Daisy thinks she has left fear behind.
As soon as she picks up the little boy, he bites her red nose only to throw back his head, his eyes dilating before he clamps his tiny hands on his mouth and dissolves into laughter. The red nose is not the tomato he thought it was but a shiny rubber cap that squeaks when pressed. He shakes his head of unruly curls. His laughter is infectious. The birds that had been raucous minutes ago fall silent and the chortle of children is all one can hear. Jessica clicks the photograph that’ll get her an award in the future, but for now, this is their moment of collective happiness.
Daisy looks up at the sky. Will it rain today? The stretch of clouds reminds her of a safety net that will not hold. The children won’t mind when it breaks for it will bring rain and cool breeze and happiness that the net can sieve. There’s not much else, not yet, but these stolen moments in a temporary refuge, where they’ve landed buffeted by winds that they neither comprehend nor forget. Children of asylum seekers. Daisy looks at the young faces and her heart soars. This is why she left home. This is what destiny has designed for her – the smiles she collects and tucks away in her wakefulness, their fluffy weightlessness that she sleeps on, gathering courage in their effervescence. This name that the children have given her – Girl with the Red Nose. Their favourite clown.
Johnny had forgotten this joyfulness. Memory is a ringmaster, the whip in its hand curls and uncurls of its own volition. It has no gender she thinks as she stares at the clouds that have shapeshifted. Somewhere there, among the fluff, she might see Johnny’s grey coils hanging loose at his shoulder, the way they were when they brought him dead to the tent, his payment for the month in his pocket. The amount had been dwindling, like his memory and his height. The taller she grew the more it shrunk. When she finally grew up, she understood: the length of his legs was the length of the stilts he wore at work, the smile on his face the smile of his profession, till the day he began to forget that he was not the vidushaka he had set out to be but a simple clown in a circus that depended on the goodwill of lawmakers. It is their circus I’m serving, he raged, allowing anger to muddle his laughter.
The first time she realized something was amiss was when she invited a friend from school to the circus. The troupe was performing for the newly elected representatives of their city fresh from a victory nobody had expected.
Standing in the circle of light, Johnny stared at his audience, his stilts trembled. She knew the lines of his acts, each word as if she had conjured them out of the dust-filled the air of the circus tent. But that evening, Johnny forgot his lines. She saw him stare at the guests seated before him, his black eyes beady in the harsh light, his white face liquid, dark arching eyebrows and red mouth quivering. For his sake, she wished no one had noticed the anger that was sacrilege for a clown. As the audience waited to laugh, she watched Johnny’s memory fade then return, as if whipped back into action. The eyebrows stopped dancing and he took centre stage once again, the act perfect. The audience roared with laughter. They whistled and clapped. Then she heard the humour change, heard it bite into the still air and silence creep in. Politics was a dirty word. Speaking about it dirtier, and a joker speaking his mind before political masters! Unthinkable. Unexpected. Unwanted. Unappreciated. Unworthy. Unbelievable.
The circus will have to wind up at this rate, the manager fumed.
Johnny swore innocence. How had he uttered sentences that were not part of his repertoire?
Are you forgetting your lines? Daisy asked him through the haze of his cheap smoke.
Memory’s slippage was unstoppable, fantastical. It started the day the election results were announced and continued unabated. She wanted to tell him that losing his memory wouldn’t change the country’s politics.
Daisy stands on the pavement under the awning of a cafeteria and watches the queue of anxious people waiting to submit documents – proof of who they are, or were. A line with no safety harness. For a moment, in the brief interlude that she allows herself, she sees her mother grab the fly bar, swing out and reach for the catcher…
Watching the immigrants, she thinks of the long lines of swinging, swaying humans and animals that had set forth from two parts of a sundered subcontinent carrying memories of home. Then a sudden snapping, and in place of the swinging swaying physicality, congealed detritus – blood sweat semen shit urine innards foetal ooze… The humans on that trapezium between the two countries had been trapped there by other hands; just like these humans stretching out in a line across the road, those humans too had been refugees from other geographies.
She has an hour before Jessica shows up and they leave for work. The first time is always full of uncertainty, but between the two of them, they’ve learnt to break down barriers. Often, she thinks of going back to India, to Mamma, but the thought brings images that she has to will away. The circus, she used to think, was a refuge for people from everywhere. The day Mamma lost her grip, even the circus ceased to be a refuge. She wants to go to the trouble spots of the world, spread laughter. You should have laughter in your heart first, Jessica admonished. That’s the secret, pal, of all clowns, Daisy had retorted.
She orders a cup of coffee and cookies. The queue stretches into the alley. When Johnny began to lose his memory under the arc lights, and Mamma stepped in to reach where he hadn’t gone, Daisy had thought they’d stretched their abilities too far.
