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SILGHAT SHOWBIZ

*

‘What’s this Bongo? What does that say?’

A hand painted sign held great promise; on one side a crude drawing of someone sitting cross-legged holding a stick, on the other a two headed man.

Bongo sighed his ‘it is my duty’ sigh then began to translate.

‘Lord Shi…’

Before he could get any further he was mown down by a magnificently grubby gypsy; an Indian gypsy, admittedly – but a gypsy just the same. They’re a carnival breed, a strain of rogues and reprobates born to gleefully extract money from every stupid punter they could find. Of course, I liked him straight away.

My gypsy began talking and wasn’t going to stop till I gave him money. Inside, he proclaimed loudly, was Lord Shiva himself – come straight down from Paradise for Assamese New Year. He was floating in this very tent. My gypsy flung his arms out wide.

‘Shiva Magic!’

Well, nothing was going to stop the Dog from tasting that magnificence. He loves a visitation.

‘How much?’

Five rupees. Shiva comes cheap in Silghat.

‘I’ll pay for you, Bongo.’

He shook his head. He was sulking already.

Dog launched in to the tent, eager for his pre-paid miracle. A grubby lad hoiked a flap of plastic sheeting aside and there he was, bathed in a ghostly turquoise light; Lord Shiva himself, fresh from heaven; floating in mid-air, just as advertised, unaided by mortal hand.

Shiva Magic, indeed.

*

Once a year in April a tiny township about half-way down the Brahmaputra is flooded with tens of thousands of the surrounding locals, all drawn together for one reason – the show had come to Silghat. So had I.

First and foremost it was about shopping and eating. Kilometres of stalls had sprouted on either side of the road beside the river. From the township to the fair-grounds hundreds and hundreds of roadside shops flogged the usual range of Indian carnival necessities: blown up pink animals, wooden toys, religious paraphernalia, painted piggy banks, bright green plaster parrots, pictures of Lord Shiva, posters of fat naked babies, garlands of plastic flowers; all the fun of the fair – and promenading along this single street was most of Assam, come in from the country for these two great days.

There was a Ferris-wheel, tied together, as usual, with string; a Well of Death where fearless Indian motor-bikers drove round and round a vertical wall while a hundred spectators crammed above, waiting for their advertised fatality; a children’s roundabout, complete with screaming passengers, games of chance, knock ‘em down booths, balloon shooting stalls, dart throwing games – and, from personal experience, some of the worst sideshows in the world.

Lord Shiva was, of course, a local lad sitting on a platform that extended, not very miraculously, from the back of a nearby truck. He was dressed rather like an orange Father Christmas with a thick cotton-wool beard and cotton wool eyebrows. His hair was white, wound in a knot and balanced on his head. Four dreadlocks curled around his chest. Lord Shiva wiggled his head ferociously. Dogster wiggled cheerfully back and feigned great wonder. Lord Shiva knew as well as I that it was the most pathetic miracle he’d ever seen but felt compelled to keep up his part of the bargain. More head wiggling and what might have been a broad Shiva smile – it was impossible to tell under the cotton-wool.

Lord Shiva and Mr. Dogster parted company. I hoped he didn’t have to sit on that plank all day. It was awfully hot. His cotton wool was on the droop.

Under another flap of canvas right next door was the second promised wonder – the two headed man. Hold on to your hats. Here was another unfortunate carnival boy whose punishment it was to sit pressed up against a large mirror in the dark. One visible leg lay extended on one side, his striped shirt pressed up against one edge of the mirror, his head stuck out at an angle. My God, it truly was a two headed man! Incredible!

The two headed man may just have been smiling but the whole thing was so… woeful, I couldn’t really tell. The poor lad looked very uncomfortable and I beat a hasty retreat – I didn’t want to put his neck out of joint. Bongo was waiting outside with my magnificently grubby gypsy.

‘Amazing,’ I said very seriously, ‘truly amazing.’

Bongo looked at me with disbelief. He thought I was mad.

The owner of the sideshow beamed with pride. This was a man with twinkling eyes, a man who made his living out of the sheer, mind altering gullibility of uneducated people. As my gypsy showed me, there truly is a sucker born every minute.

Here I was – right on time. We laughed and shook hands.

‘You’re in the same business as I am,’ I smiled, ‘the bullshit business.’

He had no idea what I was saying. He wiggled his head furiously. I clapped him on the shoulder.

‘Good luck,’ I said, ‘good luck for your bullshit business.’

The show was just about to start at the Rock ’n Roll Bollywood Pop Star Tent.

I was excited. Bongo sighed another of his sighs and led the way. He was far too grown up for all this, far too good to be looking after this enthusiastic retard at his side. I paid for our tickets – twenty rupees a head for this one – and we made our way in through an iron corridor, divided down the centre by a railing with two locked gates at the far end. Above was a sign. It read:

LADIES    in    JEANS

Make of that what you will.

We sat towards the back inside a large plastic tent. There was quite a wind outside. Suddenly a great chunk of yellow plastic roofing flew up, flapped then settled in a not very gentle cloud, on top of our heads. People ran for cover but the emergency was swiftly rectified. Lithe bodies clambered directly over us and yanked the offending plastic back into place. The show would begin – once the house was full. The locals of Silghat swiftly obliged. It was evident that they didn’t get much razz-ma-tazz in their lives.

Let’s hope they were easily pleased; the wayward sheeting was the highlight of the next thirty minutes. In front of a painted backdrop of somewhere that looked like Korea a ‘groovy’ young couple absently mimed and danced to a recorded song squeezed out through the speakers. They finished to a smattering of dazed applause then yielded to another couple who did the same thing – then another – and another – each dressed in progressively more  ‘groovy’ and ridiculous outfits.

Top of the bill was some ‘stunning beauty’ who appeared in rather fewer clothes than the average Assamese audiences are used to seeing – certainly the ripple that went through the audience when she appeared, a mixture of shock from the women and lust from the men, indicated that something out of the ordinary was going on. Her tiny mini dress was hung with plastic pearls under a pink sequinned belt, her back totally bare but for two thin straps, one holding a pink sequinned brassiere, the other holding up a see-through red creation that covered up the front of her. She looked exactly like a dazed Thai lady-boy on a Phuket bar-top, limp, mechanical and dull.

I was the only one thinking this. I looked around. Bongo was visibly puffed up with the erotic charge, leaning forward in his seat, face lit up and eyes alight. He glanced at me with a manly smile and looked back, all ears, all eyes, all male. My guide wasn’t the only young man suddenly glued to the action on stage. This was ‘hot, man,’ as one youth panted, this was raw; this was sex – or the closest these randy lads were going to get to it. It certainly didn’t take much to get these guys off – they lived in a state of permanent sexual frustration, a simmering broth that could boil over at the slightest provocation.

The star of the show pranced around limply for her mimed moment in the sun then, as the grand finale, the whole cast came out on stage to join her. They all mimed badly to another song. I clapped enthusiastically. Bongo looked over and nodded. He loved it. This was the most animated I’d seen him in days.

*

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