Fiction / October 2017 (Issue 37)


The Gymnast

by Hari Ravikumar

I froze every time a lion walked by my desk. They ambled past without a care in the world. They took their time to look around. I would shrink in horror, remaining motionless until the vestigial images of their tails disappeared. The lions were the elders and the least troublesome of the group. We had jaguars, llamas, alpacas, monkeys and elephants freely roving about the lush 23-acre campus near Puerto Varas, a small port in the south of Chile. When I applied to be a part of El Alma Writers' Residency, the organisers failed to mention that Don Pedro Vargas, the owner of Casa Circo, had run a circus many years ago and his animals still lived with him on campus.

The recurring chant of the writers in residency was that while the fancy El Alma brochure had promised a year-long stay in the lap of nature, what the residents really got was a chance to be in an old age home for retired circus animals. I didn't share their cynicism, except for the occasional moment of terror when a lion or a jaguar walked past my stone desk. On one side, we had the Llanquihue Lake with its lashing waves, and on the other, in the distance, the snow-capped Calbuco volcano. The campus had hundreds of larch trees with many walking trails. I loved the long, lonely walks on these intricately winding trails. It offered me the perfect setting to spin my stories. The ornate stone desks and benches in the central zone of the campus helped me capture thoughts on paper. And, in spite of the conspicuous presence of the animals, they were far too old and relaxed to be of any trouble.

I wasn't much of a writer. I was, however, clever at cracking scholarships. In high school, I barely passed my Social Studies courses, but I bagged a chance to be one of the seven students in the city of Bombay to interview the governor of the Reserve Bank of India. I got a grant from the Bombay Natural History Society to visit Jim Corbett National Park as part of a wildlife photography team. I had only started learning the basics of photography from my uncle a few months earlier; I didn't know much about wildlife either. While studying engineering, I got the chance to visit Madrid to attend a Spanish-Sanskrit conference sponsored by the Embassy of Spain in India. I was selected because I was the only applicant who had studied Sanskrit for five years in school; the rest had merely been fanatical about Spain. And, as usual, although I had a master's degree in Art History and Theory from Universidad de Chile, I successfully applied to be a part of a year-long, fully funded writers' residency in the south of Chile.

Don Pedro was the founder and director of Circo del Sur—"Circus of the South"—that became the most popular circus in South America within four years of its inception. Along with the ringmaster Bruno De Cruz, Don Pedro worked tirelessly with the animals and performers alike, caring for them, yelling at them, coaxing them and inspiring them. Then one day, they had to pack up and shut shop. Don Pedro and troupe moved to Casa Circo and never stepped out again.

The Writers' Residency hosted twenty writers every year. Most of them in my cohort were in their twenties, fresh out of college. A few of them had already written novels. Others had a collection of short stories to their credit. Only two of us—an Italian girl and I—were novices to the trade. A typical day at Casa Circo began with breakfast in the common room. We ate bread with cheese, butter or marmalade; cereals with yoghurt and a mug of coffee. Mornings were reserved for writing. We worked alone at our desks or sometimes under the trees, sitting cross-legged on the ground. Lunch comprised rice with beef or ham and cheese empanadas with champiñóns. In the afternoons, we shared our writing with one another and fought bloodless battles until sunset. Dusk was also the time for once—pronounced "on say"—the traditional evening snack break. In the evenings, we played with the animals and made small talk with the helpers, who were retired performers in the circus. We drank a lot of wine, often forgetting to eat dinner.

It took me a few months to get used to the animals around me. Sometimes I saw the animals performing a portion of their acts from the circus, then looking around to see if any applause was thrown their way. I loved and befriended them all, except the monkeys, who always bothered me, grabbing my pen or tearing up my writing pad. I became particularly close to the only black panther in the group. The otherwise reticent Don Pedro came up to me one evening and said, "I see that you're quite close to this guy."

"Yes, he's a splendid animal. I had only read about black panthers, but now I get to befriend one!"

"You know, he's actually a jaguar with high melanin content. That's the reason he appears dark. If you see closely, you can see a few of his spots."

"Yes, yes, I do. You're right!" 

"You know, it's rare for circus to have jaguars. They are so difficult to tame. But I have this knack of coaxing wild cats into submission," said Don Pedro with a twinkle in his eye. "Or at least that is how my British friend Joseph Hardy introduced me once!" 

"That's awesome!"

"Mine was the first and only circus that had acrobatics performed by jaguars. I found this fellow as a cub on a visit to Peru. I raised him with the help of the ringmaster of my circus. Actually he is a …" Don Pedro's voice trailed off.

