Prose | Sujoy Bhattacharjee

Those Days of Magic 

Photo Credits : Suhasish Bhattacharjee via Silchar Now

I was on a friend’s bike as we crossed India Club. The road ahead was crowded with people shuffling about trying not to bump against the rickshaws which were also trying to pass through. Gaily dressed children scooted around, blowing loudly on party hooters and toddlers held on tightly to their balloon strings while being carried by their parents.
“Fucking Gandhi Mela! Buggers don’t even leave enough space for a fucking bike!”
My friend kept on muttering and swearing as he struggled to snake through the milling crowd; a task made more arduous by the fact that he was slightly tipsy having had a few beers before he picked me up. By the time we reached the Mela gates, the peanut-sellers and balloonwallahs started appearing along the edges of the road. The smell of generator oil and freshly fried pakoras wafted in the air. Through the dusty haze, I could see the giant charki all lit up and decorated with fairy lights. I suddenly realised that it had been years since I had been to the Mela and was immediately filled with an immense desire to have a go at the airguns. I asked my friend to stop the bike.
“Oi, let’s go and have a shoot”.
He looked at me for a moment with the same expression which he had when I told him earlier in the evening that I had quit smoking and then with a resigned shake of his head asked me to get down. He knew I was a sucker for nostalgia. We found a paan-shop nearby where we could park the bike for some time and then we headed for the airguns. It must have been a sight - me, well past the age to be excited about fairs, walking into the Mela with the enthusiasm of a ten-year old and my friend trudging along miserably with a gait redolent of Inzamam’s after a particularly poor dismissal.
It might seem a trifle silly in hindsight - walking impromptu into a town fair to shoot pellets at plastic animals - but having grown up in an age where the Gandhi Mela was the highlight of the year ranking just below the Durga Puja, the silliness was not uncalled for. Every year, either by design or by accident, the Mela would always coincide with our annual trips to Silchar during the winter vacations and much like the vacations they became a part of my growing up years. For me, my brother and cousins it was a momentous event, the very anticipation of which filled us with much happiness. Rivalling us kids with their enthusiasm, were the women of the family - mamashispishis. For them the Mela was the time to buy thakurer bashon - tiny plates and glasses in which offerings were made to scores of gods and goddesses and which were more appropriate for doll houses than for the serious business of worship. The variety of junk food available might also have been a big pull for all of us because this was the one time when you could indulge in this apparently unhealthy fare without having to be discreet about it.
We would know that the Mela was not far off when it would start cropping up in conversations, mostly right after the Pujas. In letters and fragments of regular conversations, we would get the occasional hint about it:
Yes, we will get it from the Mela.’        
‘No, it wasn’t there the last time but my aunt’s sister-in-law said that they saw it in Netaji Mela’.
The air would be thick with plans for the Mela. The high points of the previous year’s Mela would be discussed and expectations set for the current year. By the time we reached Silchar in the winter, the list of things to buy would have already been drawn up. We would often stay at our mashi’s place which provided even more opportunities for strategising. With telephones being rare, most of the planning was done over tea and paan during familial visits. I came to know later from others that it was not uncommon for people to go to the Mela on multiple days, but for us it was always a single visit unless there was an emergency. Like the time when someone lost their newly bought idol in the Mela but that is a different story.
Once the day for the visit was decided, it was impossible not to miss it. Things were planned well in advance; the chores for the day and the food to be cooked were decided with the primary objective being to be free before the evening. Children throwing tantrums were warned that they better be at their best behaviour or they would be left behind. Money saved throughout the year in nooks and corners of the house and in the knots of old sarees would suddenly reappear and they would be counted and recounted and budgeted for specific expenses. The designated evening would arrive and after some initial anxiety and confusion in gathering everyone together, the entire troupe would head for the Mela grounds in an assortment of rickshaws and autos. The one thing that would often surprise me was that male members were generally missing from the action with the entire outing being planned by the women.
