A touching short story by Ramendra Kumar set in a circus about how animals respond to compassion and cruelty.
It was the opening night of the Great National Circus. Every inch of space below the big top was crammed. The show had been going on for close to two hours. It was now time for the grand finale.
“Ladies, gentlemen and my dear children,” the voice of the compere filtered across. We now present to you the last and most exciting item of tonight’s fabulous show. Please welcome the youngest Ringmaster in the entire world — Ricky.”
The curtains parted and the audience let out a collective gasp as a boy came out astride a pair of ferocious looking tigers. The boy must have been hardly fourteen. He was clad in bright red silk shirt, black trousers and ankle length boots. He wore a long black cape and a hat. In his hand was a whip.
There was a thunderous applause as Ricky jumped down and bowed to the audience. He cracked his whip and shouted, “Leela, Jimmy, sit”.
The tigress Leela and the tiger Jimmy climbed onto the two stools and sat down like a couple of obedient pups.
Ricky was handed over two large rings by a joker. In a flash he removed a lighter from his pocket and lit the two rings which caught fire. He held the rings in each hand and yelled, “Leela, Jimmy, jump.” The tiger and tigress jumped straight through the two balls of fire, much to the delight of the audience. The animals repeated the trick twice and then resumed their earlier position.
“Now everyone hold your breath. Ricky is going to show you a trick you must have only heard of but never seen anyone do”.
Ricky clapped his hands twice. A joker emerged leading a young tiger. Ricky went near the tiger and speaking to it softly, patted it gently and stroked its shiny coat.
He continued caressing it for sometime and then whispered something in its ear. The tiger opened its mouth wide. Ricky put his head in its mouth and remained in this position as the crowd watched mesmerized. The compere started counting 1..2…3… Soon the crowd joined him …7..8…9…10.”
Ricky removed his head took an elaborate bow and walked away with the young tiger in front and the tiger and tigress bringing up the rear.
The crowd was on its feet clapping, cheering and chanting — “Ricky! Ricky! Ricky!”
* * * * *
Half an hour later Ricky was walking back to his tent when he heard his name being called.
He looked back. A young woman of around twenty was coming towards him. She was clad in a jeans and T-shirt.
“Hi! I’m Neeta. I work for Twinkle Star — the children’s magazine. Have you heard of it?”
“Of course, I am a regular reader.”
“Great. I want to take your interview for the magazine.”
“My interview?” Ricky was surprised.
“Yes. After all you have achieved so much at such a young age. Can we sit somewhere?”
“Sure. Let’s go to my tent.”
Ricky’s tent was sparsely furnished. It had a collapsible cot and two chairs. In one corner was a suitcase and beside it a clothes rack. They sat down.
“Ricky tell me a little bit about yourself — your childhood… your parents… the factors which made you choose this rather unusual profession…”
A far away look came into Ricky’s eyes.
“Neeta, I grew up in this very circus. My father was a Ringmaster here. I lost my mother when I was very small. I have no memories of her. My father brought me up. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be like him. He was my hero. I used to sit in the audience and watch him perform and when the audience clapped I would be really thrilled.
Father was very kind and gentle with the animals and treated them like his own children. Even though he carried a whip I never saw him using it. The animals also loved him. He could handle even the most ferocious of tigers with ease.
He died two years ago in an accident. His place was taken by a new Ringmaster — Gypsy Jagan. Jagan was exactly the opposite of my father. He was selfish and cruel. He felt the only way to train animals was by punishing them. The animals hated him but were also sacred of him.
After my father’s death I had to suffer quite a bit. Father hadn’t left any savings. Whatever he saved from his salary he would spend on his tigers. “They too are my family,” he would say. Naturally, after he passed away, I had to drop out of school.
Gopi Warrier, the owner of this circus, allowed me to stay on as an odd job boy. My task was to clean the cages and run errands for Gopi. I wanted to work as Jagan’s understudy. But for some reason he never liked me and wouldn’t allow me to come anywhere close.
One evening, at around eight, I was going to my tent which I shared with Giddu and Tingu, the two jokers, when I heard a strange sound coming from one of the cages. I walked towards it and peeped through the bars. I found a tiger cub groaning in pain. It was rolling from side to side whimpering while its mother was trying to pacify it by licking its body.
I observed the cub closely for a few minutes and realized what had happened. Apparently a bone had got stuck in its throat. The poor thing was neither able to swallow it nor spit it out. All it could do was writhe in agony. I made soothing noises and reached out through the bars of the cage to touch the cub. In a flash the tigress snapped at me. I just about managed to withdraw my hand in time.
A few seconds of delay and the tigress would have yanked my arm off. I decided to try another strategy. I started talking to the tigress in soft, measured tones exactly as I had seen father do. After a few minutes, inch-by-inch I extended my hand and started caressing the cub. Then gently I put my hand it its mouth and down its throat, while all along continuing my monologue. The tigress watched me warily — alert for any sign of danger. I managed to locate the bone and wedged it out gently.
“There little one, this piece of bone was causing all the trouble,” I said patting the cub. The cub looked around in relief and rushed to its mother. The tigress licked its baby all over. I reached out once again and patted the tigress which licked my hand as if expressing its thanks.
* * * * *
A month later, I woke up one night feeling thirsty. I usually kept water in a plastic bottle close to my bed. I picked it up, but it was empty. I decided to slip into Veera, the acrobat’s tent and quench my thirst.
I stepped out and was walking towards Veera’s tent when I saw a light shining in Gopi’s Van. While all of us slept in tents Gopi had a van to himself.
“That’s strange. Gopi has gone to Mysore to get a baby elephant,” I thought to myself and decided to investigate.
I walked silently to the van and peeped in. The curtains were drawn but through the gaps I could see quite clearly. Standing in front of an almirah with a flashlight in hand, a man was fiddling with the lock. After a few minutes he managed to unlock the almirah. He opened the door and started searching inside.
As he turned to one side I saw his face. It was Jagan the Ringmaster. Silently I went behind the van and bolted the door from outside. I then rushed to Azam bhai’s tent. Azam bhai is the manager of our circus and has been with it for many years. When Gopi is away Azam bhai manages the affairs of the circus.
Within five minutes I was back, with Azam bhai and a few others in tow. Jagan was caught red handed.
“I… Azam bhai… I was not stealing. I was only borrowing money for a day. I was planning to go to the races tomorrow and put this money on Lucky Ali — the fastest horse in the race. By afternoon this money would have more than doubled. Naturally, I would have returned it to Gopi along with the interest,” Jagan blabbered.
“Don’t talk nonsense, Jagan. Since this is the first time I am leaving you with a warning. Next time, I’ll first get you beaten up and then hand you over to the police,” Azam bhai thundered.
Jagan slunk away. Next day while I was feeding the monkeys I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.
“You dirty rat. You think you can escape after squealing on me. I’ll teach you a lesson you will remember for the rest your life,” Jagan spat out giving me a solid whack on my head.
After this incident I made a special effort to keep out of Jagan’s way. I knew he was a mean and nasty fellow who could be quite dangerous.
A couple of months went by without any incident. One day I was in a tiger’s cage cleaning it. Now each cage has two compartments separated by a small door through which the tiger can pass. When the first compartment is to be cleaned the tiger is shifted to the second compartment and vice versa.
That day, as I was cleaning the cage, suddenly the door opened and a huge tigress walked in. I dropped the mop and backed away. Believe me Neeta, I have never been so terrified in my life. I tried to shout for help but no words came out.
The tigress started walking towards me growling menacingly. I looked around helplessly. Jagan was standing beside the cage grinning from ear to ear.
“Serves your right you filthy dog for sneaking on me. You will become this beast’s dinner and later the tigress will be shot. This way I’ll get rid of two enemies. This damn tigress had the guts to pounce on me when I whipped its cub yesterday. So my dear tigress happy hunting,” Jagan said and disappeared.
I had reached the end of the cage. There was now no escape from the gaping jaws of the advancing beast. I closed my eyes and started praying…
Just then I felt something soft and wet on my hands. I opened my eyes. The tigress was licking my hands and nuzzling against me. Tears of relief ran down my cheeks as I recognized the tigress. It was Leela whose cub I had saved the other day. I bent down and hugged it.
“Ricky, are you okay?”
I turned around. Gopi was standing outside panting for breath. Behind him was Tingu the joker.
I stepped out of the cage and carefully bolted the door.
“Ricky, Tingu told me you were caught with a tiger in its cage and I rushed here. Thank God you are okay. But how did this happen? How could you be so careless?”
“It was not my carelessness. It was the work of Jagan.” I told him the whole story.
“If it had been any other tiger you would have been eaten up. Lucky for you it was Leela,” Gopi said wiping his brow.
The same evening Jagan was handed over to the police. Now another problem confronted Gopi. The show was to start in a week’s time and with Jagan behind bars we had no Ringmaster.
Two days later I was summoned to Gopi’s room. When I reached there I found Gopi and Azam bhai waiting for me.
“Son you know we are badly in need of a Ringmaster.”
“Well as you are aware Azam Bhai was a Ringmaster in his younger days. He is willing to carry on for a few weeks till we get another Ringmaster. But he needs help. I watched you with Leela the other day. I think, like your father, you too have a way with animals. With a little training and some practice you will develop quite nicely. Can you help Azam bhai for a few weeks?”
I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. It was like a dream come true.
“Of course boss. When do I start?” I asked him.
Ricky looked at Neeta. “That was a year back. I worked hard and did a number of shows with Azam bhai, as his understudy. The arrangement, which was for a few weeks, continued for almost a year. I learnt a lot from Azam bhai and gradually my confidence grew. Gopi and Azam bhai monitored my progress continuously. Last week it was decided that I would be given a chance to do the entire show on my own. And today my dream finally came true,” Ricky said.
“Wow, Ricky, I am really happy for you. I am sure with your talent and hard work you will become as good a Ringmaster as your father,” Neeta said.
A week later a photograph of Ricky astride Leela and Jimmy appeared on the cover of The Twinkle Star. The caption under the photograph was — ‘A Dream Come True’.
This teen story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
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