“Where’s the bear?” the man shouted in a loud voice for the third time. Annamalai could not make out what he was saying.
He merely lifted his head and looked at the man.
The drums were making a terrible noise. Annamalai only understood what he was saying when the man mimed a bear in the midst of the commotion and said “where?”. He pointed in the direction of the Municipality shelter.
The man turned his head to that direction. Four or five people turned to look together with him. A bear and tiger were walking towards them on two legs.
The two of them disappeared into the crowd amidst the shouts of children and blinding flashes from cameras and mobile phones. They tried to clear some space so that they could dance.
How time changes so many things!
There had been a time when the crowd would part with fear when the man in the tiger costume, after bathing at the town water pump in the afternoon so as to be prepared in time for the night performance, painted his body with yellow and black paint, tied a tail made of some indeterminate material to his waist string, fiddled with it to make it look like a tiger tail, and walking barefoot because no self-respecting tiger would walk in shoes, approached the performance area on all fours, transforming his hands into legs, shaking his head this way and that, letting out deep-throated growls. That time was long gone.
This tiger was wearing a faded and dirty yellow and black costume fitted with a zip over its body. It was wearing a plastic tiger mask fitted with cat’s whiskers over its face, the whole thing held to the face with a rubber band that went around the back of its head. Children laughed when they saw this tiger. Some brave children even came up to touch it. Pulled its tail. The rubber tail fixed to the back looked like it could come off any time.
Yet, the only thing that has not changed until now is the commotion caused by the Pappampatti drums. The passing years had tried in many ways to change them, but failed. They had tried making the drum skins out of fibre instead of cow skin. Even they could not stand the sound the fibre produced. They had gone to four or five different places to look for cow skin. It was only after they had tightened the skins over the drums, and tuned them, that the sound of the Pappampatti drums were once again heard in the neighbouring villages. From then, Pappampatti had been careful to ensure that its distinctive sound remained its own.
It wascommotion caused bythese drums that had cancelled out the loud shout coming from the depths of the man’s throat asking about the bear. There was a huge crowd of a size never seen before in front of the church. The children who had been liberated from their houses were jumping up and down, creating a terrific noise. It was a freedom born of keen expectations.
The bear and tiger had by now created a circle. In the middle of the noise, the bear dragged a small boy who had been watching from the side-lines into the circle. There was an expectation that the boy would burst into tears, but the boy defied these expectations and instead punched the bear on its plastic face. The bear stumbled a bit and held on tightly to the boy’s hands to keep them from moving. It was hilarious to watch the bear.
Someone must have given the signal. The procession started to move slowly. There was a quite a distance between Paapaampatti and Chettiput at that point.
The traffic slowed a little and then picked up speed. People in the vehicles used that slight pause to lift up their mobile phones to capture the sights and sounds.
It was already dark when the procession entered the bungalow compound. There was rain in the air. The sound created by the drums changed. Munusamy had collected a small pile of straw, dry sticks and leaves in the southern corner and was busy setting them alight. He knew everything. The drum skins became flaccid in moist air. Only heat would make them firm again. He had studied this as carefully as a scientific principle.
The eleven men stood before the fire during the short pause created when the procession entered the compound. Only Munusamy was sitting on his haunches in front of the fire. They proceeded to heat the drum skins over the fire. They noticed the bottles which glittered just beyond the light thrown up by the fire. But only two of the drum troupe touched them.
If it had been six or seven years ago, all of them would have rushed toward the bottles. Several old age deaths, social changes over time and a sense of self-respect had severely affected and changed the members of the troupe, making them more stable.
Munusamy sometimes lost, and sometimes won, in his battle against the bottles.
“Wait until the show is over, boys. No one should say that we will fall the minute someone shows us a single bottle.” Munusamy’s voice could be heard in their midst.
The two hands that had reached out for the bottles had done so despite Munusamy’s warning. He did not stop them. They had to tie a big drum around their necks and dance. The pain would be excruciating. Let them drink so as to forget the pain. If restrictions became too strict, there was always a chance that something would fall apart.