Her mother took the circus by storm. A woman who was both a clown and a trapeze artist. When Johnny first came to the circus, Mamma was a unicycle rider; that was before the fair girls from Ukraine and Uzbekistan stole the show. Johnny’s clowning was legendary and controversial. He’d cast himself as the vidushaka of old. He called the shots, drew the crowds, spoke his mind. Unheard of, the manager said. Open your ears, Johnny advised. Daisy couldn’t recall her father’s presence. She wondered whether Mamma remembered him either. Before the year was over, Johnny and Mamma had moved their belongings together into the tent at the very edge of the field from where it seemed as if they could walk into the molten sunset.
Johnny ruled over the circus and the audience till he began to forget his lines and his jokes turned grim. Politics had no place in the circus but Johnny’s tongue let loose the agony and despair in people’s hearts. They thronged the circus.
In the manager’s office, politicians wagged ringed fingers.
One day, they brought home the joker dead.
Your mother’s a clown!
Yes! Daisy could barely keep the excitement out of her voice.
I haven’t heard of female clowns!
Now you have. Shh! Watch!
Daisy nudged her friend and pointed to the stage where her mother had made a neat somersault, her cheeks puffed with the air of minutes ago when she’d jumped off the pedestal board, flipped through the air and landed on two tiny feet, bringing the swinging arc of light to a standstill around her. It was the moment her daughter liked best. She looked at the audience munching on peanuts and popcorn.
So, you’re here, mice and men.
Mamma’s voice could tinkle and grate at the same time and the audience found this bewitching. Her red nose tilted upwards as if cocking a snook at those who came to watch her. They loved the irreverence.
Men and mice. She said again, softer now. Who were the mice? Daisy wondered.
Women, I’ll leave out. You’re a different breed. And cheetahs are banned here.
The women clapped. What were the men then, clubbed with mice?
She hopped into the cone of light in the far right. She peeped into the stands and thrust her hands before her, turned to a side, ducked and laughed. Nah! Your stones don’t hurt me, menfolk. I’m a clown.
Whistles and laughter.
She turned around and leapt towards a rope dangling behind her. Spinning from the rope, she came to a stop and faced the spectators, black eyes shining, red mouth stretched, eyebrows arched, the white of her face impenetrable. Then she ducked again and a long-fingered, long-nailed hand dusted the air in front of her, tracing the arc of the waiting audience. Women! Don’t mind the men. They’ve lost their mind in the rat race. She swung up a rope ladder to a pedestal. When she landed on the floor again, the light swinging in a wide arc over her, mice toppled out of her pockets.
Laughter erupted in the well.
Daisy remembers Mamma doing this the first time after Johnny died. Two years later, the circus moved to another city. They travelled with the troupe for two more years but cities were losing their love for the circus. Daisy and Mamma shifted from the city to a town, to a new circus.
No place, the manager muttered, not bothering to look up from the notes he counted and stashed away in a pouch. He was handsome, more than Johnny; younger too. Daisy looked up at her mother and saw her begin to smile. Have you ever seen a female clown on a trapeze?
She saw two things at once: her mother’s eyebrows dance and their reflection in the manager’s eyes.
Within the month Mamma had swung into the arc light.
Then they moved again; the circus ground was to be used as a transport hub.
Herded like cattle, Mamma said as she looked at a set of masks spread on the mat before her. She was thinking of a new act. We have to keep pace with the times, she said. Soon, no animals will be allowed in the circus. Masks will draw the crowd. Wait and watch. Animal masks, if not the animals.
Another election. The town waited in anticipation of the election result and the circus waited to resume at the edges of this anxiety. The spectators, few in number, seemed to be distracted, the mood heavy, sluggish. Edginess, Daisy learnt, was bad for business. She learnt other things too: Mamma taught her storytelling and mask making and urged her to think clearly, to study well. The Russian gymnasts – Mamma said they were from Ukraine, not Russia, but everybody called them Russians – taught her to turn everyday clothes into extravagant costumes. The fire eater from Kerala fascinated her. Fire in the belly! she thought, watching him practise his art, mouth open, till he would tap her on the nose, making her gulp. She would sit with the other clowns, listening to their stories, but return, time and again, to the Kenyan gymnasts, the friends who taught her to laugh and to sing.
When the circus finally resumed, Mamma said something seemed to have given way. There were few children and women in the audience. She sent Daisy away to college in another town. By the time she came home for the holidays, many of the old acts had been replaced with newer performances. The circus had to survive. Mamma had foreseen this when she started making the masks. Now she had an act in place. With easy grace, she would swing on the trapeze bars, changing masks swiftly as she got into each act. The most popular was an exchange between a clown and a cow in which, the cow, fed up with everybody mollycoddling her, bolts from the stage and refuses to appear before human beings. The cash registers jingled; Mamma became a star once again.
