By Sreemoyee Piu Kundu
My earliest memory of my life in Ganesh Circus, is of the makeshift tents where I slept on the bare ground in a large group of people, our limbs entangled in the cramped space, dipped in dry mud, flies swarming over our heads. Fighting for space, our stomachs flat, famished. The air reeking of animal shit.
As a matter of fact, the animals were treated better than us. Fed more generously. Given an occasional second helping, bathed every fortnight in the peak of summer, their bowls always filled to the brim with cold water. They even had coats for winter.
And yet, there was one thing the animals had in common with us. They never slept much either. At night, the sound of their shuffling feet, their deep grunts and lengthy howls rang in our ears. Together we twitched in our disturbed sleep, a slumber from which all dreams had given way to nocturnal terrors.
These disturbed nights providing a sense of continuity, even as towns formed and melted. Crooked train lines disappearing behind tall tree tops. The trapezes dismantled; the sight of slow-moving caravans as we crossed yet another dusty milestone.
The only person I liked in that motley crowd of small talents and stunted people was Manju Bhabhi, the voluptuous wife of our circus manager, Prateik Master. She had no children of her own. She was always dressed in gaudy Georgette sarees, her pallu neatly folded, lengthwise, flopped from her shoulder down to her protruding belly button.
Manju Bhabhi was from Kashmir, a delicate rosebud of a woman. She was very fond of stories, but being unable to read herself, she depended on me to do the needful. She possessed a large treasure trove of books with colourful illustrations. I think Pratiek Master had bought them in a sale from the kabbadi. I would choose a new book, every day. Manju Bhabhi liked nothing better than to lie back in bed, while I sat at her feet, taking gleeful pleasure in correcting my pronunciation, though she herself was semi-literate.
I myself had been taught to read by my mother when I was five and now, at fourteen, read to Manju Bhabhi in the hot afternoons; the harsh summer sun casting porous patterns on her waist and cleavage, on the exposed parts of her body. As I struggled to look away – a knot forming at the base of my stomach – she stretched herself, moaning suggestively, her blue eyes drooping from the languid torpor of the summer heat and the sound of my adolescent voice that was beginning to crack.
As always, I squatted by the edge of the bed, where her fair feet dangled, the silver anklets riding upwards, as I struggled to glance down. Focus on the chapter I was reading from, modulating my voice, slightly embarrassed at the way it squeaked on occasion, despite me trying all I could to take on the accent of each of the characters. Manju Bhabhi squealed like a child every time I modified my tone, working doubly hard at getting the impersonations right. Sometimes, Manju Bhabhi would bend down, her heaving cleavage in my face, as she gripped my fingers, tracing them over the individual letters...her flawless skin, supple, sensuous...like a memsahib, like those white women with small tits and large eyes.
In my mind, Manju Bhabhi was no less than a movie-star.
Years later, when I met Marie, her porcelain skin and her big, beautiful eyes reminded me of her.
Marie Bourdaine was French.
Like Manju Bhabhi, she was also feminine, fantasy, and forbidden.
Evening was slowly descending over Paris; the bright, laser lights on the Eiffel Tower gleamed incandescently. The Seine shimmered in the distance. I put down my glass of brandy, wiping the corners of my lips, studying the fine lines that now crisscrossed my mouth, in the ornate mirror on the wall of my room in Hotel du Champ de Villiers. The same room that I had first visited Amitabh in. Room number 654.
(Excerpted with the permission of Bloomsbury, the publisher of Cut: The Death and Life of a Theatre Activist. You can buy the book here).