Unni was back in his village after a lapse of five years. It was not a happy occasion that brought him here. Being the only son, he had to perform the last rites for his mother. As he lit the pyre, the dancing golden yellow flames sent him into a reverie.
“I wonder if Mother loved me just a little. She was never deliberately unkind, so she couldn’t have hated me.”
Tears brimmed over, as he remembered her indifference. It had hurt him deeply. His presence and proximity evoked no feelings in her.
“I cannot blame her,” he thought, ”She had felt cheated by Fate.”
For years, Unni’s mother had longed for a child of her own. She had spent a packet on vows and pujas. She travelled long distances on pilgrimages, ate prescribed foods and abstained from those prohibited, so that she could gift a child to her husband who desperately wanted a family. But when the child finally arrived, it was a freak of Nature. Unni’s birth dealt the coup de grace to a marriage that was already coming apart.
Unni lived in his village only till he was ten years old. His diminutive stature, bow legs and stunted torso made him the butt end of many a joke in the neighborhood. But Unni had normal intelligence, and his sensitive soul suffered a great deal of pain and anguish.
In spite of it all, Unni did well at school. His grades were good. But it only stirred up jealousy among his classmates.
“How can this fellow have normal intelligence?” they asked, “He must have found a clever way to cheat.”
“I don’t know how I endured it all,” thought Unni, “I had no one to tell my troubles. Mother showed no signs of affection that I craved for – a hug perhaps or an arm over my shoulder! She fed and clothed me and gave me all the essentials. But many a time when she thought I wasn’t looking, I noticed her wince with a kind of inner pain. Poor woman! God had been unkind to her. I tried to be as good as possible, helping her with household chores and whatever else I could do.”
In his tenth year, a circus came to town. Unni and his mother went to see the fun. He realised for the first time that there were other people like him.
“Look,” he said, grabbing his mother’s hand, “They are just like me. But why do they behave like fools? Why do they dress in such funny clothes? Are they as stupid as they behave?”
“No son,” she said, “They have normal intelligence like you. But the world is a cruel place and people don’t give them a chance to live normally.”
“Isn’t it sad that they do and say things to make people laugh at them? Don’t they feel hurt when everybody has fun at their expense?”
“Put it this way. They make people laugh for a while and thus forget their own misery. It is a service to humanity.”
Unni silently pondered over her words.
“Perhaps you too will have to become a clown when you’re older,” she said, “I don’t see any other job suitable for you. You cannot even become a coolly because others will be able to carry heavier loads. No one will employ you.”
Unni remained very quiet that evening. The next day he played truant from school and went to see the manager of the circus.
“I have already got three clowns,” said the manager, “A fourth would be an extra burden.”
“I could do other jobs or run errands,” pleaded Unni, “Perhaps I could work with the animals.”
“You would be crushed to death by the elephants, and the tigers would swallow you in one gulp.”
Seeing his crest-fallen face with tears threatening to spill over, the manager relented.
“Alright, I’ll take you on but only on half salary till you prove your worth.”
So Unni joined the Vijaya circus and toured the length and breadth of India . He learnt the art of clowning, and could even do a few simple tricks to entertain the audience. He very rarely visited his village, but faithfully sent money to his mother for her maintenance.
As the flames on the pyre subsided, and the embers began to smoulder, Unni thought, “Now there is no one left for me to call my own. I shall not come back to this village again.”
That evening, he walked one last time through the village. There were more people now than there were in his childhood. What bothered him was the distinct divide between the rich and the poor. The landlords and businessmen who had moved into the village had bought up most of the land for a pittance. The poor were the original villagers.
“I have never seen such shocking poverty in my childhood. Though no one was very rich there was enough and to spare. Now the villagers have turned into beggars and petty thieves, and most of them are children.”
As if to confirm his thoughts, he saw a little girl on the other side of the road. She was in tatters, and her ribs were jutting out of her light frame. She had spread a cloth on the ground to catch the occasional coin that would be thrown her way. She performed her street acrobatics with the agility of a well trained monkey. Unni watched her for a while.
“What things people do to earn a morsel of bread!” he thought, “Even on an empty stomach she is performing well.”
