Ali introduced Kannan to his uncle Ahmed Khan, who had eyed the boy with much uncertainty.
“Do you think he is up to it?” asked Ahmed Khan.
“Trust me chacha, have I ever been wrong before?” said Ali.
Ali had been bringing in boys to help his uncle run small time rackets like pick pocketing, selling black tickets, smuggled goods etc.
Ahmed himself worked under a Seth who ran a small business of carpets and a hotel which was a perfect for all the illegal activities he managed.
“Let him work with me for a while,” suggested Ali, “I’ll teach him the tricks of the business. He is very sharp and will quickly pick it up.”
Ali was in charge of selling smuggled goods in various quarters of Bombay. Kannan who learnt about his role in the work, felt inhibitions initially but he later considered the business far less criminal when compared to the quantity and quality of crimes that took place in Bombay. Besides he was here to survive and definitely did not have much of a choice, after all beggars cannot be choosers.
It had not been easy at first. Kannan had even been attacked by the rival gang. One of the goons had just missed slashing his neck with a sword, cutting his forehead instead as Kannan dodged to save himself. It had left an indelible scar on his forehead which often reminded him of his close brush with death. He had not felt fear but there was that itching feeling one has on not finding the answer to a riddle and has to live with it forever. That is what his death would have meant – an abrupt end to an unfinished and unexplained book.
It was not as if the past had completely left him at peace. Every now and then it would raise its ugly hood in one form or the other. It was late in one rainy June, two years after Kannan had started to work with Ali that he was sent to Kalyan to see some property Ahmed Khan had set his eyes on.
Kannan had got into the Bombay Kalyan express which seemed to be jam packed that rainy day. The compartment was filled with all sorts of people and things - there were business executives, salesmen, beggars, bangle sellers, vagrants and even a goat. Amidst the hustle and bustle, Kannan’s attention was drawn towards a peculiarly familiar figure in the crowd. A long haired man with a dusty overcoat and wide grin was going from seat to seat asking people if they were interested in what seemed like a pack of cards in his hand. At one particular seat, he managed to get the passenger’s attention; there was some exchange of comments and a sudden outburst of laughter, the laughter of the vagrant being more deep and guttural. It was then that Kannan realised that the man was none other than Chandrahasan, the magician friend of his grandfather. He wondered what could have reduced this popular artiste to such a state as to sell silly card tricks on a train in Bombay.
Chandrahasan had now moved on to Kannan’s seat and begun to shuffle the cards in his hand with professional dexterity as he said,
“Think of any card and watch it appear on top of this deck as I finish shuffling them.”
Kannan feigning interest leaned over and signalled to him to come and sit by his side. He had somehow managed to get his co-passengers to cooperate by letting Chandrahasan squeeze in.
“Sir, which trick would you like to watch, the disappearing card, the imitating card or the jumping card? It won’t cost you much, merely five rupees for a trick” said Chandrahasan.
But Kannan’s intentions were not to get entertained, rather he needed to know how a well to do local magician from Kerala had reached the general compartment of a Bombay train, selling cheap tricks for a living.
“Aren’t you Chandrahasan, the magician?” asked Kannan.
Such an enquiry as well as identification was obviously least expected for a shadow of gloom had suddenly been cast over Chandrahasan’s face. But in the next moment it was gone as he smiled with his usual charm and asked,
“So you know me? Where have you watched me?”
“I am from Kerala, I have watched some of your shows in Kannur” lied Kannan.
“Ah! Yes Kannur, beautiful place, those were good days” said Chandrahasan reminiscing briefly.
“So how come, I mean what happened….?” Kannan seemed to struggle to find the politically correct words to ask Chandrahasan about his present state.
“Yes, yes you must definitely be wondering what brings me here and that too in such a despicable position, ha ha ha” replied Chandrahasan as if amused by his own misfortune.
“Well, a friend suggested I move on to greener pastures and hence I joined his entertainment group and came to Bombay. But as fate would have it the company sank without a trace, people got tired of the shows and the manager, my trusted friend, disappeared with all the money we had made. With nowhere to turn to and not a single pai in my hand I resorted to street shows. I managed to return to Kannur but no one seemed to be interested in sponsoring me or even watching my show. I could not come on to the streets there, after all people knew me and there was no way I was going to ever let them know of my artistic demise. I returned to Bombay where I could at least manage to make ends meet by showing tricks on the road, buses and trains and at the same time not letting anyone know of my beggarly life. Well, I guess it remains no more a secret, right” said Chandrahasan with a sorrowful smile.
Kannan felt sorry for him, he had been an interesting and popular figure but then the hands of cruel fate had not spared him either.
“You were a good magician” comforted Kannan.
“Yes, I was, I was. ………” answered Chandrahasan once again lost in an unhappy trance.
Snapping back to the present he said,
“So you want to watch a trick or not? I rather you did, it will help me buy bread for today.”
“Yes, I would like to watch a trick but not a card trick” said Kannan.
“Fine, what trick would you like to watch?” asked Chandrahasan.
“I would like to see a coin trick, make a coin appear from behind my ear, it’s a trick I and my cousin liked a lot as children, a trick you used to do for us” said Kannan, not comprehending why he had decided, though involuntarily, to reveal so much.
Chandrahasan suddenly withdrew as if he remembered, he then stared at Kannan and coming closer he brought his hands close to his face as if to pat him on his cheek. In an instant his hands were behind Kannan’s ears from where he brought in quick succession, coins of various denominations. For a second Kannan had froze, imagining Chandrahasan to have recognized him. He had secretly wished for it for there was something about the magician that had always intrigued and charmed him, he had been a friendly man too, and most of all they shared something in common- they both were running from their past.
Kannan smiled and placed a hundred rupee note in Chandrahasan’s hands. Chandrahasan grinned and saluted as he left. Kannan watched as the magician squatted near the compartment door; he stared at the note Kannan had given him, and he then bent it several times as if to show a trick to the beggar boys seated next to him. The boys watched curiously as Chandrahasan waved the bent note in the air several times. When he stopped waving, the note had completely disappeared. There was a round of applause. The note did not however reappear. Kannan watched on for some more time until he slowly dozed off. The sudden sound of people screaming made him snap back into consciousness. There was utter confusion in the already crowded compartment as people rushed towards the compartment exit. A man had jumped off into river when the train was running over a bridge. The train had pulled itself to a stop once it had crossed the bridge and the train conductor as well as passengers including the witnesses of the incident had rushed to see if they could find any signs of the man. Kannan remained in his seat not wanting to be part of the tragedy in any manner.
After some futile searching the passengers returned and the train resumed its journey. He winced as he heard his co-passengers relate about the incident.
“It was that vagrant showing tricks with his cards. He had apparently told the beggar boys he was going to disappear into thin air after which he jumped right into the river. Some locals who had witnessed the scene on the banks had swum to the spot but could find no traces of the man. All they could retrieve was an old and torn overcoat.”
Kannan secretly hoped it was a trick and he had survived. As he leaned against the window he could feel something pricking behind his ears, perhaps a wasp. He quickly reached behind and pulled the culprit out and stared in disbelief – it was the very hundred rupee note that Chandrahasan had crumpled into a ball and made disappear a few minutes ago.
Chandrahasan had indeed given his final master performance.