This story is from the novel Night Jasmine Tree by Debu Majumdar.
When I was eight or nine years old, a Bohurupee came to our house. He was the best Bohurupee I’d ever seen. They went from door to door and performed many tricks. This Bohurupee had very colorful makeup on his face, like what the clowns wear here, but a very different design — more like a Native American dancer. And he had rough, long black hair. When he first came to the courtyard, he stood silently and moved his head from side to side without moving his shoulders, like the dancers do in India, and his enormous eyes moved from one side to the other. I was the first to look out the window and notice him. ‘A Bohurupee! A Bohurupee!’ I went around shouting. My sisters immediately came running toward him.
My older sister waved her hands and cried, ‘Show us a magic,’ and we all repeated in a chorus, ‘show us a magic, show us a magic.’
A cousin was visiting us then from the city. Her name was Chinta. She had never seen a Bohurupee. At first she was scared, but soon she also joined in our frenzy.
The Bohurupee played with us and chased us around the courtyard. He then gave me a peacock feather from the sleeve of his shirt. Just like that. He then gave Chinta a small rubber ball that came out of my ear. She laughed and laughed, and her curly black hair swung haphazardly around her shoulders. She was slightly darker than my sisters, but she had deer-like long eyes, and they glittered in excitement.
Chinta asked, ‘Can you give me a doll?’
The Bohurupee rolled his eyes and moved his hands and body in a rhythmic fashion, and then he took Chinta’s hand and closed her palm. When he let her hand go, she opened it, revealing a bonbon! She screamed in excitement.
The Bohurupee gave each child a toffee. And those came out of his hair. Chinta wanted one more and he gave her another toffee — from the air! Chinta shrieked, ‘This is the best part of my visit.’
The Bohurupee then performed a dance for the adults. It looked like a combination of tribal and folk dances. His hands moved up and down around his body, fingers coming together in different and beautiful forms. His feet tapped on the ground in a rhythmic beat. Sometimes he put his thumb and forefinger together around his eyes, and his head moved from one side of his shoulder to the other. How gracefully he glided around the courtyard.
Then suddenly Chinta started to cry, saying, ‘Where is my bracelet? I can’t find it.’ Her face became sad, and tears ran down her cheeks.”
Bracelets are made of 22-karot gold in India. They are very valuable. People buy gold for girls in India. It is their way of saving money for them. So as soon as Chinta said the bracelet was missing, my mother came over and questioned her.
‘When did you wear it last?’ she asked Chinta.
‘I was wearing it all the time. Just now, as I was playing.’
This worried every one, and the adults gathered around Chinta. The Bohurupee stopped his act and everyone searched the house, but the bracelet was nowhere to be found. We also went to look at the places where we had played that day. Soon suspicion started to grow around the Bohurupee. Had he played a trick on her? Had he taken the bracelet from the naïve, city girl?
‘I gave her the bracelet,’ my mother lamented, ‘now it’s lost because of the Bohurupee.’
My father mumbled, ‘We were all watching him, how could he take it?’
‘Everything is possible,’ my youngest uncle stated.
Soon heated discussions started inside the house. I didn’t understand everything that was going on, but I remember that my uncles were saying the Bohurupee couldn’t be trusted. He was a magician. He could easily fool the girl.
The Bohurupee finally said that he must move on. Then my youngest uncle told him he would give him good money if he returned the bracelet.
‘But I don’t know where her bracelet is,’ he replied.
‘You are a magician,’ my uncle told him. ‘You could easily take it from her hand.’ My uncle’s face became darker.
‘Sir, I am a performer,’ the Bohurupee told my uncle, ‘I don’t take things from children.’
‘I’ve seen many performers,’ my uncle retorted in a stern voice. ‘Temptation is hard to resist.’
‘Please trust me,’ the Bohurupee told everyone, ‘I love doing my act. I am not a thief.’ But everyone ignored his words and kept on discussing what they could do.
The Bohurupees are poor. They earn only a little by going from village to village and performing their act. He could have easily taken her bracelet. And he would be gone and no one would know where he came from or where he went. The fascinating thing is that just when we had forgotten them, forgotten that Bohurupees even existed, they would suddenly show up. That was the fun part of it. But even now I have no idea who the Bohurupees really were or where they lived.
I was sad that Chinta had lost her bracelet. I stood near the mango tree in the courtyard and saw how the grownups accused the Bohurupee.
It started to get dark and the Bohurupee said he should leave. But my uncle said, ‘You can’t go until you give back the bracelet.’
‘Honestly, I haven’t taken it,’ the Bohurupee pleaded. He folded his hands in prayerful submission and bowed. ‘Please trust me; I have no idea where the bracelet is.’