This was how the troupe lost Dhanapal. There had been no one else who could handle the big drum like him.
Munusamy asked for water from someone in the crowd. A container filled with water arrived half-an-hour later. It was only then that a boy ran to the warden’s house to fetch a cup.
There was a large crowd before the bungalow now. A tall, black man with an unshaven face held a microphone in his hand. He announced that the Paapampatti troupe would perform with the drums and dance for them. The crowd applauded wildly just for that announcement. There were about fifty foreigners in the crowd. All of them had a camera in their hand. The women were all wearing loose tee-shirts, as if by design. No one noticed the women after the drums started playing.
Munusamy stood in the centre. He had a small drum tied to his waist. He hit both sides of the drum with two slender rubber sticks he held in his hands. The drum shivered and gave out a shrill cry. The other eleven members of the troupe started hitting their drums in unison, as if they had been waiting for this very signal. The movement was furious. The earth under their feet shook, sending up clouds of dust. The white foreigners moved about taking pictures on their cameras.
The white women moved into the crowd at an unexpected moment, and started dancing. The dancers in Munusamy’s troupe became even more frenzied and started beating their drums, almost as if they wanted to tear the very skins of the frames. Their twirling drew everyone’s attention. Their feet, which did not have wheels, spun in all directions. Drawn to the high pitch of emotion, a white girl drew the young man playing the big drum close to herself and kissed him on his forehead. He did not seem to notice the kiss. He was entirely absorbed in the dance.
Now the big drum jumped up high, reached its highest pitch and quietened down. The Paapampatti drummers sat down in the front row as Annamalai’s troupe moved forward to perform. The white women continued to take photographs.
The bear and tiger belonging to Annamalai’s troupe ran into the compound chasing each other and playfully pretending to catch each other. The drums, pipes, stringed instruments and hand drums around them started up again, slowly reaching a crescendo. Each instrument seemed to throb with the desire to outdo Paapampatti.
They sat their watching the bear and the tiger without the slightest trace of fatigue after having danced so long. Instead there was clear disappointment in their faces at having been made to sit down so soon.
Annamalai Master realised almost at once that the bear and tiger were not performing to the crowd’s expectations. He had two torches and a bottle full of blue colour kerosene in his hands. He walked around like a forest tiger. Like the measured steps of a tiger before it pounced on its prey. As if pushed forward by a desperate feeling of powerlessness.
He grabbed the dancing bear by its arm and pulled it into the darkness.
“Why are you dancing like shit today?” he asked.
No one could have seen the bear’s expression through the mask he was wearing.
He quickly removed the mask. Annamalai could see the tears in his eyes even in the dark.
“Go, go take off this nonsense and come back ready for the torch.”
The bear meekly obeyed. It climbed the bungalow steps and went to the verandah.
The next moment he came to the darkness of the cassia tree where Annamalai was standing, wearing just a pair of shorts, with traces of old make up all over his body.
The torches and kerosene were in his hands within an instant.
Thallakulam Ramesh who had just a short while ago danced in that very space dressed like a bear now turned to every direction, his hands pressed together in greeting. He had applied red lipstick to his lips.
He tilted the bottle, and smeared kerosene all over his body. He wet the cloth at the tip of oil torch in the kerosene. He filled his mouth with kerosene as if he was drinking a mouthful of water. He turned towards the darkness where Annamalai had been standing, but he was not there.
Come, come teacher, come, burn me, smother my body with flames, set me on fire, I will surely come back from all of that. But don’t call my dance shit. Worthless. My dance may have lost its shine in the midst of this great noise. But still, my dance is a great fire. How will it be put out by this little wind? It will grow larger, the fire of the end times will grow larger.
Annamalai came out from a different corner, his face without any emotion. He had a box of matches in his hand.
