The Silver Linings
[A chance encounter]
Eyes! Angry, sad, grief-stricken, innocent eyes. They seemed to circle him and draw close, suffocating him.The disembodied eyes pierced his mortal shell and burned holes through his soul. Sourabh’s breathing faltered. He felt light-headed as a dark pall clouded his vision.
“Nooooo…!” His blood-curdling scream rang around the empty house.
It was the same, recurrent dream plaguing his nights the minute he closed his eyes. Drenched in a cold sweat and clutching his racing heart, Sourabh swung his legs off the couch. He dragged his bare feet into the kitchen, his fingers twitching towards the decanter. Pouring himself a large peg of whiskey, he gulped it down in one go. His eyes smarted as pure, unadulterated liquid courage coursed down his throat burning the traces of sleep and reality.
As he stumbled towards the washroom, the ghosts of his bold, athletic, ambitious past mocked at him from the scores of photo frames on the walls. Mementos of earlier days of glory and revelry now biting the dust in oblivion. He gripped the stone basin for support and splashed some cold water on his face to chase away the vestiges of the nightmare. The mirror reflected the current reality– a gaunt, defeated man with shoulders drooping under the burden of guilt and recriminations.
Brash, intrusive, beady-eyed were words that could have fit him to a “T”. Sourabh was like a blood hound for news and sensationalizing them was something, he specialized in. At thirty, he was on a fast track to the top floor of his news channel until the fiasco with Vikas Sinha put a brake to his ascension to the highest rung of journalism. The scandal and its aftermath pushed him over the brink into a free fall of disrepute and guilt. And sadly, there was no one to stop his downward spiral. Friends and colleagues avoided him like the plague, disassociating with him. And family…
He dialed his father’s number once again only to hear,“The number you have called is currently not reachable.”
Not reachable – physically and emotionally too. His father, a retired school master could never see eye-to eye with his only son at the best of times, but after the Sinha’s case he was absolutely horrified by his son’s role in it. The pandemic and constant lockdown had now driven a wider wedge between them.
The deafening silence in his house and his life gnawed at his conscience. Once a snazzy dresser, he threw on the first clothes he could find and left his house. Wandering around the city streets, Sourabh searched for an inspiration to start over.
Wading through the narrow, dingy by-lanes, lost in myriad thoughts, a sudden burst of color caught his attention. He saw it disappear around the corner. ‘Was it a bird?’ he wondered but he was yet to meet one with balloons for its plumes. For a moment he wondered if his lack of sleep was making him hallucinate for he distinctly felt that it was a little boy in a clown’s garb. His unusual appearance in a rather gloomy day, fueled Sourabh’s curiosity and his journalistic nose led him to follow the fast-disappearing balls of color. He arrived at a squat, dilapidated house.
As soon as he stepped inside the compound, he was swept up in a flurry of color and giggles. Several children danced and circled the little boy who handed them a balloon each and awed them with his antics. Their delight was contagious, and Saurabh found himself cracking a smile. That is when he noticed that the boy was a fully-grown man, albeit not in height as much as in age.
Saurabh did not remember the last time he met a clown. He had been to the circus a couple of times as a kid but since then his, and in general the society’s interest in the circus had dwindled almost to the point of extinction. Was there a visiting circus around? Gosh! He had forgottenthat such a thing existed. The sudden arrival of a clown in his dull, dreary day made him take a step back and observe the unusual character.
He was all of four and a half feet including the tip of his bobbling hat. The oversized clothes he wore hung limply on his thin, frail structure. His multi-coloured wig had seen better days. Bold strokes of paint and bushy brows tried to cover the fatigue lines and hollowed eyes. Sourabh almost barked out a laugh seeing that he had cleverly and consciously worn a face mask and painted a big toothy smile over it, securing it in place with a bulbous nose. Ashis eyes hovered over the scene in front of him, he realised that they were standing in front of a temporary shelter set up for orphans of the pandemic.
A gut-wrenching feeling took hold and his heart went out to the hapless victims of the pandemic. Looking at the man spreading joy and smiles selflessly, Sourabh felt ashamed. The thought to help others had never crossed his mind ever.
“Care for a cup of tea?” The unexpected question roused him from his musings. He looked into the smiling eyes of the clown, so much in contrast to his weathered face. Sourabh sensed a story of life, love and loss hidden deep within. His ears rang with the whirling of a film roll and an idea took root in his mind.
“Hi, I’m Sourabh. I am a news..err.. I am a story writer.” He provided uncertainly. “I don’t know who I am anymore” he murmured more to himself.
“I’m Anand. Well, that was my name at birth but for as long as I can remember, I respond to Chhotu.” He shrugged nonchalantly.
“Chhotu, would you mind if I wrote a story about you?” quipped Sourabh with hopeful eyes.