‘We’ll call the police then,’ someone from the house shouted.
‘If we give him a good beating, he’ll give it back,’ my older uncle said.
Chinta started to cry loudly for the bracelet. I moved near the veranda where my sisters were. We were scared and stood very close to each other as a group, frozen.
No one knew what to do really, but the grownups were convinced that the Bohurupee had taken it. Neighbors heard the commotions from our house and came over one by one. Soon a crowd formed. No one knew the Bohurupee, so no one said anything good about him. Everyone was suspicious of him.
Then my father suggested they search him. Two strong men from the village grabbed him and said, ‘We must search you.’
The Bohurupee was frightened and said, ‘Please, I have never taken anything from a child. Don’t destroy the only costume I have.’
They pulled off his costume and searched him. He was a middle-aged, thin man. In the dim light of the lanterns, the shadows of people moved around him menacingly. I still remember his bony face, eyes downcast — scared and helpless.
I saw tears running down the cheeks of my older sister. I felt a lump on my throat. We huddled together silently, frightened by what was going on. Chinta sobbed on Grandma’s shoulders while she tried to comfort her.
The two men searched his costume thoroughly, each pocket and each fold. They found many little items, toys and candies, but no bracelet. Finally one man pushed him hard; he almost fell down. ‘Go, get out of here,’ he shouted, ‘before we beat you up.’ A murmur arose from the crowd. The Bohurupee picked up his clothes and a few other items from the ground and walked away from the courtyard. The men followed him and chased him out of the village, some shouting at him, ‘A Thief!’ Some shouted, ‘Never come back here.’
That’s the last time I saw a Bohurupee in my life.”
The commotion continued in the house for some time, but no one knew what happened to the bracelet or had an idea how they could recover it. All were sad. Chinta went to bed crying. The adults stayed up talking about the event, saying they should have handed the Bohurupee over to the police. I was petrified by the incident, but fell asleep. I don’t remember if I ate dinner or not.
Chinta was the first to get up the next morning. She awakened me and said, ‘Let’s go for a walk near the farmer’s canal.’ She was jolly, and showed no trace of the tribulations of the night before. It was clear to me she had forgotten the Bohurupee, but I didn’t. I was still sad. The sun was barely up and the sky white-blue with a layer of pink near the horizon. If the bracelet were not lost, I’d have enthusiastically jumped out of bed to run around with Chinta. But I came out reluctantly.
We passed the kitchen and saw the unwashed dishes from the night before. A crow pecked at a few grains of rice on a plate. As we stepped down from the veranda, Chinta stopped, as if she remembered something, and looked toward the far corner on the courtyard. There was a little playhouse behind a tree. It was made of loose bricks and worn-out planks. ‘I made that house yesterday,’ she said, and walked over to it. I followed her. There we saw on a handkerchief, a hairbrush, her pink ribbons, and the bracelet!
She picked up the bracelet. “Good, I found it.” She put it on and commanded, “Let’s run to the canal.”
She had no memory of the last night. I looked away from her to the empty courtyard, to the spot under the mango tree where I stood last night.
“Can a Bohurupee come here from India?” Raja asked, hugging and resting his head on grandpa’s chest. “I want to see one, Grandpa.”
“They exist only in villages in India,” he told him and looked away toward the backyard. The lush green garden shimmered in the heat of the afternoon sun. A red-breasted robin pecked on the lawn near the wisteria vine over the arched gate. The sun flashed on its red breast. Then a sound from the road drew his attention. A car full of children passed by, probably returning from a soccer game. Everything is so organized here, so driven by schedules of activities. How could a Bohurupee suddenly show up to entertain children and not create a great upheaval?
“When a Bohurupee came,” he told the children, “we always ran toward him and crowded around him. But we were also afraid of him.”
“Afraid?” DeeDee exclaimed, but her round, olive face betrayed her true feelings of pleasure. She loved hearing about grandpa’s life in India.
“You know, we were little and he was a stranger who could perform magic we had never seen before.”
Shankar glanced at the TV, remembering the fun he had when a Bohurupee showed up. The profession of Bohrupee must have vanished by now, he thought. They were a mystery and a surprise, and no one knew when one would appear. But they always returned, and came to their house, and always in the evening. He didn’t know if it was the same man or different Bohurupees who came on different occasions.
“Sometimes he chased us and scared us, but we always laughed and ran away. Sometimes he would even go inside our house, to our rooms, and do magic right there. He didn’t need a stage.”
Shankar looked out through the back window. The robin had pulled another worm from the same location. Its head bobbed two or three times and the worm was eaten up.
* * *
The story was published in Sahitya Sankalan 2010. You can read many such arresting stories in Night Jasmine Tree