He cupped his hand against the wind, and struck the match. The match lit up and was quickly extinguished by the wind. It burned brightly when Annamalai struck it against the matchbox a second time. The fire was transferred to the torch in an instant.
Ramesh danced with the fire in a frenzy. He rose all alone in a boundless space. The crowd moved back slightly away from him. There was fear in the children’s faces. Mothers pressed their children close to their bodies.
He spat out the kerosene in his mouth every few minutes, aiming it at the burning tip of the torch. The flames of the fire shot up almost to the top of the cassia tree before they died down again. To the crowd around him, Ramesh seemed to have grown to fill the space between the ground and the top of the cassia tree.
The crowd, which had been rowdy and noisy until just a while ago, was now still.
Annamalai’s words had obviously burned the bear even before this.
He now slowly rolled the burning torch on his dark body which had been smeared with kerosene. The smell of singed hair filled the space. He brought the fire to the other parts of his body which had been doused with kerosene.
The voice of a girl rose up from within the crowd. It was the voice of a village girl who had lost her father. Everyone turned to look in the direction from which the voice came. The girl had buried her face in her lap.
Ramesh was working himself into a wild state, spitting the two litres of kerosene in his mouth upward towards the fire.
Annamalai Master could now be fully seen in the light of the torches. His face shone with the satisfaction of having achieved something. The crowd was deadly quiet until the end of the torch dance.
A girl ran out of the crowd and pressed fifty rupees in Ramesh’s hand.
Ramesh thanked the girl by pressing both his hands together. The girl stood next to him and turned around to look at someone in the crowd. The flash from a mobile phone camera went off in the darkness.
The black man came back into the compound. He did not have a microphone in his hand now. His voice was subdued. His face was tight, stony. As if he did not wish to break the silence before him.
‘Next, our traditional street dance-drama. The Battle of the Thirteenth Day from the Mahabharata” he said, finishing his announcement abruptly.
After a grand cacophony of drum-beats, Duryodhana came bounding into the compound. His entrance was obviously intended to lighten the crowd.
The space was still filled with the smell of kerosene. Kerosene drops which had spilt on the ground shone in the light.
Here, the entry of Krishna. The loud music suddenly became gentle. Krishna walked in, his steps both masculine and feminine at the same time. They were steps that no one else had walked before. The jewellery he wore, his clothes, the round face painted blue, the stick in his hand. The crowd became totally absorbed in him in just a minute.
Ramesh, who had managed to bathe by then, had changed into a shirt and jeans. He was sitting in the front row. The smell of kerosene still hung over his body.
Krishna, using his body and his voice, drew the crowd to himself. With the exception of the kerosene smell, the boundless attractiveness of Krishna’s blue colour drew all thoughts in that compound to itself.
The screen parted, and Thaangal Segar who was playing the part of Krishna entered the compound, singing. His voice was as clear as crystal. The music slowly rose and reached the summits of a crescendo, thrilling slightly at the end. His speech was just as musical. The crowd seemed to be lost in a half daze.
Krishna looked at each one in front of him, measuring them with him calm eyes. His enthusiasm grew on seeing the Radhas and Gopis in front of him. Krishna was drawn by their pleasant scent. His heart glowed seeing the eyes that were attracted to his body, the eyes that were staring hard at the jewellery he was wearing, the women who swooned at his voice.
The bear sitting in the front row rose, inspired by a feeling he could not understand. It tried to hug Krishna who was standing just a hand’s reach away mesmerising the entire crowd with his magic. The jewellery that Krishna wore prevented him from doing so. So what? The bear reached over and planted a kiss on Krishna’s blue cheek.
The bear pressed the wet, crumpled fifty rupee note in its hand to Krishna’s chest. Krishna hugged him tightly to himself. Both of them pressed their hands together, paying their respects to the crowd.
The crowd applauded and then went quiet.
Thallakulam Ramesh, otherwise known as the bear, looked at the crowd intently. It seemed to him that the kerosene he had spit out just a while ago was shining on the faces before him.