There were no coins on the cloth she had spread. She had probably begun her act quite early in the day. Unni dropped a rupee coin and kept staring at her. She was bending over, and with her dependant head, looked straight into his eyes. She stopped her performance, her eyes bulging with fear.
“Funny man, Funny man,” she screamed, running off in the direction of her hut.
Unni followed at a leisurely pace. Suddenly an idea flashed through his mind. Perhaps he could help the family in some way.
“Is the man of the house inside?” he asked when he reached the door of the hut.
A timid looking woman peeped out.
“The man of the house has been gone these past two years. I am alone with five mouths to feed. What do you want from him? Does he owe you any money?”
Oh no! I saw your little girl doing some acrobatics on the road.”
“Yes, she brings in a few coins sometimes. Her name is Kamini.”
“You see, I work in a circus. With a little training your girl can become an acrobat. She could earn money for you.”
“But how can I trust you? You may take her away to earn money for you.”
Unni smiled. “Lady, I have no use for money. I am a lonely person. The only relative I had was cremated two days ago. I will make sure that her salary is sent to you. Mind you, it won’t be very much to start with.”
Kamini was listening from indoors. Though she had run off from the “funny man” in fear, he seemed a nice fellow. She was fed up of somersaulting from morning till night for a few paisa.
“I’ll go with the man,” she said, “One day I’ll become a great circus artist. Won’t I, Funny man?”
“You will if you work hard enough.”
The Manager was annoyed with Unni.
“I’ve told you a hundred times that you must control your urge for misplaced charity. It’s one thing to befriend a dog or a cat, but a girl is a great responsibility.”
Pointing to Kamini he said, “Is this rag doll to become a circus artist? She’s like a dried up twig that will snap at the slightest exertion.”
“Looks are deceptive Sir. She has youth, tenacity and determination. In spite of her poverty, she never grovelled for charity. She did not beg. She performed as best she knew, for a donation.”
“Enough Unni. We all know she’s a beggar with not the slightest making of an artist. Since you brought her along she is your responsibility. I shall not pay for her upkeep, and if she turns out to be a nuisance, I’ll send the pair of you packing.”
So “Funny man” became father to Kamini. He christened her Mini. Here was an outlet for the love he had in his heart. Suddenly life seemed worth living. The female artists allowed Mini to sleep in one corner of their tent. An ex-artist who now did the job of house-mother, taught her the elements of cleanliness and the need to be presentable at all times. No one bothered her. Most of them ignored her, as they never envisaged any threat to their popularity from this little girl.
Unni’s appeals to the manager to have her properly trained fell on deaf ears.
“I cannot have that brat among my artists. Why did you bring her here without my permission? Now she must remain your headache.”
Unni didn’t consider her a headache. He met all her needs. Food was never a problem as there was enough and to spare in the kitchen. He even sent her mother an allowance out of his salary. Suddenly after all these years, he felt there was something in life to look forward to, someone to care for.
Mini had the run of the place. She did odd jobs for the lady artists, and watched them go through their different exercises. She practised whatever she could do at the periphery of the ring, and nobody looked askance at her. Mini loved the animals too. The elephants and horses were her favourites , and the monkeys were her good friends. She seemed to be able to communicate with them. However, she avoided the wrestler who had a mean and murderous look, and the noisy clowns who were always cutting crude jokes.
Two years had gone by since Mini came away from home. Unni felt she would be better off at school as there was no future for her in the circus. They were soon to move to Belgaum , and he knew there was an orphanage cum school there.
One afternoon during siesta, the manager came into the ring to pick up some papers he had left behind. He stopped in his tracks mouth agape. Mini had the arena to herself and was performing to perfection, her slim body gyrating and contorting like a skilled acrobat. He hid in the gallery critically appraising her performance.
“Here is a jackpot,” he thought, and didn’t tell anyone of his discovery.
But when the circus moved to Belgaum he summoned Unni and said,
“I think I’ll give Mini a chance. From now on she’ll be put through her paces by one of the trainers. Mind you, it will be tough training for a child who has no discipline. So don’t complain.”
Unni was in his element. He did not relish the thought of sending Mini away to school as it would mean separation for months. Mini rose to the challenge. She practised long hours and her instructor was pleased with her progress. But when the manager insisted that she get into the act after only a month’s training, Unni was worried. The trainer assured him that she was perfect and would do well.