"You were saying?"

"It's never easy to speak of old wounds," said Don Pedro as he patted the jaguar's head. Then he walked away without another word.

The jaguar, now well past its prime, began spending a lot of time with me, even accompanying me on my long walks. I called him Leo and spoke to him every once in a while. I shared with him my most intimate secrets. His facial expressions suggested that he understood my words. Of course, it was only my imagination.

***

Once a week, usually on Friday evenings, my ex-wife would call to check on me. We seldom spoke about our own lives. Our conversations meandered until they ended up at our son. Narasimha was doing fine, but we were concerned. I didn't have the chance to be with him often and neither did Mia. The court allowed us to meet him twice a year. Neither of us had got possession after our divorce. He was growing up with Mia's parents.

Narasimha always seemed to be smiling. We were the ones perpetually grumbling. We were forced to be divorced because of our son. The day I held my newborn son in my hands, I had thought it to be the happiest of my life, but I was mistaken. My father-in-law, whom I considered to be a good friend, turned inscrutably hostile during Narasimha's early years. Mia and I cursed ourselves for having a child.

I began working on a semi-autobiographical novel. It was the story of a young Muslim boy growing up in the slums of Bombay who loses his parents at a young age. He befriends a rich Gujarati stockbroker's son and learns to game the stock market. Within a few years, he becomes a millionaire, travels to Turkey, marries a white woman, converts to Christianity, migrates to Germany and fathers many children, but not once realising that with every step he is falling into a never-ending trap. I wanted to use magical realism in my novel. My fellow writers liked the idea. They warned me of not being too influenced by my own life, lest I begin judging my characters.

But it was impossible to run away from my past.

Growing up in one of the fastest moving cities in the world, I never learnt the art of reflection. Even before I learnt to walk, my mother was bed-ridden for long stretches, having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. By the time I was in middle school, my father reached a point where he could no longer afford her treatment with his three-member travel agency. He let his employees go and began working thrice as hard. He borrowed money from every source he could think of. The day I started high school, my mother died during her afternoon nap. Father continued to toil like a madman to repay the loans he had taken. My life ahead was clear to me, or so it seemed at that time—get an engineering degree, find a job, save every penny and free my father from his debts.

***

My daily walks on the campus grew longer due to Leo. He'd sometimes lead me on unknown paths, veering away from the walking trail, to reach a spot of such serenity that I often wondered: perhaps only a mute animal could find perfect silence. I began to carry my writing pad and pen on these walks. Every time Leo found a quiet spot, I sat down cross-legged on the ground and began writing. He'd place his head on my lap and fall asleep. His gentle snoring peppered by bird calls provided the perfect background score for me to write with gentle concentration.

One day, Leo led me through a particularly circuitous route in the direction of Puerto Varas. At one point, we jumped over the fence of the campus to enter a small town that had no name. Leo stormed into the town. Judging by the gradual rise in the level of noise, I could tell that we were proceeding towards the town centre. When people saw Leo, they were not scared but instead delighted. Some smiled at him. Some gasped in awe. Some took off their hats and bowed. The elders welcomed him with their arms wide open, calling out, "!Ah, El Gimnasta está aquí!" The youngsters whispered to each other, stealing glances at Leo in admiration. I felt special, walking beside him. I felt that my life too had value.

***

The last time I'd felt this special was when I met Mia—Millaray Calfuman Sanchez—in Madrid. It didn't take me more than a few seconds to fall in love with her. When I was selected to be a part of the Spanish-Sanskrit conference, I received news that my engineering college in Bombay would be shut down for two weeks due to a protest by the technical staff. Added to that, I had three weeks of vacation. My father told me to stay in Madrid for a month and get some time off from my otherwise hectic schedule. Perhaps he was feeling guilty that as a travel agent he could never take his family for a vacation. The tickets were sponsored by the embassy and so was my stay during the days of the conference. I had a distant cousin in Madrid who readily offered his place. I stayed with him after finishing the conference. I would just have to spend on food, which amounted to little. I met Millaray in a coffee shop near the Plaza de España. To save money on lunch, I'd eat a late breakfast and go to the coffee shop by 3.30. Every day, for three days in succession, I saw a bespectacled dark-haired girl sitting alone by the window, sipping her coffee like she had all the time in the world. On the third day, I decided to strike up a conversation. I tried to introduce myself in Spanish. She started laughing and said that she spoke a fair bit of English. We spent the next five hours in the coffee shop, and we had kissed three times before I got back to my cousin's place in Salamanca.

