Fiction / March 2017 (Issue 35)


Strange Love

by Siddharth Sridhar

I caught Raju five months before my son was born. The minute I saw him in the trap, I knew the Gods were smiling on me that day. He was just the right age, flawless except for a slightly injured paw. I tied him to a pole, hoisted him on my shoulders and left the forest quickly. The mother would still be in the area, you see. I had a machete, but what good would that do against a ferocious full-grown bear?

Once home, I put him in Kala's cage thinking it might settle him down. Kala sniffed at him for a few seconds but didn't seem particularly interested. Her eyesight was worsening. I knew she was going to die soon. I knew the signs.

It is a difficult time for the animal and his master, the first few days. The cub was bewildered in his new surroundings; we could not sleep at night for the rooting and moaning that echoed around the hut. I could tell Kala was agitated, and it was a relief for her when we went out to work in the morning. But there is no rushing these things, no point beating the little son of a bitch as if he were a street urchin. He would understand things in time. I treated him well, applying an herbal salve to his paw even though he did his best to scratch my eyes out. I even gave him fresh honeycomb, a straight road to any bear's heart, but the cub remained intractable.

Oddly enough, it was my son's birth that finally settled him down. As if Lord Yama was keeping a chequing account of my sorrows, he took my wife and Kala within a few days of each other, but gave me a son and a docile Raju in their place. Raju's training began the night we cremated my wife by the banks of the Kaveri. Gentle old Kala's carcass went to Karim Khan's abattoir. There was some money to be made out of it, he said, medicines and the like. He probably swindled me on the deal, the old crook.

Training a bear is just like raising a child. I smack you when you've been bad and give you money for jalebis when you are good. The same system works with bears. The master must use punishment wisely when training a bear—just enough to show the animal a way forward without blinding him completely. And there are several types of pain. Simply whipping such a thick-skinned animal as if he were a donkey is useless. Instead, we use the method employed by Lord Krishna in his great battle with the king of bears, Jambavan.

I ringed Raju after applying sandalwood paste on his forehead and a charm amulet around his neck. I had given him toddy instead of milk; he was so intoxicated that he only hoofed and half-raised a paw as I pierced his nasal septum with a poker and inserted Kala's old nose-ring through the cavity. A sturdily knotted piece of rope through the ring and the job was finished. Raju was ready.

He was furious when he recovered, banging the bars of his cage with all his strength. I stood watching him, the rope in my hand. And then I pulled. He stood up, in silent agony, his head striking the top of the cage. That was enough for the first day. He had learnt his lesson. I left him an extra-large piece of honeycomb and warm milk.

I tell you this honestly, Raju was the smartest bear I ever trained. He grasped the formula of our relationship rapidly. Within days, he had mastered all of Kala's old tricks and a few new ones, too. He learnt to hold a cricket bat and ride a cycle faster than my son. I cajoled him with treats, and he always knew I had the rope in my hand. I developed a carefully adjusted system of retribution, modifying the pressure on his nose-ring in exquisite harmony with the extent of my displeasure. He took my silent hints, standing, walking, hopping, doing whatever he could to keep the rope slack.

You have to understand that my position was always a precarious one. Not as much from personal danger—his claws and teeth had been filed blunt—as from the intoxicating sense of power that afflicts snake charmers, bear trainers, mahouts, circus masters and all our creed. I had to keep myself in check as much as I did Raju. Pain was my weapon, and I had to use it responsibly. The creature in front of me was as defenceless as my infant son.

There was one more act to master before we took to the streets—the dance. This was the highlight of any bear act, the fitting finale that would bring the rupee notes really flooding in. I do not particularly care for Bollywood music myself, preferring the folk tunes of my village childhood. But nothing sells like Bollywood, and Raju would have to learn to like it.

How do you teach a bear to dance? There are probably as many different tricks as there are bear trainers. My method, a modern adaptation of a family secret, is to use a corrugated iron sheet, borrowed from the roof of my hut, placed on a bed of coals. I led Raju onto the iron sheet. He was nervous and pawed at the unfamiliar metal. His hind legs were chained, but he was allowed some mobility. I lit the coal and started playing an upbeat track. Within seconds, the heat was in his paws and Raju bayed, an awe-inspiring roar that scared flocks of birds off the trees for miles around. He stood up and hopped from foot to foot as the iron began to glow. My son was crying at the window. The track switched to a sombre ballad of unrequited love.

Light of my life,
Stars in your eyes,
A smile on your ruby-red lips.
Come back,
Come back to me.

And Raju danced for the first time.

By now, I no longer needed to keep him in a cage during the day. Left to his own devices, he would sit in a corner of our hut and eat from his fruit bowl like a Brahmin. I took the precaution of muzzling him and removing his claws, but I need not have troubled; he was exceptionally gentle to my son. In fact, I often found them asleep together, my son in the depths of Raju's long fur. The neighbours were terrified whenever they saw this, but I knew there was nothing to fear. Raju wouldn't touch a hair on his head.

Everything was ready. It was a holiday, a beautiful day, kites were flying in the sky. I took Raju to Cheluvamba Park and spread out my wife's old red sari on the ground. A crowd formed rapidly, this kind of act was fast dying out and people were curious. Many had never seen it before. Raju was a picture, the red tilak on his forehead showing brightly against the black fur. He had a garland of marigolds around his neck and an aluminium foil cap. Cameras flashed in the crowd.

