the centre square Savara drew a small crowd by performing some of his routine tricks. He knew how to arouse an audience’s interest. “This is nothing,” he’d shout from time to time. “Gracious sirs and noble masters, this is nothing. The real thing’s on its way. Don’t miss it, don’t leave without seeing it—Savara’s Special!” He slashed his tongue, put a knife down my throat, did a little tightrope walk, produced four eggs from the pockets of someone in the crowd and gobbled them up raw. The old boy was in his element.
“Come on Savara,” someone said. “Cut out the appetisers and let’s get to the main dish.”
Savara gave a low bow and took off his old red shirt. The large crowd—me included—was surprised to see what he had on underneath: a handsome robe, fit for a king! How had he kept that from me for so long?
He clambered over the wooden box and held up a small bottle of red liquid. “Now, noble patrons, what might this be?” he asked, shaking the bottle a little. “What on earth can this be, eh, eh?” Good God, the blood-red liquid turned milky white the next moment. “This is a wonder drug, masters, thanks to the blessing of Savara’s guru!” Pulling a squawking duckling from the bag, he poured a drop of the liquid into its mouth. It instantly turned limp. “You can see how deadly it is. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. Aha! One drop can neutralise a cobra’s venom. An antidote, the one and only infallible potion for snakebite. Savara stands before you today, sirs and masters, to demonstrate exactly that.”
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He elbowed his way through the onlookers and brought out an earthenware pitcher he had kept hidden. “Now, masters, what do you think is inside? A cobra, a deadly cobra, the king of snakes! And soon it’s going to bite poor old Savara. Masters, fathers and mothers, this is a show of life and death. May Savara’s empty plate fill with coins before the snake’s taken out.”
The coins clattered. I put them into an old cigarette tin. Savara handed me the bottle, called out the names of several gods and goddesses, saluted the audience, and took the lid off the pitcher. We could hear the snake hissing. “Jai Guru,” cried Savara, plunging his hand into the pitcher. You should have seen the crowd! The people in the front recoiled in fear, while those in the rear pressed forward to see.
Savara provoked the cobra into a towering temper by tugging its tail. It raised its hood and swayed. Savara beat his drum and passed his hand several times under the darting fangs. At last the snake bit him. Savara promptly put it back in the pitcher and tied its mouth with a piece of cloth, smiling all the while. Then he went around, showing the audience where the snake had bitten him. Back in the centre he stood quietly, allowing the poison to work. Soon sweat started to pour down his face and he turned blue all over. He began frothing at the mouth. Suddenly he slumped to the ground and his body stiffened. He seemed about to die. At a signal from him I poured a drop of liquid into his mouth, and the next moment he sprang to his feet, hale and hearty.
A great roar of applause broke out. Coins rained into the ring. I gathered them up.
Savara stood on the wooden box and shouted, “Sale! Sale! Sale! One rupee a bottle! Come and get it!”
He had hardly finished speaking when the crowd closed in around him, “Don’t push and shove, masters and patrons,” Savara implored. “There’s enough for everyone. Those who miss out today can buy some tomorrow.”
The bottles sold briskly. We made our way through the milling crowd, which was now running after us. If not for the pitcher with the snake, they’d have trampled us to death.
Back at the camp we gorged on the puri and jalebi Savara had bought. He put his arm around me and literally force-fed me. I was ready to burst. “My dear,” he said, placing a hundred-rupee note in my hand. “I suggest you go back home.” I began to wail. But Savara was unmoved. He said he was going to quit the business and clear out of town before the people found out the hoax and came to lynch him.
He changed his clothes, packed his boxes and crates, hired a coolie and left. No one saw him again.
Story selected by Mini Krishnan
Reproduced by permission of Aleph Book Company (2019) .