[A walk down memory lane]
“My story?” Chhotu’s eyes widened. Never had anyone asked about him; shown any interest in how his life had been. For the world, he was a mere clown, an entertainer, someone who is always happy and hilarious. Owing to his short stature, he was often overlooked and disregarded, shunted to the sidelines. So the sudden focus and interest in his life baffled him. “Why do you want to know about me?” he asked.
“Believe it or not, right now you are a welcome ray of sunshine, dispelling the heavy fog of inertia enveloping my mind. I could use some of the joy and positivity you exude” confessed Sourabh.
“Joy and positivity!” Chhotu chuckled lightly. “I know clowns are supposed to be funny and happy, but the reality of my life has been far from it. Yet, I have survived so far because I had promised to…,” his voice tapered off in a remembered catch.
Sourabh urged him to go on. Chhotu mentally shook away the cobwebs of time that had obliterated his memories. Of a time before he became ‘Chhotu’. ‘Anand’ his mother had fondly named him.
20 years ago…
“Anand, come sit beside me. Tell me about your day at school.” His mother patted the space beside her.
Anand couldn’t tell her the truth. The truth was that he was bullied mercilessly. It was a secret, he carried one academic year to next. As years rolled by, Anand’s classmates had grown in height and confidence. But Anand, despite all his efforts grew at a stagnated rate. His short stature made him an object of ridicule and bullying. His sole reason for continuing with the school was the drama class. The rough, wooden planks that worked as a makeshift stage under the shade of the old banyan tree were his solace. But that was a short-lived joy too. Due to lack of participation, the drama club was shelved. The only people who missed it was the teacher who lost his job and Anand who felt ‘lost’.
Anand looked at his mother, smiling. No, he couldn’t’ tell her what happened at school. She wasn’t pretty by any standards, but an inner warmth shone through her. Her tanned, creased face and tired eyes always lit up for him. To her, he meant the world and she protected him at all costs. Even from his abusive, drunkard father. His father, ever since he could remember, was an irascible man. Discovering that his son was likely a midget, embittered him further. His mother bore the brunt and the scars of his verbal and physical lashings.
One dark, stormy night his father arrived late, with a repulsive stench of sweat and hooch. There was a murderous glint in his eyes. His mother saw something in his expression that alarmed her. She pushed Anand out of the house and asked him to run as fast and as far as he could. “Go! Never look back. Be happy my son.” She choked out the words and slammed the door shut.
Anand wobbled and slipped in the rain-soaked muddy path but kept going. His mother’s piercing scream was the last thing he ever heard from her. He turned back but the memory of his mother’s beseeching eyes spurred him along. He kept running, until he came across a travelling circus camped on the outskirts of the village. They pitied the lost, little boy and allowed him to travel along with them.
Initially, Anand did all sorts of odd jobs for them to earn his food and shelter. But the stage and spotlights beckoned him.
One day, after the rehearsals, he stayed back gazing at the lights, the high ropes and the trapeze swings. He imagined an audience cheering for him, flashes of lights as people captured his performance. He smiled widely and broke into an impromptu dance, imitating the circus animals that he loved. He rolled like the dogs, hobbled like the monkeys, and screeched like the macaws. He was having the time of his life, when a grotesque shadow approached him. He screamed as he saw a twisted face, with a lopsided smile and rivulets of red running down the corners of its mouth.
“Don’t be scared”, the shadow slurred. He recoiled at the familiar stench and for a moment thought his father had found him. But then he noticed the billowy clothes and colourful wig. He was a circus joker and one drunk joker at that!
“Little boy, would you like to try this wig on? And the bulbous nose?” he asked.
Anand apprehensively held his hand out and donned the wig and nose.
“Now, do the same act that you were doing before. Forget that I’m here.” He nudged.
Anand closed his eyes and pirouetted like a ballerina. He cart-wheeled around with glee. He jumped up high with arms and legs extended and in the next moment, fumbled and fell flat on his face. A raucous laughter echoed around the empty tent. The laughter, guffaws and tears of joy continued as Anand became ‘Chhotu’, the adorable little clown. He became the star performer in every act. Even found a place on the posters promoting the circus. Years passed followed by decades and Chhotu became a permanent fixture in the circus, his new home. He was content but far from happy as the bullying continued. He became a punching bag during the drunken revelries. He often thought of leaving, but being a clown was all he knew.
And Olga! She was a trapeze artist. Her ethereal beauty, delicate contour and pale gold tresses enchanted all and sundry. Chhotu never thought she would ever notice him. But they bonded over jokes and hot cups of tea. He loved making her laugh. She had a lilting laugh and a smile as bright as a thousand suns. Chhotu was irrevocably and hopelessly in love with her but settled for being her friend.
