A circus ringmaster dreams of his tigress as lover
Priyanath was sinking slowly into the quicksand. The deep yellow mass had the viscous consistency of mud. The dense, impenetrable sludge closed in on him, entering his nostrils, his mouth. Priyanath was choking. Suddenly the deep yellow began to change colour in some places to orange. An unusual coppery orange.
Priyanath tried to recollect where he had seen this particular shade before. But even before he could remember, he thought he could see what looked like black stripes on a tawny background, and was simultaneously overcome by a sharp, foul stench. It was a familiar smell. The raw odour of tiger urine. It wasn’t just in the jungle but also in its cage that the tiger sprayed its urine to lay stake to its territory. Even in his benumbed state, Priyanath wanted to laugh, reminded of a strange habit of his own. Wherever he went with his troupe, he always urinated beneath the open sky after the last post of the main tent had been driven into the ground. It was Fatikchandra – mad Fatik – who had been the first to observe this peculiar practice of his. ‘So you’re staking your territory, Priyababu,’ he had brayed one day.
The stripes appeared even clearer now against the tawny background. Priyanath reached out, his fingers sinking into coarse, thick fur. A rumbling sound emerged, which he recognized at once. Lakshmi. The Royal Bengal tiger whom he considered no less than his daughter. Lakshmi and Narayan had been tiny balls of cotton when the King of Rewah had given them as gifts to Priyanath. He used to feed them their milk himself, using cottonwool wicks to drip it into their mouths. Lakshmi was as good as her name, totally obedient and utterly devoted to Priyanath. Narayan wasn’t naughty either. Both of them knew Priyanath was there as soon as he went up to their cages, leaning their heads against the bars and purring for his caresses. But Lakshmi was, in fact, more than a daughter. As a baby she would often refuse to return to her cage, adamant about staying with him. He would have to let her sleep in his tent, next to his bed. On some winter nights she would even climb into his bed, nestling against him.
Where’s Lakshmi, where are you? Why can’t I see your face? About to lose consciousness, Priyanath tried to keep his eyes open with great effort. But what was this? This wasn’t Lakshmi! The body was a tiger’s, but the face was a woman’s. Was it a woman or a demon? What did she want? Why was she slithering up to him like a giant python, bringing her face so close to his?
‘Who are you? What do you want?’ Priyanath screamed. The woman’s lips tried to form an answer, but all Priyanath could hear was a purring. The kind that his tigers made when they wanted his attention. But what was she saying? Listening closely, Priyanath deciphered her slurred speech. ‘Will you kiss me? Give me a kiss. You’re so brave. Why don’t you kiss me?’
The words sounded like groans, but they seemed familiar. Who was it that used to talk this way? Who? Someone he knew very well. The woman’s face was inches away from Priyanath’s now. Suddenly she said, ‘Kiss me here, right here ...’ and turned her face away.
Priyanath gasped. One side of her face was all but gone. Someone had ripped off part of her jaw in a fury, leaving only a misshapen lump of flesh where her neck and shoulders should have been. Opening his mouth to shriek in horror, Priyanath realized that only some rumblings were emerging from his throat. The mangled face was still bleeding profusely. His white vest was soaked, rapidly turning a deep red shade of blood.
He tried to push the face away with both his hands, but his hands only passed through air. The woman broke into peals of laughter, which turned into a maniacal rage the very next moment. Heaving with anger, she said, ‘You can’t, Priyababu, you can’t. You can try as hard as you like, but you can’t push me away.’ She clung to his neck with arms that ended not in fingers but in fearsome claws. Priyanath tried in a frenzy to extricate himself. He was panting, desperately trying to draw deep breaths. The bed, the entire room, was awash with blood. It flooded into his nose and mouth, suffocating him.
A terrified Priyanath woke up with a start. He had fallen asleep in the comfortable wicker chair next to his desk. His clothes were sopping wet with perspiration. Beads of sweat streamed down his face. He sat there for a while, trying to normalize his breathing. My god, what a horrible nightmare.
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