Home Is Under the Big Top

THE big circus tent looms up out of the monsoon mist, standing forlorn in a quagmire of mud and slush. It has rained ceaselessly for two days and nights. The chairs stand about in deep pools of water. One of two of them float around with their legs in the air. There will be no show for the third night running, and tomorrow there will be problems, with the ring-hands to be fed and the ground rent to be paid: a hundred odd bills to be settled, and no money at the gate.

Nina, a dark, good-looking girl - part Indian, part Romanian - who has been doing the high-wire act for several years, sits at the window of a shabby hotel room and gazes out at the heavy downpour.

At one time, she tells me, she was with a very small circus, touring the remote areas of the Konkan on India's west coast. The tent was so low that when she stood on her pedestal her head touched the ceiling-cloth. She can still hear the hiss of the Petromaxlamps. The band was a shrill affair: It made your hair stand on end!

The manager of a big circus happened to be passing through, and he came in and saw Nina's act, and that was the beginning of a life of constant travel.

She remembers her first night with the new circus, and the terrible suspense she went through. Suddenly feeling like a country bumpkin, she looked about her in amazement. There were more than 20 elephants, countless horses, and a menacing array of lions and tigers. She looked at the immense proportions of the tent and wanted to turn and run. The lights were a blinding brilliance - she had never worked in a spotlight before.

As the program ran through, she stood at the rear curtains waiting for her entrance. She peeped through the curtains and felt sure she would be lost in that wide circus ring. Though her costume was new, she suddenly felt shabby. She had spangled her crimson velvet costume with scarlet sequins so that the whole thing was a red blaze. Her feet were sweating in white kid boots.

She cannot recall how she entered the ring. But she remembers standing on her pedestal and looking over her shoulder to see if the supporting wires were pulled taut. Her attention was caught by the sea of faces behind her. All the artists, the ring-hands, and the stable boys were there, eager to look over the new act.

HER most critical audience was the group of foreign artists who stood to one side in a tight, curious knot. There were two Italian brothers, a family of Belgians, and a half-Russian, half-English aerial ballet artist, a tiny woman who did a beautiful act on the single trapeze.

Nina has no recollection of how she got through her act. She did get through it somehow and was almost in tears when she reached the exit gate. She hurried to the seclusion of her dressingroom tent, and there she laid her head upon her arms and sobbed.... She did not hear the tent flaps open and was surprised at the sudden appearance of the tiny woman at her side.

"Ah, no!" exclaimed the little trapeze-artist, laying a hand on the girl's head. "Never tears on your first night! It was a lovely act, my child. Why do you cry? You are sensitive and beautiful in the ring."

Nina sobbed all the more and would not be comforted by the kind woman's words. Yet it was the beginning of a friendship that lasted for several years. The woman's name was Isabella. She took the young girl under her wing with deep maternal care.

She showed Nina how to use ring makeup and what colors looked best at night. She was nimble-fingered and made costumes and coronets for the girl, and taught her grace in the ring. Once she made a blue and silver outfit. The first night Nina wore it, she performed solely for her friend, although the circus tent was crowded and appreciative.

The circus was kind to Nina, and she grew used to its ways. It was the outside world that puzzled her sometimes. What did her audiences think, she wondered. Did they see more than a winged stranger, green and gold and blue, hovering above them? Did they know that once she returned to the solitary square of her small dressing-room, she often crept outside the tent to hear the wind singing in the trees? Did they know that she wrote poetry?

Whenever she glanced at a map of India, the towns were not merely dots with names. They were familiar to her because the circus had been there, and she called each name softly. They sprang alive, clothed in the mood in which she had committed them to her memory. She loved the smaller towns and villages, she liked the dusty roads and the damp smell of the fields, the tall swaying stalks of sugar cane, the bright yellow carpets of mustard.

AS the rain streams down outside, she sits at the window of her small hotel room, remembering all these things, bringing them to life for me. The room has bright green walls and cobwebs in the corners. The open window frames the sky and solitary peepul tree, and she is grateful for both. At twilight the birds come to roost.

There is an old bedraggled crow that comes faithfully to perch on the parapet opposite the window. He has seen a good deal of life, this crow, for his feathers have long since lost their gloss. He cocks his head to one side and regards the girl intently.

"Hello, old crow," she says. At the sound of her voice he grows uneasy, spreads his wings and dives into the rain with his scrawny neck stretched taut. Nina, too, is restless. She is longing for the high, bright, private world above the circus ring.

The ring, she tells me, has a way of welcoming its people back. And the tent, faded and old, drenched as it is at present, is a better home than a lonely room in a shabby hotel.

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