But that too turned short lived. The advent of glitzy malls, reality shows, and OTT entertainment changed the face of what one considered as entertainment. It eclipsed the popularity of humble performing arts such as the circus. It became difficult to keep the circus afloat. Finally, it was decided to disband the circus indefinitely. Many troupe members returned to their hometowns. Chhotu had nowhere to go, so did Olga due to her illegal immigration status. The day before he left, Chhotu gathered some courage to ask her to come with him. But just as he arrived at her tent, he saw her meagre luggage packed and ready. She was waiting for someone.
“Are you going somewhere?” he asked plaintively with his heart on his sleeve.
She blinked back her tears and nodded morosely.
“The owner has offered to take me along with him.” She said avoiding his eyes.
The meaning was loud and clear. Anger and pain surged inside him but he had to let her go.
In a matter of days, he lost the only life he knew along with the means to sustain himself. Chhotu had hit his lowest point but he remembered his mother’s last words. He took a bolstering breath and left for the nearest city.
To put food on his table, Chhotu started using his clown’s garb and sweltered it out in front of ‘Kids Kemp’, a large kids wear store in Bangalore. When the shop wound up, he trudged from one mall to the next knowing very well that his days as a clown were numbered. Even the young kids, his biggest cheerleaders, now preferred mobile games over a living, breathing performer. Despite pouring his heart out and making a royal fool of himself for a few chuckles, all he received were indifferent, disinterested and disdainful looks. He just about made ends meet, when the pandemic struck and the malls closed.
To make things worse, he tested positive to the new strain of the virus. Chhotu fought the disease half-heartedly, waiting for the blessed end to come. There was nothing to look forward to. But it seems, even God didn’t need a jester. He survived where many others, more deserving, failed and succumbed to the deadly virus. He was discharged with a big question hanging over his head “Why me?”. Why was he given a new lease of life instead of countless others with families and prospects? Chhotu cursed himself for being blessed with a second chance when he saw the broken families and orphaned children. But after weeks of self-incrimination, he dug his head out of the pity-hole that he had buried himself in. He was offered a second chance and instead of wasting it away wallowing in self-pity, he needed to use it to do the only thing he knew best – spreading joy and smiles.
[A Sliver of hope]
Sourabh staggered back on the wooden plank they sat on. His heart was heavy with emotion listening to Anand aka Chhotu’s story. Life had been unfair to him many times over, but he still stood up tall and tried to offer more than he received. It is true indeed! Inspirations come in all forms and sizes and in the most unexpected ways.
It seemed a lifetime ago, when Sourabh had raced through life at a break-neck speed showing scant regard for the lives and emotions of others. Wearing his invincible cloak, he played God, having the propensity to make or wreck the fate of others. Working in the newsroom they were always on a lookout for breaking news. And hence, when the ‘debutante’ starlet made a claim that she was touched inappropriately in a flight, he went all out dissecting the life of Vikas Sinha. Every small incident right from his school and college days was rehashed and every remark of his taken out of context to prove that he was not the upright businessman he claimed to be. The kangaroo court ensured that Sinha lost his reputation, business, and his friends.
The ‘very public’ suicide of Vikas Sinha along with his wife and two adolescent children sent shockwaves through social media. The netizens and other news channels turned their ire on Sourabh. The starlet retracted her statement and exclaimed that her remarks were ‘blown out of proportion.’ Sourabh resigned wondering why and when he had turned this inhumane. The bodies of the four and the eyes of the aged parents haunted him for months.
Until he met Chhotu, he had lost all sense of direction and purpose. But Chhotu’s optimism even in the face of failures, inspired him to start over. Sourabh decided to do the only thing he was best at – telling stories.
Over endless cup of tea and bajjis.. Chhotu’s life unfolded first on paper then from the other side of the lens, ending in the acclaimed documentary that gave Saurabh a new lease of life. ‘The Silver Linings’ was thus born, capturing stories that brought hope and smiles amidst the turbulent times.
One month later…
Sourabh and Chhotu, stood at the window of the former’s new home at Jalahalli, sipping hot cup of tea. They watched as the ‘master artist’ painted the setting sun with a riot of colors, as the birds returned home to the verdant canopy of trees. In the background, their first documentary was being played showing a clown with multi-hued balloons, meandering away whistling a merry tune –
“Kal khel main hum ho na ho, gardish main taare rahenge sada…
Rahenge yahin apne nishan, iske siva jaana kahan.”
Bajji: A deep fried vegetable snack similar to fritters
Kal khel main hum ho na ho, gardish main tare rahenge sada.. Rahenge yahin apne nishan, iske siva jaana kahan: A famous song from the movie ‘Mera Naam Joker’. It means ‘Even when we cease to exist, the stars would still shine on. We will leave our impressions behind. Where else would we go.’
Team: The Fictionistas
Authors: Chandrika R. Krishnan and Mithila Peshwe
Photo Courtesy: Zachary Kadolph – unsplash.com