The festive season is back again. There is a lightness in the air and the early mist of the evenings of approaching winters fill the world with delight and with a longing for new clothes, food, and fun family get-to-gathers. As the year starts slowing down with the advent of October, a series of festivities take place across India. As per the Hindu calendar, after Mahalaya (today is Mahalaya) the festival season begins, continuing until the end of the year.
In India, there is a concept of the mela or the fair during the Navratri season and in fact during other festivities too. A typical countryside or small town mela has got a fixed set of attractions: there are colourful glow-lights on the streets, swings, mithai and chat stalls, big lighted festoons/ gates, decorated idols stuffed with hand-made colored jewels and high-decibel music on the pandals, loads of relatives visiting your homes, and the children getting their share of mela being carried on the shoulders of an uncle or aunty, who generously buy them balloons and tiny plastic toys or squeezers. There are also interesting folk-dance performances all over the country.
I get a very strong sense of nostalgia when I remember the tiny bits and pieces of these festivals and the community puja pandals during my childhood and school-going days.
If you ever visit Eastern India, Odisha and Bengal especially, you will observe that Durga Puja and post-Durga Puja season will open with a host of these community festivities. They are also fantastic business seasons. Vendors, sellers, magicians, giant-wheel managers, and nacha parties (theater groups), come to the rural and semi-urban towns, and setup their stalls for months together. They live in camp-sites and if you visit them during the day, you will find an amazingly different life to think of and to narrate.
Of all these stalls and games, the one which had deeply affected my own sensibility was the game of “Maut ka Kuan” or the “Well of Death”. Typically, “maut ka kuan” involved a biker or a Maruti car rider to drive their bike/ car in a long cylindrical tube at a very high driving speed from bottom to top and again vice versa.
I hated it, yet always was drawn to watch the game as the drivers rode-by ‘vrooommm vrooomm’ …. There was a charm in the dangers of the game, a charm in the name itself….
As a child, the characters behind the steering-wheel in these bikes/ cars inspired me to imagine a lot of things. Perhaps they were film heroes? Perhaps they were from some alien world? Perhaps they die on these stunts? I would watch wide-eyed sitting on the shoulders of uncles, how they performed these feats one after the other. As I started growing up and reading elementary Physics at high-school, my only question would be: “How do they defy the force of gravity? Newton must be proven wrong with their stunts”.
I had some qualities of a consistent stalker and if an event or a thing touched the frequency wires of curiosity, I would follow it up. I kept following the “Maut ka kuan” stunt for years. In the small town of Dhenkanal during Lakshmi Puja (a fifteen day long festivity), each year the same group of ‘maut ka kuan’ would turn up. I observed the lead stunts-man when he was in his youth, and observed him each year growing old and performing the same stunts with more expertise and dexterity.
During my college days, I was once visiting the bazaar in the day time during these Pujas to buy some clothes. I spotted this ‘maut ka kuan’ group in their camp area, chatting away and laughing while eating some stale chapatis, onions, salad, and potato curry. Nursing the secret bug of being a writer someday, I decided to stop-by the ghetto and meet the lead driver and ask him about his life. He said that he comes from a small district of UP (Muzzafarpur). He has been in this business of the well of death for the past twenty-five years, from his teens. He traveled from village to town across India performing these stunts and entertaining people. I asked him, “do you have a family?” and he smiled saying “yes, my wife is a trapeze artist. I met her in one of the villages. We travel together.”
I was always curious about what made them chose this profession. Why would anyone want to die? What if something went wrong in the car/bike (after-all these are only machines). He replied to my question with a nonchalant shrug, “you have to have an intense love for adventure driving if you want to chose this profession — it’s not for the faint-hearted. Madamji, jigar chahyie — yeh maut ka khel hai! Hum toh uski dehleez ko chumte hain” (we kiss the doorsteps of death). There was a certain dramatic overtone in his narration — a voice of a performer, not simply a stunts-man or a driver. He narrated to me several incidents of how life is for these small time stunts groups — their nomadic travels, the injuries that often happen with machine failures, adept mechanics who help them with perfect engines in these dare-devil stunts, and tales of jealousy and envy — how a stunts-man can fail brakes of another stunts-man because of financial rivalries or popularity rivalries among ladies and nautch-girls, and so on. Hours flew by and my pages were filled with notes of stories of the “well of death”. Some of these stories if recreated may as well seem to be straight out of a masala Hindi flick.
But, that’s how some parts of life are? Aren’t they? For some life is a calculated risk, while for many others it’s a dare-devil stunt of the ‘maut ka kuan’ variety — full of miscalculated or unspoken risks.
I lost my dream of becoming a writer soon after, and consequently I lost the notes I had of these ‘characters’ from real-life (many of whom can be picture-perfect portraits in cinema). But, even now when I sit in the air-conditioned comfort of my present profession, I do sometimes think when festivity seasons arrive, of these characters that were a part of the memory of my childhood — and lazily look at the distant voices outside my office window.
The dust of time accumulates over even the best memories…and many unwritten novels get buried within these dusty accumulations.
Take care and have a good night! Got to lock my office doors….