But not for long. It started with grumblings in the stands, occasional angry responses to the cow act, complaints to the manager about it. When Mamma was surrounded on stage by a group of angry men, uniformly dressed, for insulting the cow, the manager decided that it was better to be safe than sorry. Mamma’s defiance over the next few days didn’t go down well. The writing was on the wall. Only stopping the show could save the circus.
Daisy stood at the circus gate watching Mamma walk to the bus stand. She had found out about a mask maker in town. She would exchange the cow masks for those of tigers and lions and cheetahs. Her masked acts were popular, lending drama to the circus, and she wouldn’t let a tiny hindrance stop her. Mamma walked with her head held high, hair tied in a top knot that gave her extra inches, her waist and hips still slim, arms long and rounded, tapering at the finger tips where they clutched the bag of masks. Daisy saw the cow horns and ears jutting out of the bag. From where she stood, they looked real.
She waited through the day. Mamma returned late evening, subdued, top knot undone, emptyhanded.
I told her not to go alone. Your mother doesn’t listen, the manager hissed the next morning.
It took a week for everyone to know the story: The mask maker had refused to take the cow masks, so she had had to buy the new ones, of tigers, lions, baboons, bears… When she turned to leave his shop, he pointed at the cow horns and ears jutting out of her bag. Are you sure you want to carry them through the town?
Mamma was surprised at the question. They’re masks, she said.
Hmm. Lifelike, he responded. Then he said something she couldn’t understand. Be careful.
When the men surrounded her on the street, asking about the cow heads in her bag, she understood the shopkeeper’s warning. Masks, she told them. She was making fun of them, they said, staring her down. She flung the bag of masks at them and ran, clutching only her mobile phone in a plastic, sequinned pouch.
The following week Mamma returned to the trapeze. In the audience were the men who’d accosted her in the market. Fear and fearlessness are both addictive, Mamma used to say. That evening, she clutched at fearlessness but her hand slipped on the fly bar.
Waiting for her friend, Daisy thinks about the learning ahead of her, the practice, the reaching out. She wants to spend the rest of her life travelling where laughter is the only salve, scraping it from the bowels of life, from its ruptured, bleeding innards. But for now, she has to post a letter to Mamma, to tell her that she has fulfilled part of her dream, to tell her that she doesn’t need to stay where she lives in fear. They’re all migrants, some more, some less and the circus is their common refuge. They can make the world their home; they could travel together and make people laugh in those places where it matters most.
By the time Jessica arrives, Daisy has written her letter. They walk down the road to post it. Why not email? Jessica asks. Or phone? Daisy smiles. Mamma loves reading her long, neatly written letters, smell the pages.
Coming back with Jessica from four back to back acts in a refugee camp near the border, Daisy opens the post box to find her mother’s letter.
This letter makes me so very happy. Were you here, with me, telling me about all that you’re doing and plan to do, I would have seen the stars in your eyes and kissed them, taking away their brightness a little, for too much light might dazzle your senses.
Your love and anxiety for me, my wellbeing, my happiness, my health makes me feel like a little girl cosseted and pampered, but from too much fear. Are you afraid, little one? Clowning does not accommodate fear; it breaks through it. It is a revolution, not a putting down of arms or running away, my darling. How far will you run?
I have set down my roots. I cannot think of going away. It’s palpable, this tension, the fear. On a bad day, and there are many of them now, you can touch it, like stagnant water, heavy with the slime of distrust. But then, if you throw a pebble into the murky stillness, you’ll see clear water for a while. All you need do is clear the muck for the light to get through.
Johnny’s death, his forgetting pains you, I know. But he didn’t forget. He remembered too well. That is also a curse, a failing, my love. The more he thought of the present the more he missed the past. Do you realise, with the experience you now have, that caught between an endless time and a slippery one, he couldn’t think of the future?
Spread light, my love. Spread laughter. But listen to me, sweetheart, don’t ask me to run away. And don’t challenge memory, dear one, for while it has a past, it also has a future. Let’s clear the water to reach there.
Much love for you.
I’ve kept a little for myself.
Daisy folds the letter and tucks it under her pillow. Tomorrow she will travel to the edge of the desert again, where children wait to squeeze her red nose.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane is an award-winning writer and independent books editor based in Pune. Her debut collection, Cast Out and Other Stories was published by Dhauli Books in May 2018. Her stories have appeared in various literary journals, online and in print.
Read more on Bengaluru Review: