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SILGHAT SADHUS

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The sadhus were on parade in Silghat. On top of a steep hill, overlooking the carnival site was a temple and a set of steps that must be climbed. At intervals either side of these bloody steps was a sadhu. Some sadhus had a mat filled with religious trinkets, bits of string and magic stuff, did a swift blessing with the transaction and made a profit on the side. But right now they were just performing sadhus, striking their pose, accepting their cheque and settling straight back in the zone.

If it was all a sideshow that was fine by me; I was at the fairground, after all.

They were each about as stoned as it’s possible for a human being to be and still remain upright. They sat impassively, each a living work of art, ignoring this puffing white foreign thing as Dog hove up beside them.

It was exactly as if he’d stuck a coin in the slot. Down fluttered the ten rupee note and at that moment two blood soaked eyes would slowly focus on his face. Dog would raise his camera and, with a deft wiggle of his head, ask permission. Sadhu eyelids would lower in assent then he would ‘assume the pose’.

Every sadhu is different; each has his own particular ‘shtick’. One slowly took an enormous breath and blew a trumpet made of buffalo horn, posing sideways for maximum photographic effect. A lengthy to-o-ot and a couple of pictures later he deflated, sank ineffably back into his silence, the pipe and him coming to a total stop at exactly the same time.

The next, a thick-set, strong man in filthy red robes with a top-notch of braided hair that reached in a cone a foot away from his skull slowly raised his Shiva spear, a huge devil’s prong of pantomime delight decorated with red polka dots and assorted dingle-dangles. This poor sadhu was so completely whacked he could barely focus, had to be prodded to stay awake.

The lad who was doing the prodding was a youth of about fourteen. Each of the sadhus had a servant, someone whose chief function, it seemed, was to stuff ganja in chillums and pass them on. He stuck a finger in the sadhu’s bony ribs. Like an automated children’s toy Sadhu Shiva came to life. He raised one hand in blessing, stretched his index finger, lowered it till the tip of that finger rested in a pot of bright pink powder. His eyes met mine. I knew what was coming.

I scored a massive tika, a bright pink splodge between the eyes. He seemed to freeze, finger still poised in the air after my blessing, eyes glazed, locked in time and space. I think he’d forgotten entirely that I was there. His glamorous personal assistant poked him again. He settled back into repose.

The beggar of beggars lay on his back in the dirt. There was nobody at that fair that hadn’t seen the monster – he had the prime real estate, slap bang in the middle of the crossroads – he was epicentre of the Silghat fair.

Imagine a man sitting on the ground cross-legged. Bind his legs together then tip him on his back. Leave him like that for a very long time. Twenty years. Don’t feed him, let his muscle eat itself, let his legs contract till skin hangs tight around bone, the tendons drawn up tight, winding this twisted mass of legs and feet and toes together. Bits of him stuck out at every angle: knees, feet all jutted out, waving in the air, twitching in the dust and the sun.

His head rested on a covered brick, two roving eyes scanned the crowd. No matter what he looked like, inside that extraordinary shape was a person with bright eyes and… well, not much else. His arms thrashed about in front of him locked in their own private ballet, twin sticks waving wildly in the dusty fairground air; they were thin, brown and wrinkled, just bones somehow moving, wrists turned inwards, doubled under, threaded round.

His face was stretched and cadaverous, trapped in a lifelong scream, head thrown back in a stretch of pain, nodding wildly, looking around, squirming slowly in the dirt, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of moving legs, an umbrella of horrified faces. People stumbled on him with a gasp, suddenly on top of this extreme creature.

Bongo giggled. This was his way of expressing embarrassment.

‘He’s always there.’

Behind those knotted limbs, inside the contorted frame was, of course, a man. To my shame I couldn’t see that. All I could see was his deformity. I saw him on many occasions during the day as I criss-crossed the fairground in wonder. Once I watched as he lay on his side, a gentle expression of contentment on his face as a young boy spooned gruel into his mouth.

‘That’s his son,’ whispered Bongo as we passed.

‘His son!’

I looked over at the wife. She was young. I couldn’t bring myself to think about that wedding night. The girl sitting in the dirt bore him three children and together they travelled the fairs. Each day she lay him out in the road and the kids would dutifully attend him while she waited and watched. He was the husband. He was the breadwinner. He was working. This was his job.

The beggar of beggars was a proud family man. He lay on his back in the dirt, working hard. He saw every grimace; he heard every taunt, caught the eye of the crowd as they stumbled upon him, lay there and twitched his arms and determinedly stayed alive, mutely crying out:

‘Look at me! Look at me and weep! Count your blessings!’

If that’s not hard work, I don’t know what is.

*

The wind whipped up, the Ferris Wheel rocked, the fairground was being blown away. The screams from those trapped on top of the wheel were piteous to hear. I knew how they felt.

I was probably in more danger than them, stuck in the middle of a wobbling tent made of bamboo poles and bits of string. The sun beat through a roof of the finest turquoise plastic, casting an eerie blue light over us all. The stage was set up adorned with a black back curtain, drapes and wings of flowing red material – all flying helplessly in the wind. Children darted around backstage while the star performer seemed to be down in the audience trying to make a cassette player work.

The walls around us were of carnival pink and lime green striped satin, rouched with remarkable flair. They billowed like flapping wings, breathing in and out with a slap. Somehow the tent stayed erect.

Despite the mayhem around me I seemed to be getting more than my fair share of attention. Children were plonked in the rows right in front of me, turned round in their seats, staring at me. I smiled back, wiggled my head, winked and ran through my compliment of stock Mr. Dogster replies. Just my white man celebrity, I thought. I settled back into my fame.

When Dogster and his inevitable renown collide in India, he adopts the noble pose, kind and generous, lots of smiles, as if to the manner born. He’s learnt how to be famous, studied hard for the part. That his great renown is due entirely to the fact he’s white, foreign and just happens to be there is beside the point.

Bongo sat beside me. He wasn’t going to say anything. I smiled away, oblivious, thinking my celebrity thoughts, waving at my admirers, waiting for the show to begin. It was taking a very long time.

Still I was getting looked at. There was a sea of bobbing little boy heads in the rows in front of me. They couldn’t get enough.

I turned around. No, nobody behind me – it was me.

‘Why are they all looking at me, Bongo?’ I said.

He wiggled his head just a little bit and pointed to my nose.

‘What?’

He couldn’t bring himself to say but a broad smile just kept breaking out on his dutiful face. He couldn’t help himself. So, with no mirror close to hand and nobody who would tell him what was going on, the eminent Mr. Dogster took a picture of his face.

There, staring back at him, trapped in time in the digital frame, was the image of an old man with bright pink paint smeared all over his face. An attractive pair of pink black eyes, a sweaty forehead swiped with pink, a slash of pink along the nose, a touch of pink on his cheeks. Dogster looked ridiculous, like a pink Red Indian on the melt.

This is the lesson of the flying tika; don’t forget, don’t perspire and never wipe your face.

Bongo was the kind of man who always kept a clean handkerchief in his pocket. I still marvel at this. To my eternal humiliation, and undoubtedly his, that folded, perfect hanky was dripped with mineral water and, as the crowd watched, he cleaned the pink war-paint from my face. It was exactly like submitting to my mother’s wet hanky in the street when I had covered myself with ice-cream as a kid. He attended to his task with efficiency and barely a smile, cleaned me up sufficiently to be presentable and, that drama attended to, the performance began.

The star of the show was a young man with no talent at all and a very strange Cleopatra haircut. He stumbled across to the centre of stage and swayed alarmingly, looking for all the world like Annette Funicello after too many Quaaludes. He was clearly under the influence of quite a few drugs, and in this confused condition, lurched in front of a chattering crowd of wide-eyed country folk from Silghat and proceeded to swallow a retractable tape measure disguised as a sword. It was the most inept piece of magic I’ve ever seen. That stunning display concluded, a black curtain shuddered across the stage and we settled in for another very long wait.

The Sound system started up, a blur and a crackle blasting out Hindi pop songs. It made a squawk and ground to a halt.  I heard banging and a loud crash, a Hindi oath behind the scenes. The wind whipped up the curtain to reveal the magician’s backside facing the waiting throng. He was kneeling over the prone figure of a young girl who had been scheduled to levitate. Alas, her magic had broken leaving her dazed – or dead, on the floor.

He stood up, swept the curtain aside, his face streaked with tears, made an impassioned speech in Hindi and disappeared behind the curtain again. I had no idea what was going on. The music started up again.

Bongo turned to me and rolled his eyes. ‘Let’s go.’

As we headed out I saw the owner, my long-haired greasy friend, charging into the tent, holding up his arms.

‘No refund!’ he was saying, ‘No refund! No money!’ to the protesting crowd. Their protests got louder, their shouts carried through the fairground on the wind.

Bongo dragged me away and across past a row of men sitting on boxes getting shaved. We kept on walking very fast until we were a football pitch away then turned to watch. Back around the tent a crowd had gathered. I saw a pod of brown policemen pushing through, then more shouts, a flurry and a shove. My gypsy hurtled out of the tent backwards and fell heavily in the mud. The crowd scattered playfully as the police marched two men out by the scruff of their neck and led them up the hill. There was a passing glance at their retreating backs then the fair rolled on, resumed its dance without missing a beat.

‘Everything happens at Bihu,’ Bongo said simply and turned away.

*

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