The Trick of Fate
Shivaji K. Moitra
Copyright 2013 by Shivaji K. Moitra
The front page headlines as usual were about the disgusting tussles of politics. But one of those in smaller print on page three caught my eyes.
‘Agitating railway hawkers block trains in protest over the indiscriminate arrests and harassment of their colleagues by the Government Railway Police’.
The government had recently issued orders banning hawking in running trains and the over-zealous police were out to score a point.
“Another irresponsible and unnecessary decision of the government,” I mused and frowned.
It brought back to my mind a decade old real-life story to which I had been a discreet witness. I still remembered it vividly since it was both interesting and poignant.
Those days being in the prime of my youthful days and true to the spirit of the time I had been a gleeful and carefree young man despite the constraints of money and being alone to fend for myself.
I used to hold a five-day week government job that paid just enough to live a humble life.
Since cheap accommodation could be available only in the outskirts of the city, I lived in a one-room rented apartment situated at the edge of a large ground wedged between the railway tracks and the eastern fringes of the city.
It was a quiet place where people of modest means lived. The big ground drew boys from the city, who came to play football on the weekend afternoons.
At the far corner of the ground there was a copious bamboo grove and a huge Banyan tree and in the shade of that tree Birsa Chowrasia had pitched his tent.
It was not just a tent though, it was his house where he lived with his wife, two little sons, four Sloth bears and their two playful cubs, five monkeys and their two babies, four mongooses and half-a-dozen cocks and hens.
He performed on the streets of the city and the adjoining towns and villages along with his trained animals like a gypsy and earned enough to feed his extended family and have a laugh and a smoke too at the end of the day. But he was not a born gypsy.
I had made acquaintance with Birsa or rather he made it while visiting the shack by the turn of the dirt road that was the only affordable hotel nearby.
We often met there in the morning or during an evening chat while sipping a cup of tea with familiar people of the locality.
The shack-owner Dinanath was a chirpy affable young man who hated loneliness and Birsa often gave him company in the evenings if he could return early from the town.
He was a young man of average build but a little taller than the average and he had a tanned skin, sharp features and long hair that touched his shoulders. He looked like the tough Ringmaster of some circus.
Some afternoons he would practice with his animals before his tent and if it happened to be a holiday the child in me drove me there to see the animals perform.
His wife would then promptly give me a wooden stool to sit and a cup of tea. She was a young woman, fair and considerably beautiful for her social standard and I knew that Dinanath – the shack-owner had a soft corner for her.
The bears and the monkeys performed exceptionally well and even the mongoose performed their limited roles well while a children’s story was being told to the rhythm of drum-beat. The monkeys went round and round with begging-bowls in their hands and the bears trembled with mock fever. I remember, I enjoyed the free performance and clapped in return.
But when Birsa related his own story to me I was visibly moved.
He was just another poor little boy who having had the misfortune of being born to poor rustic parents had to work from a tender age like millions of children in India to keep the family oven burning. Yet he was different, very different.
He lived with his parents and his three sisters in a village at the edge of the scrub forest that stretched to the foothills of the Vindhyas.
They worked together to raise Paddy, Maize, Mustard and Sugarcane and lived a humble but happy life. But unlike the other lads he had an innate interest in nature and the plants and animals of the nearby hills and forests immensely interested him.
Some of those animals, like the Bears, Nilgai, Spotted deer, Wild boars, Rabbits, Foxes, Civet cats, Wolves and even the occasional leopard made regular forays into their fields and their village to feed on the crops or livestock at night and they had to drive them away with burning torches and sounds. With ease he could mimic the calls of cheetal, gaur, langur or monkey and identify a score of birds like the Indian Pied Hornbill, the Orange-billed Blue Magpie, the Paradise Flycatcher and the Peacock by their reverberating calls.
Then one winter morning a convoy of cars arrived and the officers alighted to inform the villagers that a huge dam had been planned on the mighty river Narmada by wedging the narrow passes between the hills and when completed it would drown their and hundreds of other villages under a 1000 feet of water. They asked the villagers to be prepared to leave the place within a month or two.
The humble villagers were terrified; they had nowhere else to go leaving their fields, their ancestral houses and their cattle behind. They could only wait for the inevitable.
True to the words of the authorities, by early Summer huge trucks carrying monstrous machines with steel claws rolled into a score of hamlets.
As the machines roared and gorged into the earth and rocks, the humble village folk rose in protest and resisted the initial attempts by the police to evict them.
But, in a nation where money and muscle-power prevailed over the doctrines of democracy, the voices of the humble unarmed agitators with little voting worth were ignored by the politicians. Their protests continued and sometimes turned violent but the work continued too. Before long their agitation was stifled with brute force and terror tactics.
In eight years the dam was complete and the lock gates were lowered.
As water rushed into the barrage and the water-level rose swiftly the villagers had no option but to flee for their lives.
Nobody knew where they went and what they did thereafter. Made paupers from peasants overnight they became servants or labourers in the towns and cities to survive. However, for them Darwin’s theories soon took over and in the struggle for existence only the fittest of them survived.
Birsa hopped from one place to another, trying his hand at odd jobs in mines and hotels.
One day while going to seek work at a garment factory he found that a Circus had pitched its huge tent on the college grounds. The child in him leapt in joy and he peeped through an opening to see the animals. He saw the elephants, horses and camels feeding on leaves and straw. He entered the tent gingerly and told one of the men that he wished to see the Manager.
He was taken to the Manager, an elderly man sitting on a cot inside one of the smaller tents.