Mini was a big hit with the audience. Slim and sylph-like, she performed like a seasoned acrobat. Her timing was perfect. With a little grease paint to brighten her complexion, and her skin-tight leotard with a frill around the waist, she looked like a character out of a fairy tale.
The greedy manager seeing she was a good crowd-gatherer began plans to make her a trapeze artist. Within a year of her debut, he started her on the next phase of her training. Unni pleaded and begged that it was too early.
“You have enough experienced artists to perform on the trapeze. Must you have her too?”
“She is our little star. We need to promote her,” said the manager.
Mini had often dreamed of performing on the flying trapeze.
“Don’t worry Appa,” she said, “When you worry so much you look like a ‘funny man.’ I’ll be alright.”
The training was vigorous. It was very frightening for someone watching from below. Unni never let her out of his sight during training sessions. He sat where he could watch her every move. When she did well he would smile. But when she made mistakes, he would jump up concerned. Soon Mini was perfect on the trapeze, but Unni could never relax when she was up there. Every time she did her somersaults from one swing to the other, his heart beat madly, and he would entreat the Gods for her safety.
By twelve years of age, Mini had become a skilful performer. Everyone liked her because she was full of life. They were in Dharwad that summer. Being holiday season, the seats for every show were sold out. The gate collection far exceeded the manager’s expectations. Money was all he could think about. The weekend promised to be very exciting as the VIPs in town were to attend the show. It was good publicity for the circus. Perhaps if he pulled the right strings he could get some concession on the municipal taxes. He flapped around like an anxious hen, getting the seat arrangements perfect, so that the big wigs had a good view of the show.
The lead trapeze artist approached him at that moment.
“Sir, I feel quite feverish, and I’m having a splitting headache. Could we skip the trapeze act tonight? I really feel unwell.”
“What? You must be crazy. The VIPs from Hubli and Dharwar will all be here tonight, and we have to give our best performance. Go and take some tablets to relieve your headache.”
But the man did not feel well at all. In his act, his head would have to be on a lower level than his torso. That would make the headache worse. He had never felt so low in his life.
“I’ve never had such a headache in all these years,” he thought, “Perhaps I should go in for a thorough medical check up tomorrow. May be my Blood pressure is shooting up.”
Once more before the act, he went to the manager and tried to convince him to drop this item.
“Sir, my head feels leaden. We can still stop this act.”
“No. Just keep going. You can rest after the show,” barked the manager.
In the general hullabaloo before a show, not many had heard the exchange of words between the manager and the artist. Certainly Unni was not around. He was being painted up for his part as a clown.
The VIPs duly arrived. The show began with a march past of animals and men, the clowns somersaulting and throwing their hats in the air, the artists bowing and waving. The first item was by the acrobats. There was pin-drop silence as the audience watched Mini go through her contortions. As she bowed and curtsied to the crowds they burst into applause. Then followed various acts with the cyclist, weight lifters and animals.
The last act of the night was the Flying Trapeze. There were two males who took charge of the two swings suspended from the ceilings. Mini and another lady were the ones who would somersault between the two strong male hands. The men began warming up by doing a few twists and contortions on the swings. Then the real act began, and all eyes were focused on the performing artists. As usual, Unni forgot everything else and was staring upwards, his eyes fixed on every move Mini made. The performance was in full swing. The girls were superb.
Suddenly the man on one swing clutched his head. The pain he felt was excruciating. It was that exact split second when Mini had done her double somersault and reached for his hands. But the hands that were to grip her were not there. Mini dropped to the net below in a head dive. Her fragile neck bones had fractured instantly.
It was a nerve-chilling scream that rent the air from audience and artists. The entire tent became a stampeding mass as they rushed forward for a glimpse of the child. The avarice of a heartless manager had killed her. No one noticed the man who had caused the accident walk out in a daze. He went out into the night and slashed his wrists, unable to live with the thought of the tragedy he had caused.
The circus was dismantled the next day, and moved to another town. It was business as usual on the third day.
“The show must go on,” barked the manager, to the many tear-stained faces who had loved the little girl and wanted to mourn her loss.
“The show must go on……….Bring in the clowns.……Let the music be played.”
Three droopy faced clowns waddled into the arena, half heartedly waving to the crowds. But Unni was not among them. For him the show was over.