Reba mastered the art of lifting motorcycles. Her pranayama was well-developed and she could control her breath to generate immense power. After a few months onstage, she had adapted well to the pressure of being the centre of attention. She remained absolutely calm in the spotlight.
Sometimes, she even felt like she could control the audience’s emotions just by concentrating her energy. She still got the aches and pains occasionally, which came after the performance and once the adrenaline had drained from her body. But she was slowly getting used to it. The aches mostly happened after big performances when she was more nervous than usual.
Her guru was always ready with something more for her. It was typical of him. Talent meant potential and potential meant more and bigger performance opportunities. A single ounce of success opened the door for greater accomplishments in the future. Hence, Ghosh was always brainstorming new ideas, new stunts and new performances.
The first time Reba heard about Ghosh’s plan for her to lift an elephant was when he was brainstorming new ideas for their performances with a senior teacher at the college. They were standing in the courtyard while Reba was in the gym lifting weights.
“Let me see if she can do it or not!” Ghosh said excitedly.
“Has a woman ever lifted an elephant before?”
“I don’t think so. We will not let that stop us. But there is always a first time.”
“I am not sure that it is safe for a woman.”
“It will make the stunt even more impressive if a thin, elegant woman like Reba performs it,” Ghosh said. “She is a good student and good onstage. She is strong and concentrated. We can start with a baby elephant.”
Ghosh had clearly made up his mind. And once his mind was made up, there was no changing it. His self-confidence and charisma made it difficult for anyone to oppose him.
Reba had performed so well with the motorcycle that crowds were already taking note of her beauty and her talent. Ghosh was fixated on the idea of Reba lifting an elephant.
When he finally broke the news to Reba, she just could not believe her ears.
An elephant! That’s impossible.
She shook it off. But could not help thinking …
After all, it must be nearly impossible to find an elephant. It was not like there were elephants simply roaming the streets of Calcutta! Motorcycles, though somewhat rare, were much more common. When Ghosh craved the thrill of a motorcycle stunt, he simply requested Pravas to bring his motorbike and it was arranged almost immediately. But even Ghosh, with his strong will and vision, could not simply manifest an elephant in the middle of the crowded Calcutta streets, or could he? And even if the giant creature suddenly appeared in the courtyard of Ghosh’s college, he could not just command, ‘Walk on Reba’s chest!’ and expect it to obey. A wild elephant answered to no one, and even a trained elephant would only answer to the command of its personal mahout.
With all of those barriers comforting Reba, she rested easy.
It simply would not happen.
Or so she thought.
While the classic Greek and Roman cultures depicted the horse far more than the elephant, in India the elephant has been central to fables, epic stories and scriptures. Nowhere was the relationship between humans and elephants more loving than in India. The elephant has been a sign of good luck, power and greatness since time immemorial. It has been part of myths, festivals and the Hindu religion, Lord Ganesha being one of the most popular deities.
It is believed that even Lord Buddha was an elephant in one of his previous lives. He was pearly white, with six massive tusks, and led a herd of 8,000 animals.
Elephants were about to become an intimate part of Reba’s life. While elephant legends live in the hearts of those who hear them, for Reba the elephant itself would live in her heart, and the legend would be written in the space of one held breath at a time.
A circus company was visiting Calcutta. With scheduled performances in the afternoons and evenings, the mornings were free time for the acrobats, clowns and magicians, as well as the animals.
Ghosh managed to contact the circus owner with the following proposal:
“I have a highly skilled and beautiful young woman who is stronger than any you’ve ever seen. She has other-worldly yogic strength beyond that of even a man. I’d like to bring her to the circus in the morning.”
“A strong woman? I’m very interested,” replied the circus man. “What does she lift?”
“She lifts weights, and she can lift a motorcycle on her chest with ease.”
“Khubi bhalo (very good). You can bring her here. Come in the morning.”
“When I bring her, I will need to use one of your elephants, a small one.”
“Ashambhab (impossible)! Only our handlers are allowed to ride the elephants.”
“Not for riding. She will lift it on her chest.”
Silence struck the conversation. Then, a decisive response came from the circus agent.
“That is impossible. She will be crushed like an ant, like a spider.”
“No, that will not happen,’ Ghosh insisted. ‘I’m telling you, you have never seen a person this strong and powerful, let alone a woman.”
“Okay, I’d like to see her try. If she dies, neither I nor the circus should be held responsible.”
“She will not die. You will see.”
“Very well. Bring her in the morning. We have a young elephant you can use, one-year-old.”
What may have been an unexpected and absurd conversation to most was just another day in the circus. After all, it was a commonly held belief that the circus animals were just taking up space and eating up profit anytime they were not in the ring performing for the audience. Free time was perfect to try new tricks – something more impossible, more impressive, more spectacular.
A young, thin, beautiful girl taking an elephant on her chest? Ghosh had spun the request to be irresistible.
Excerpted with permission from Strong Woman Reba Rakshit: The Life and Times of a Stuntmaster, Ida Jo Pajunen, Om Books International.