By the end of my stay in Madrid, Mia and I were inseparable. I called my father long distance asking him to push my ticket by a week. When I called him the second time, he refused to change my ticket. I had to get back in time for my seventh semester. Mia, a student of economics, had another year at Madrid before she went back to Chile. Her family lived in a small town called Chol-chol, but one of her brothers owned an apartment in Santiago, which is where she was headed after graduation.

After returning to Bombay, Mia and I kept in touch. We wrote letters to each other and made long-distance calls whenever we could afford it. For a whole year, I fought with my father about my relationship with Mia and my desire to move to Santiago after finishing my bachelor's. He was a Lele, a native of the Konkan coast and a member of the Maharashtrian intelligentsia, who could pummel a Supreme Court advocate into submission with his tireless and fiercely logical arguments. Like an expert chess player, he thought thirty moves ahead. Like a veteran marathoner, he could go on long after others fell. But I was a Lele, too. I matched him blow for blow, indefatigably, until the predictable stalemate. During the last days of my engineering studies, my father and I barely spoke to each other. 

A week before my final semester exams, my father's eldest brother visited us from Pune. He was past eighty and barely ever stepped out of his neighbourhood. But he came to meet us to talk about my future. I think he told my father to dispose of our mortgaged flat in Bombay and move to their ancestral house in Pune.

After Uncle left, my father came up to me and wordlessly handed me an envelope. Even before I opened it, he had stepped out of the house for a walk. The envelope contained a one-way ticket from Bombay to Santiago, five $100 bills and a short note that said:

Dear Dattatreya,

Let us agree to disagree. Go and lead your life the way you wish. Next month, I shall be moving to Pune to live with Ganga bhau. I don't have anything more to offer you apart from the contents of this envelope, but you will always have my blessings. We part ways here.

Love, Baba.

My flight left Bombay airport exactly eight hours after my last engineering exam, and Mia was at the airport in Santiago to receive me. We spent some days in the city and four happy weeks in Chol-chol. Her father belonged to an indigenous ethnic group called the Mapuches, and he was passionate about their cause. We struck an immediate rapport, engaging in long chats about ancient cultures and how India and South America had much in common. He encouraged me to apply for a master's degree in Art History and Theory at Universidad de Chile. He even offered to sponsor my master's, but I got an assistantship that paid my tuition fee. Mia and I lived in Santiago during my studies. She got a job as an assistant professor of economics in the same university.

During those years, her father got more involved with the indigenous cause and began funding some activities that were seen as violent by the mainstream Chilean society. Mia didn't support her father. She sided with her mother, a Chilean of Spanish descent who was not interested in her husband's indigenous identity. I, on the other hand, always spoke in favour of her father, citing examples of tribal groups in India who had resorted to violence because they had no other option. I told Mia about well-known Marathi writers who had devoted their lives to the betterment of tribals but they too circumvented the system when there was no choice.

***

As Leo and I walked closer to the town centre, more people got excited upon seeing him. Merely walking with Leo, I felt like a star. He, on the other hand, seemed unmoved by the attention, as if such undimmed adulation was normal. We reached a large tent. A stage was setup and three hundred people were in the audience, sitting on chairs made from larch-wood. The stage was empty. The emcee thanked Mágica Mayora for their magic show and invited the Alpaca Acrobats on stage for the finale. Three young women in tights walked up on stage and lay down flat. The musicians who stood at the far left of the stage with guitars, panpipes, trumpets, flutes, trompes and drums began playing a folk song. Perfectly aligned with the melody and rhythm, the three acrobats began contorting their bodies into weird shapes and performed movements that the eyes savoured, but the brain refused to believe. 

A gentleman in the front row sat in a rigid position with unblinking eyes even as the audience cheered loudly in between their gasps for breath. He chewed on one end of the glossy blue-coloured fountain pen he held in his left hand. He wrote down something briefly on a palm-sized writing pad. His carefully trimmed silver beard looked even more imposing in the rich lighting. It didn't take much to guess that he was an art critic. I had seen quite a few in my day. When I was a master's student, I often told my friends, "In the book of art, critics are endnotes. But they're useful if you want to make a hero out of a moron or a loser out of a genius."

***

During the last days of my studies, I was busy with my thesis and barely left home. On one of those days, Mia's father visited us in Santiago. He had come to meet with the president of Chile with a charter of demands for his people. Instead, all he got was a five minute meeting with a government official. And the meeting was a disaster. When he got back home, he asked me if I was good for a drink. I went to the closet and pulled out a bottle of pisco that had been unopened for a year. 