“I told him about my plight and asked him for a job in his Circus. I told him that I had some knowledge about animals and I mimicked the calls of many animals before him. He took pity on me and let me stay. I did all the work that was allotted to me sincerely and gradually I learnt the tricks of the Ringmaster and one fine day replaced the old Ringmaster.
I was very happy. I enjoyed my new-found job although it was a gypsy’s life; you had to move with the tent.”
“I hear that you married in the tent,” I said mischievously.
Birsa smiled and lit a biri (tobacco wrapped in dried Kendu leaf), exhaled a ball of smoke and continued, “Right, my happiness caught the imagination of one of the young girls who performed on the trapeze. She was young, fair and beautiful, possessing a fine figure. But she was an orphan from Nepal like many of her co-performers and had nowhere else to go. Yet she always hid her woes under her smiling face. So we married under the tent; we had nothing to lose. And you can see, she’s still good-looking,” Birsa said nostalgically over a cup of tea.
“Then, how come you landed here?” I enquired sheepishly.
“My new-found happiness was short lived. The government betrayed us again. It passed a law banning all animal shows and performances in circuses. You know what a furore it created at that time. But the government did not relent. The people who ran the country could only feel the plight of the animals in captivity, not the plight of the hapless people who worked hard to keep and train those animals so that they could bring smiles to a million faces and also to make a living.
The day they came to confiscate the lions, tigers, monkeys, hippos and even the exotic birds, I and my wife managed to hide a couple of bears and three monkeys in a ditch.
But devoid of the performing animals, our circus lost its charm and its visitors. I lost my job finally and left the Circus with the bears and monkeys,” he added in a muffled tone choking with grief and indignation.
“Thus you became a street performer,” I shook my head.
Birsa replied with a soulful nod, his downcast eyes betraying his emotions.
Days passed, months and seasons changed but nothing changed for us as we went about our respective jobs for a couple of years. Our friendship grew despite our very different means of livelihood.
But, one winter morning just as the fog had dispersed, a couple of vehicles drove up along the dirt road and stopped in front of my house. There was a white car and a mini truck.
I looked across the window and read the board fixed below the bonnet of the white car. It was from the Forest Department.
The forest officials walked up to Birsa’s tent and held out a piece of paper which obviously he couldn’t read.
I hastily approached the officials and asked them what had happened.
“We have come on the orders of the D.F.O. It is illegal to keep wild animals in captivity. We have to confiscate these animals and release them in the forest,” a uniformed man said grimly.
“But you are snatching their means of livelihood. You cannot offer them jobs,” I shouted.
“That is the government’s headache,” retorted the officer rudely.
They caged the animals and loaded the cages on the truck and sped away. Birsa gazed at the trail of red dust the vehicles had left and went into his tent to console his weeping wife.
The next morning being a Saturday morning I woke up late and trudged up leisurely to the shack and asked for a cup of tea. Birsa was discussing something serious with Dinanath.
He came up to me holding my cup of tea and said, “Dada (brother), I shall be leaving my family under Dinanath’s care until I return.”
“Where are you going?” I enquired in a troubled tone.
“One day when our circus was showing at the capital a fellow villager of mine was sitting in the front row and he recognized me. He was shunned by the villagers because he used to be in the company of poachers and timber smugglers. Now he is a very rich man and lives in a mansion in the capital. He gave me his address and said, “Brother, we were all left homeless but I survived because I didn’t care for the laws. You know, everybody called me a bad guy at the village. If you ever land into hard times, do not hesitate to meet me.”
Now, that bad guy is my last hope,” Birsa concluded with a sigh.
I stared at Birsa’s smiling face. There was not a sign of anxiety on it. He had accepted the fact that life was unpredictable and he faced it with fortitude every time.
Three days later he put all his savings in the hands of shack-owner Dinanath, left his wife and children under his care and left.
There was no news of him for four months. Then, he returned like a hero riding a hired car.
He embraced me and whispered, “I found him. He is the boss of the timber mafia. But, everybody in the city know him as a big businessman; I am one of the very few people who know the truth. I have joined his gang.”
“That’s a dangerous job, I suppose,” I mumbled.
“Not really. We enter the forest at night and saw down the trees. Bribes and guns keep the authorities silent until the timber is shipped to the hidden warehouses.”
“I can see that you are paid well.”
“Yes dada, he took me in as a trusted lieutenant and helped me generously. He found for me a rented house. At last my wife and children will have a nice house to stay,” he added gleefully.
“But bad company can land you into more misery.”
“Hard work and honesty did not lead me anywhere. Now, I have nothing to lose,” he said in a voice choking with indignation.
He loaded his meager belongings in the boot of the car, left his tent with Dinanath and boarded the car with his wife and children.
All the neighbours crowded around his car and bade them a good bye with moist eyes.
They waved and waved their hands until their car disappeared behind the plume of smoke and dust.
That night I had a strange dream.
A man-eater had been terrifying the villagers and I had been called to shoot it down.
As I entered a reasonably wooded tract of the forest, I spotted the tiger behind the light and shade of the jungle, took aim at it and fired my rifle. The tiger stood on its hind legs and growled and changed into a man shrieking in pain.
“Dada, I am Birsa. I had been killing the tigers and destroying the forest. So the spirit of the jungle cursed me and changed me into a man eater only to be redeemed by man. By killing the damned tiger you have redeemed me of the curse. I beg your pardon to leave for the heavens.”
Birsa vanished in a ball of blue smoke.
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