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A report on the circus woman

Tight ropewalk

By Saibal Das

Dawn is seeping into Srirampur. Fluffy, white clouds begin to lift over this ancient mofussil nestling on the banks of the Ganga. The lush foliage sprouting from tidy rows of bottle-palm trees, covering the Bengal township like a giant green umbrella. Flutters in the nippy, wintry air. Miniature ponds ripple where the wind ruffles through the grass.

Oddballs like trapeze artistes get ready to walk the tight rope.

Soaking in all this, misty-eyed, is Suman Bhandari, till late last year the toast of the Olympic Circus. Show-woman par excellence, the Kathmandu lass, barely on the wrong side of her teens, hypnotized the throngs across the country with a stunning array of tricks on the Globe--the motorcycle pit. Under her immaculate control, below her slender frame, the throbbing machine would bounce magically on the dizzying walls of the Globe. In one heart-stopping moment after another many an intricate pattern would be drawn on the Globe as Suman expertly dribbled past other riders, challenging her own limits of audacity. To her marveling colleagues, she was always the thunder-stealer: the star who outshone her male counterparts as easily as she would park the bike.

And then suddenly the halo evaporated. It took one moment of indiscretion, one split-second of madness to ruin her stardom, drill a gaping hole in her confidence. At the Globe at a circus at Ghatal, Midnapore, the bikers, five that day, crashed at blinding speed, spinning circles on the walls before ending in a bloody heap. When they pulled Suman out her jaw had dislocated. Part of the cheek she held in her hand as it had disengaged from the rest of the face the colour of ketchup. Some of the teeth rattled as though they hung by threads not from gums. When she woke up in the local hospital, it dawned on Suman that her career had come to a crunching halt.

As the fluffy clouds ascend over Srirampur, Suman feels the pain gnawing deep inside her heart. The other girls, audacious, poor, helpless, flit inside the camp, imprisoned by thick, corrugated sheets, preparing to meet head on the busy schedule ahead. With all the supple grace at their command, with all the gymnastic manoeuvres chiseled inside their brains, they will cavort, jig, roll, twist, swing, ride and bounce on the arena to an assortment of musical notes wafting through the air. It was a daily drill Suman was once part of.

She is still staring at the circus girls easing into their skin-hugging outfits, when her mother, down from Nepal to share her little corner inside the camp, walks in with a cup of freshly brewed tea. Suman feels the energy hormones surge in her veins as its warmth spreads inside her frail countenance. Then another caring woman arrives and it makes her feel even better. She is Nani Didi, retired circus artiste now incharge of the company girls at the Olympic Circus. It is she who bowed before the Lord in silent prayer when the bike rider's life hovered on the brink. If the scar inside her mind heals. if she wriggles out of the trauma that lurks like an unwanted guest, if she struggles back to her once admirable level of fitness, then Suman will have no one to thank more than Nani.

Survival once was exciting. Now Suman cannot leave the razor's edge life of the circus even though the adrenalin has stopped flowing. She would be better off away from the spotlights, but jobs don't come easy. If she quits the circus she stands to lose precious much: that means the 1,500 rupees every month that support her parents and two younger sisters. For her kind, nowhere really to go, it is a thin line between being a `respectful' circus girl and being outside the glitter and selling her body night after lonely night. That's the lot of countless Nepali girls who slip into India day after dad-. hounded out of their hill- homes by the scourge of poverty.

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