I had expected him to go on a rampage about the cause, about the government's obstinacy or about the lackadaisical attitude of his own people. Instead, he spoke about my future with Mia. He wanted us to get married soon and for us to have a son. When I suggested that it could be a daughter, he laughed aloud and told me about a specific technique of having sex so that one could have a male offspring. He had learnt this technique after he had Mia, which is why he had one daughter and three sons after that. He then said, "I have a vision. Your son will be a great man. A saviour of the land." I must have been too drunk to have understood the implication of his words.

The next morning, we went to visit a machi, the traditional medicine man and spiritual guide of the Mapuches. We took the metro to Macul and from the station we walked three blocks till we reached a make-shift ruka—a Mapuche hut—in the middle of cosmopolitan Santiago. The machi greeted my father-in-law with warmth and then gave him a small glass jug. Mia's father came back after a couple of minutes with a sample of his urine. The machi took the jug and gently shook it, regarding the liquid carefully. He said, "It's just a bad case of constipation," and told one of his assistants to prepare a herbal drink. It took her ten minutes to prepare the blend, and during this time, my father-in-law and the machi spoke about politics, gently rebuking each other. After drinking the herbal blend, Mia's father got up and offered to pay the machi, who stoutly refused and walked with us till the entrance of the ruka.

He left Santiago the same evening. That night, Mia and I spoke about marriage. She had got a new job in a new university to establish the economics department. The pay was good. We could afford our own apartment. We had an unpretentious wedding with close family and some of her friends in attendance. Within a year, she became pregnant. We had a son. I tried the sex technique once or twice, but I couldn't be sure if it was a result of that.

Our son was born in Santiago after much back and forth with her father, who wanted the child to be born in their ruka in Chol-chol. We named him Narasimha Leonardo against her father's wishes. While we began teaching the child Spanish and English, her father insisted that the child should first learn Mapudungun, their indigenous language. When Narasimha turned three, Mia's father landed up at our apartment in Santiago and said that the child was destined to be a machi. The boy's initiation had to begin, and the village had organised a ceremony for the consecration in the coming week. Mia and I were aghast. We protested. Surprisingly, her father did not push the matter. He said that he didn't like to force anyone and went straight to bed. But when we woke up the next morning, grandfather and grandson were missing.

We borrowed Mia's brother's car and rushed to Chol-chol only to find her parents' home guarded by a group of tribesmen. Her father had sent word through her mother that either we accept the reality and get the chance to be with him or forget about our son forever. For the first time, Mia's mother spoke in favour of her husband. It took me a moment to come to terms with the situation. Mia was inconsolable.

I was reminded of the Punjabi families in India who designated one of the sons to join the army. Families upon families would have an extra child so that one of them could be sacrificed for their land. If my son was going to be a machi, his life would not be in danger. On the contrary, he'd be helping others. He'd be respected by everyone in the community. And we could always have another kid. 

I told Mia to forget about our son. 

Her sorrow erupted into anger, and she slapped me. I firmly held her hand. Mia's mother and the tribesmen were staring at us without saying a word. I loosened my grip and put my hand over her shoulder and tried to explain to her my reasons. She stood still for a few moments and then pounced on me, trying to strangle me with her hands. I escaped from her grip and slapped her. Her glasses fell to the ground and broke into several pieces. And before I could make another move, five men were over me and I lost consciousness.

I woke up in a hospital in Temuco with no visible scars on my body. I had a throbbing pain in my head. I must have fainted soon after they assaulted me. Within ten minutes of gaining consciousness, Mia's friend Paula Lopez was by my bedside. She was also Mia's lawyer. I signed the papers without even reading them. I didn't expect to be cheated but I was. And so was Mia. My money was gone, but she didn't get any of it. Neither of us got possession of the child. Even so, I wasn't distraught. My father-in-law was too selfless to use any of the money himself. I knew that every last peso would go towards the cause. And our son would grow up to be fine.

But I had lost Mia.

I rented a shack in Nueva Imperial next to a brewery and lived there until my savings gradually evaporated. Around the same time, Mia's brother visited me. He spent an evening with me and apologised for the turn of events. Mia could no longer live in Santiago and found a job in a bank in Puerto Montt. She didn't have much of a life. She was feeling sorry for me and wanted to get back in touch. After some hesitation, I agreed. One of the first things she told me after we began speaking with each other was about the writers' residency. She said that it would be the ideal way for me to crawl out of my decrepitude.