Once inside, controlling and keeping track of everyone was always a mammoth task with each person scurrying in different directions attending to their own interests. With the adults one could at least be sure that they would be back however far they might wander. Not so with the kids though. To add to it, the purported fear of the cheledhora - kidnapper - was always there. There were gruesome stories aplenty of children who were kidnapped from crowded fairs and ended up being sacrificed at the pillars of under-construction bridges. Apparently this practice increased the durability of bridges. These stories would always be there at the back of my mind reminding me to stay close to someone in the group at all times. Starting from the entrance of the Mela would be a row of food stalls selling everything from chaat to roshogollas which, as I look back now, was a very smart marketing move since the crowds would invariably indulge in the choicest snacks before starting their rounds of the grounds. As we would walk across the row trying to decide on what to buy, I would eye the bhujiawalla with envy. Past the bhujiawallas were the stalls selling various sweets - from the humble bundiya laddu to the royal roshmalai. I never had much of a sweet tooth and hence these stalls did not hold my attention. As the others indulged in satisfying their saccharine demands, I would venture to the fortune-telling robot nearby. I was naive enough to believe that the brightly coloured robot with flashing lights was actually a sentient being which could see into our futures. He communicated his predictions to us in chaste Bengali through a pair of headphones which we put over our ears. Being brought up on a staple diet of Sylheti, the predictions of the robot hardly made any sense to me but the experience was interesting nevertheless.
With the pangs of hunger and gastronomic desires satisfied the more important activity of shopping would start. The carefully jotted down lists would be brought out, discussed for the final time and then the group would split into smaller packs of twos and threes striding purposefully towards the vendors displaying their bell-metal dhoopkathi stands and pathorer thalas. This was the time when we children would venture out either with someone who did not have anything to buy or with an elder sibling or cousin. For the chosen sibling or cousin entrusted with the responsibility, it was both an honour and pleasure. It was a confirmation of their growing maturity and at the same time it gave them an opportunity to exert their authority which reflected in the form of a smug smile. Needless to say, this was also the perfect time for children to get lost.
Among the many attractions, it was perhaps the magic show which drew the greatest footfall, with queues of people of all ages thronging to it. Its charms did not fail in entrancing me either and for a number of years the magic show was the single most important reason for me visiting the Mela. Though the Gandhi Mela did draw some famous names, to me it did not matter much who the magician was, whether the tricks were old or new, whether I was watching them for the first or the fifth time – every time I watched a trick, my eyes threatened to pop out in wonder and amazement. Be it the simple trick of conjuring an endless stream of ribbon from a handkerchief or the more sinister one of sawing a curvy beauty into three pieces, each trick was as fascinating as the previous. Most of the shows had some sort of audience involvement, at times as volunteers for a trick and occasionally as scrutinisers, to give the shows an air of authenticity. How I wished to be a part of the show, not just as an audience but as a participant, to be called up on the stage and made to levitate! But it never happened and I had to satisfy myself with the passive act of being a viewer. One particular year, while recounting the magic show in school (I was still in Nagaland then), a very wise friend of mine revealed to me the well-hidden secret behind such shows. He told me that magic shows were all about the magician hypnotising his audience into seeing what was not there. The audience saw what the magician wanted them to see; he implanted images into the minds of the mesmerised audience. My wise friend also told me that I could prevent myself from being hypnotised by taking off my footwear, keeping them upside down and then placing my foot on them during a show. I did not know how to react; one part of me did not want to believe in the revelation which threatened the aura I associated with such shows while the other part found the idea of hypnotism even more appealing. So it was with great anticipation that I walked into the magic show in the next year’s Mela. For those accompanying me, it was just another evening out at the Mela, but for me this show meant a lot. I had spent nights tossing and turning in bed wondering how it would all turn out – would I come out of the show still proud in the knowledge that magic was real, would I come out of the show with the terrible disappointment of knowing that everything that I had seen till now was nothing but trickery or would the magician be so powerful that I would be hypnotised in spite of the overturned sandals. I entered with trepidation and found a place to seat. I gingerly took off my shoes, arranged them upside down, placed my feet carefully on them, looked around furtively to check whether there was anyone noticing and then I sat down.
Of course nothing happened, apart from what seemed like a zillion mosquito bites on my feet that is. The show went on without a hitch; people clapped and held their breath. They hooted and laughed in relief. The magician remained undefeated. I went home happy but something struck me that day, something which told me that there had to be an explanation for everything that the magician did, something which would lead me to buy books on performing party tricks which I never ever practiced, something that made me go home a wiser man…errr boy.
Apart from being entertaining, the Mela was also a place of terrifying sights. Like the one time they brought a dead fish preserved in a glass case. The huge monster with a sickly grey skin was definitely bigger than me and had eyes that were straight out of the stories of ghosts and ghouls. Those dead eyes haunted me for a very long time during which period I steadfastly refused to venture anywhere near a water-body at night. But more terrifying than the fish was someone who was a regular attraction in the Mela. He was a dark, gaunt man with a fearful moustache and protruding white teeth who they said was captured from some remote, unnamed forest. He had a ravenous appetite and would gobble up everything that he was provided. Hair and tubelights, coconut fibre and thermocol - there was nothing he did not devour. People stared at him with wonder and disgust when he ate, which he did with great noise and messiness. To my young eyes, he was the personification of the mythological demons whose stories I had grown up hearing and his very presence made me petrified.
As a boy, I always wanted to ride the giant charki and see the bikers in the deathly pits but these were off limits since they were deemed too dangerous. By the time I could enjoy these forbidden joys, I was in my early teens with a world revolving around Jules Verne and Issac Asimov and cricket scores. The Mela became a place to visit with friends and not with family even though I was still expected to come home early. I was careful not to mention to my parents some of the guys that I went to the Mela with - they weren’t the kind of people that respectable middle class parents wanted their children to be seen with. We walked or cycled to the Mela in small groups and by the time everyone reached the Mela, the group would have had swelled to twenty in size. By that age, the sweet and savouries did not hold much interest for me; neither did the spicy, fried snacks. The talking robot held a wee bit of interest, but it did not evoke the wonder that it once did. The omnivorous eater was just a comical guy whose apparent voracious appetite was a source of much mirth and lengthy jokes.
The things that thrilled were the charki, the Maut Ka Kuan with its bikes and cars and the air guns. With no one to supervise us, I would take ride after ride in the charki till the feeling of having left my stomach behind stopped being a novelty anymore and the fumes from the generator set started becoming unbearable.
The airgun counter was also one of our favourite haunts during that period where we went to hone our non-existent skills with guns. Having spent years watching gun-slinging action heroes on television and imitating their style with toy pistols during Durga Pujas and Diwalis, it was our turn to be the latter day Wyatt Earp. Our targets were the small balloons taped on rotating discs and small plastic animals dangling from ropes. We tried to outdo each other in hitting the targets the most number of times. Some of us, having learned the art of loading the guns over numerous visits, loaded the pellets ourselves with an exaggerated flick of the wrist. This never failed to impress the other customers lined up in front of the counter, especially the ones younger than ourselves. The flicks were of no avail, however, when it came to being an expert marksman and I often noticed that it was the quietest among us who would invariably finish as the best marksman. After spending what was to us a fortune back then (when you consider the number of cigarettes and tennis balls we could have bought) we would finally manage to pull ourselves away for the best part of the evening – the Maut Ka Kuan.  
The Maut Ka Kuan was where we spent most of our time. We stood there at the rim of the pit lined with planks of wood, transfixed by the dizzying stunts that the daredevils performed. Round and round they went along the sides of the well, their bikes and cars rattling the rickety planks. They stood astride their bikes – the man and the machine becoming one – soaking in the excited applause of the spectators. Our unblinking eyes stared at them with awe and respect and through the deafening noise of the stripped-down motorcycles and cars we let out piercing whistles of appreciation. The older ones among us, the ones who had been in the same class for years now, would be more silent trying to fathom the knowledge and learn the skills of looking dashing on bikes. We would be there till the crowd thinned out and the lights started dimming across the Mela grounds, cheering on the performers until our voices went hoarse. We would be among the last few leaving the Mela – a group of rambunctious kids, with the misconception of having grown up. Outside the entrance gates in the dark of the shadows, some of us in the group would smoke surreptitiously, the cigarette cupped in the hand to block the glowing tip. Almost all of us would have a paan or two before we left for home – the non-smokers to show that they weren’t wussies and the smokers to mask the stench of cigarette smoke.
Life changed as I grew up. My interest in the Gandhi Mela started waning and my visits to the Mela decreased gradually over the years until I no longer went there. And when I look back now, I still vividly remember my last planned evening at the Mela with friends (discounting, of course, that spur-of-the-moment raid at the airgun counter with my drunken, reluctant friend). I was in my first year of college and had gone home after the first semester exams. Like me, most of my friends had moved to different cities for their studies over the course of the previous year.  A few though still remained in Silchar. To me it looked like they had changed noticeably since I last met them and I was sure they felt the same about me too. A year spent away in the midst of new people, new interests and new discoveries had created a lot of spaces between us - spaces which each of us respected and did not speak about. Our conversations were polite, cursory and bereft of the banter we once had. We had made grand plans to meet over drinks and then go together to Gandhi Mela but eventually only three of us turned up at the get-together. After a few vodkas we got on the bikes and headed to the Mela. It was very unlike those hectic days of my teens. Instead of a boisterous group there were just the three of us wandering around without purpose, talking about old stuff and catching up on the year gone by. Our disinterest seemed to have rubbed off on everyone in the Mela. The fair looked jaded, the crowd lethargic. Everyone went through their routines as if they were a part of some time-honoured tradition which was too sacred to be broken. I looked around for the familiar rides, those favourite corners where ages ago I had spent many entertaining hours. But that day through the slight haze of the dust-filled air I could see things as they really were. The fortune-telling robot was a scam, its operator fleecing money from those gullible enough to believe in the nonsense that it spewed out from a pre-recorded tape. The gaunt, moustachioed guy who gobbled up everything was not there but others of his tribe of the exploited poor were to be found everywhere. From the deformed dwarf to the underage contortionist everyone was part of the ‘I give you peanuts; you get me the paying spectators; thank you very much’ arrangement. And the Maut Ka Kuan with it stunt bikers - it was just an accident waiting to happen. As we walked around, a stern-looking middle-aged man with his wife remarked something about us reeking of alcohol. My friends took offence and were ready to get into an argument, maybe even more. I, on my part, did not mind. I dragged them away asking them to forget it. Ruining someone else’s evening did not make much sense. We took a ride in the charki for old times’ sake. By the time we got down after a few rounds, the vodka was beginning to take effect. We walked out and had a smoke by the entrance gates where the people passing by eyed us with suspicion. I felt uncomfortable under their gaze. I felt strangely out of place. Standing there that evening, it dawned on me that I did not belong there anymore. The magic of the Gandhi Mela had worn off.
Now, when I think of those evenings spent at the Gandhi Mela, I wonder whether looking back at them through time and space makes them seem more wonderful than they really were. Is it any coincidence then that my most pleasant memories were my earliest ones which were untainted by the opinions and notions formed out of knowledge? These days, I do not hear much about people enjoying an evening at the Gandhi Mela or any other fair for that matter. Maybe the old-world charm of fairs is lost today in this day and age where myriad modes of entertainment vie for attention. I once remember finding a used, weather-beaten ticket for the magic show when I went to fetch a particularly well-struck ball from the boundary in the cricket field close to the Mela grounds. I had stood there holding the ticket in my hand, lost in wistful thinking, until shouts from my team-mates brought me back to terra firma. For a few brief moments, under a blazing sun, that faded piece of paper had the power to transport me back to a wonderful, enchanting place. Is it possible for children to come across such happy serendipities even today?

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