"Raju, stand!" I commanded, and he stood. Some in the crowd gasped. Children cheered.

"Raju, Pakistani cricketer!" I said, pointing to a row of small straw figures I had laid out on the ground. He held aloft a plastic bat and swept them down with a mighty swing. The crowd hurrahed.

"Raju, cycle!" He mounted the red tricycle and drew perfect loops around me.

"Raju, attention!" I started playing the national anthem on the tape recorder. Raju stood ramrod straight with a paw to his forehead. This one was a real crowd pleaser.

"Raju, dance!" I said, switching to a hit Bollywood number. He began dancing, keeping time with the song. Everyone clapped along, delighted as he executed his clumsy pirouettes. Coins came pouring on the sari.

"Raju, thank the nice people!" He extended his front paws into a neat Namaste and then rolled on the ground, his head and rounded spine forming a wheel. The children reached forwards to pet his teddy bear head. "Don't be afraid, he loves children," I said to the concerned parents.

I went home on a cloud that night, sweets for my son, honeycomb for Raju and Johnny Walker for myself. I got myself drunk on whiskey and rosy plans for the future. The good life was just beginning for us.  

Was he suffering? That is a difficult question to answer, I cannot speak for a bear. Also, any reply requires a pathetic defence of my role in the affair. Look at it from my point of view. You go through life doing the only work you know, the only work your ancestors have done for generations and then all of a sudden society comes along and politely informs you that you are a monster. What changed? Did the bears complain? Whenever I tell people what I used to do for a living, they give me the evil eye and think I am a cruel man. My own son is ashamed of my past.

It is a matter of perception. If so many people think it's cruel and if the government has a law against it, Raju must have been suffering. All I can say is that he was well-fed, punished sparingly and worked lightly. It was his destiny to walk into my trap, it was my destiny to be born into a bear tamer's family. We have to make peace with our destiny. Isn't that exactly what Krishna said to Arjuna before the battle?

Anyway, it all ended the day I took Raju to Bengaluru. Why did I take him? I thought he was too big a star for a provincial town like Mysuru. I had visions of him acting in the movies, with his face on all the billboards. I, of course, would be hired as his keeper. My son could escape from the doldrums of a small town. He could become anything he wanted—a doctor, an engineer, an MLA, anything! That future could only be had in the big city. Bengaluru first, then Mumbai, then maybe America, who knows? I had no definite strategy on how to achieve all this, but I felt the path would be clear once I showed Bengaluru Raju's act.

And so, one superbly trained bear and his master alighted at the Majestic Bus Station early on a Sunday morning. We earned plenty of curious stares as we made our way through the throngs to Cariappa Park. Once there, we began our act as we always did—Raju proffered a polite Namaste to the gathering crowd. People began clicking photos as Raju went through his routine with practiced ease, none the worse for the long bus ride in the morning. He truly was a remarkable animal, anticipating my every command even before I uttered it.

What happened next was a blur. I remember the crowd applauding, the sound of music from the bandstand, the sun glinting off the supari packets littering the ground, and then there was a woman shouting at me, her face contorted in rage. She had brought along a fat police officer who stood looking bemused and uncertainly at Raju. Raju was nervous, pawing the ground and huffing.

They filed an FIR against me, and we spent the night in jail. They put Raju in a cell by himself while waiting for the van from the animal shelter. I could see him huddled in a corner, ignoring the bowl of milk someone had left him. Milk! Did they think he was a cat?

A sad-faced government lawyer came in the morning and told me I had broken the Wildlife Protection Act and that I was in serious trouble. Luckily, he said, he knew an NGO that might be interested in my case. It appeared that Raju might well be the last street bear in the whole of India, and the press had gotten wind of the case. Several foreign aid workers were interested in my case, and there were instructions from top corners to tread carefully.

Days of paperwork and thinly disguised scorn later, they let me go. I was given a small sum as a rehabilitation package. I learnt to drive a car, and that's what I do now. Compared to a bear, a Fiat is an easy beast to master. My son is happy in school. I suppose I am a lucky man.

They took Raju away to a sanctuary just outside Bengaluru. When my life had become somewhat settled, I went there to see him again, to see if any explanations were necessary, in a manner of speaking. A master can always talk to his bear, not in the literal sense, but telepathically. I had that connection with Raju.  

I spotted him straight away among all the other bears. He was lying on his back on top of a machan, his legs in the air. A bear will lie like this only when it feels extremely secure. I knew he was happy in this grassy enclosure, with its hammocks, tree bark and food troughs. It was certainly a far better home than I could ever have given him.

"Raju," I said, and then louder, "Raju!"

He stiffened and looked over at me. The people around me began to get excited and took out their cameras. Just like the good old days.

I don't know why I did it. Maybe just for the hell of it.

"Dance," I whispered, moving my lips, so he could see the command, "Dance, Raju, dance."

 
 Raised in India, Siddharth Sridhar now works as an infectious diseases specialist in Hong Kong. When he is not treating patients, he enjoys writing about his perspectives on life, work, travel, and all the things in between. His travel writing has been featured in Wanderlust Magazine and his work on the medical humanities has appeared in humanities journals. He is currently exploring the literary possibilities of the strange polymorphisms of love in big cities and bigger hearts through a series of short pieces.
 
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