***

The Alpaca Acrobats jumped, danced and bent their bodies as if they were pieces of rubber-band. Leo stood next to me and watched them. The people standing near us kept stealing glances at Leo as if he was a Brad Pitt and not a black panther. Leo was absorbed in the performance of the young women on stage. For some strange reason, I thought he was smiling. After some time, he turned his head and saw the critic for the first time. His eyes became completely still for a few seconds. Then he turned towards me and uttered in a perfectly human voice, "What an asshole!"

I shuddered.

Was it Leo who spoke? This mute animal? Was this the same creature in whom I had confided my darkest secrets? Or was it a ventriloquist hiding in the crowd?

A tall and burly man who had been standing behind us came up to me and offered his hand. He spoke in a strong voice that belied his advanced age. "Hi, I'm Bruno. Bruno De Cruz. You are possibly the first person El Gimnasta has spoken to in years."

"What? Leo can speak?"

Leo rolled his eyes. Gnashing his teeth he said, "Not Leo. El Gimnasta. El Gimnasta!"

"What? Leo?"

"Don't call me Leo, you fool. It's a stupid name for a stupid kid. Use my given name. The name that people know me by. The one, the only, El Gimnasta."

"What? OK. El Gimnasta."

Bruno De Cruz smiled and said, "You look bewildered my son, and yet you're the one who he chose to speak with after all these years."

"How do you know all this?" I asked, although I'd half-guessed the answer.

"I was the ringmaster of Circo del Sur. Pedro found him as a cub on a trip to Cuzco. But I was the one who trained him and made him El Gimnasta. Oh, he was the best."

"I still am," said the jaguar without lifting his head, without the slightest change in voice.

"I wouldn't be surprised," said Bruno in a choked voice.

The jaguar turned to me and said, "Tell that bastard José Giorgio that El Gimnasta will perform after these amateurs finish their warm up." I'd never seen anything so magnificent in my life. 

But I obeyed.

Piercing through the roaring applause the Alpacas were receiving for their act, I walked towards the critic and said, "Señor José Giorgio?"

"Yes."

"I'm here to tell you that El Gimnasta wishes to perform next."

"El Gimnasta? Hahahaha, so that upstart is still alive? Hadn't I written him off years ago? What does he want to do here now? Lose his face again? Doesn't he remember how a single review from my pen closed down his act and that stupid circus?"

Even a Lele like me would lose to an art critic when it came to an argument about aesthetics. I decided to use my wits instead of my words. I went towards the stage and asked people to make way for the real finale. I walked up to the musicians and shouted, "Get ready for El Gimnasta!" I ran towards the unsuspecting emcee, seized the microphone from his hands and shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen! It's truly my pleasure to present to you this evening the greatest act of Circo del Sur. The one, the only, El Gimnasta." I had no idea what the jaguar was going to perform, but I was sufficiently charged up to utter those words.

The crowd went berserk. Every last man, woman and child began clapping in a particular rhythm, chanting "Gim-nas-ta, gim-nas-ta," increasing the tempo with every chant. With measured steps, the jaguar walked towards the stage, absorbing every bit of cheering directed towards him. And when he took centre-stage, there was absolute silence. In a moment, I was transported to the special spot among the larch trees that Leo would so artfully find for me.

El Gimnasta cast a glance at the crowd and smiled. Then he turned towards the musicians and gave a slight nod. The music began. Bruno De Cruz walked towards the stage and stood at the edge. El Gimnasta began his moves. He jumped and danced and performed contortions that made the Alpaca Acrobats look like rookies. He owned the stage, moving from one corner to another in the wink of an eye. Then Bruno stepped forward towards the first row and asked people to stand up. He arranged the chairs in a complicated formation on stage. José Giorgio sat and watched with the same rigid expression on his face. Then Bruno went towards José and said, "Sorry, I need another chair." Even before José could refuse, Bruno literally pulled the chair from below him and took it on stage.

Leo jumped over hurdles, sneaked under the chairs and swung his body in perfect unison with the music. He did a mid-air back flip and rotated his body while being off the ground for a full three seconds. Elegance, poise, speed, felicity—he had them all. He lunged up in the air to make a final swirl and lay down flat on stage exactly the moment the music stopped. I pounced on him to give him a hug. Soon Bruno joined me. The roar of applause from the crowd seemed to shake the entire town. I thought I saw tears in José Giorgio's eyes. It didn't take me too long to realise that I was now clutching the lifeless body of the one, the only, El Gimnasta.

 
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