Book Excerpt from Strong Woman


The Maidan was again bustling with big bursts of energy. The circus run was in full swing. Nestled in between ads for popular films like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Mahanisha, the Great Bombay Circus advertised Reba as their most impressive act:

Great Bombay Circus
Saturday, Sunday: 3, 5 and 9 p.m.
The pride of Bengal Kumari Reba Rakshit lifting
an elephant on her chest!
Fierce lions and tigers playing and roaming freely
throughout the open premise
And also many new sports, comedy, exercises
Howrah Maidan

By now, Reba was comfortable in the routine of the day. She arrived at the circus grounds with Ghosh and went directly to her changing area to prepare. She changed out of her saree and slipped off her canvas shoes, putting on her leotard. Sometimes, before the performances began, she would

take promotional photographs for the circus, a newspaper or magazine story. She might wear her costume or even one of the new small swimsuits that were split into two pieces. Although these types of outfits were becoming more common in films, they were quite rare in real life. Just a few years before when Nalini Jaywant wore a swimsuit in the movie Sangram, it caused quite a stir. It was this type of suit that Reba’s costumes emulated—thin straps and a V-neck cut across her chest.

Revealing costumes were common for both male and female performers. The entertainers often had beautiful, well-developed bodies and displaying these added to their attractiveness. Even Ghosh, at his school, sometimes dressed his students in skimpy garments to show off their toned muscular bodies. Two decades prior, he had photographed young Buddha Bose in a tiny costume, covering only what was absolutely essential. Bose performed asanas for the camera, and these nearly naked pictures were published beyond Indian shores. In a costume like that, each muscle was clearly on display to the audience. Sometimes these short pants were in leopard print as a mark of showmanship. Hence, it was not unusual for Reba to don a revealing costume for performances.

Once Reba was dressed and it was her time to perform, everything moved on cue. The music kicked in playing popular film songs which made the audience clap and sing along, Ghosh walked out in his freshly crisped suit and shiny shoes, and together they prepared for the act.

Each stunt had to be set up in a perfect series of events. The ground had to be flat. Any unevenness would make the pressure on Reba’s body uneven. This could be deadly once the elephant’s weight was on her. Then a mattress had to be laid flat. This provided just a hint of cushion which absorbed and distributed the weight of Reba’s body evenly. If she were to lay on the solid ground, Reba would be flattened instead of the mattress. Then, on top of the mattress lay Reba. On top of Reba, more pillows to absorb and evenly spread the weight of the wooden plank.

But that day something did not feel right.

She was used to having nothing below her but the padding of the mattress, with the firm ground below that. This time there was a strange, unfamiliar pressure in her back. A pebble perhaps? Or was it one rock? Several? Uneven ground?

She calmed herself. No, it’s nothing. The ground has been inspected. We have done this a hundred times.

The next set of stagehands entered, carrying the heavy wooden plank. Reba could tell they were approaching because the crowd’s intensity picked up. It took two men to carry it, one on each side. The weight of the wood was substantial, around 40 kilograms. It had to be heavy and solid enough to support the elephant. If the foot of the elephant was placed on anything thin, it would crack like kindling in an instant. Carefully they bent over and, under Ghosh’s guidance, placed the wooden plank on top of Reba, covering her chest and most of her legs. Her head stuck out so that the audience could see her the whole time. It was like a see-saw with Reba at the centre. The weight of the plank alone was enough to cause an untrained person to panic. The cheers and excitement grew as the stunt got closer.

The strange pressure on Reba’s back was more obvious now that the weight of the plank was on top of her.

Something isn’t right.

Instead of an evenly dispersed push of her body into the mattress below, there were several points where she could feel resistance pressing up against her back.

Her mind started racing. Her heartbeat quickened in her chest. She shifted her body slightly this way and that, trying to relieve the pressure or get a better sense of what was there.

But she could not relieve it. There was definitely an unexpected object underneath her.

The act was underway and something was wrong.

She was sure of it now.

How would she get her Bishtuda’s attention? Her arms were pinned down by the weight of the plank, and she was entirely immobile for the duration of the stunt. While he kept a keen eye on the act, everything looked correct from the outside. It was only that it felt wrong to her.

Reba tried to call out.

It was difficult to take a deep breath because the wooden plank was pressing down on her. She yelled, but it was only a half-yell. The sound was swallowed up by the noise and energy in the tent.

She heard the elephant pacing around and knew she had a matter of seconds before it would step onto the plank. If the 2,000 kilos of the fully grown elephant pressed her into the earth with this strange pressure in her back, she could easily be seriously injured or killed.

She had to focus and she had to do it quickly.

‘Wait! Something is wrong!’ she yelled. But her voice was nothing against the roaring of the crowd and the piping music.

‘Stop, stop! Stop!’

But no one heard her.

The crowd was getting louder and louder as the elephant circled. They knew the stunt was close. They started clapping together in rhythm, drowning out every other sound in the tent.

It was then that Ghosh inspected everything for the final time. He noticed Reba’s chin was slightly turned to the side.

That’s not right, he thought.

Her neck had to remain perfectly straight so that the pressure never went sideways.

He looked closer and saw her mouth moving.

She was trying to say something. She looked afraid, not her usual calm focus.

‘Wait! Stop!’ she cried out again. This time Ghosh saw her mouth move even though he could not hear her. He hurried towards her, quickly moving from the edge of the ring to the centre. He knelt down by her head.

‘Reba, what is it?’

‘Stop, stop,’ was all she could manage as she lay trapped under the pillows and wooden plank.

By now Ghosh knew of Reba’s unwavering determination and courage. This was a necessary trait of anyone he agreed to train. She had performed this stunt hundreds of times. She would not stop unless something was actually wrong. Ghosh quickly snapped into action without a moment’s hesitation.

He immediately motioned to the stagehands to remove the plank, lifting it off of her body. In a moment, the pillows were picked up and removed.

Ghosh grabbed Reba’s sweaty hands and pulled her to her feet.

We must always be performing, Reba thought. The audience cannot know that something has gone wrong.

She instantly turned to the audience, raised both of her arms and waved happily, a huge smile on her face. And then she abruptly turned and exited the ring, leaving the crowd


The elephant which was circling the ring was escorted out.

The Master of Ceremonies, without dropping a beat, improvised an explanation to the crowd about the dangers and difficulties of the show.

Ghosh exited the ring with a slower, confident pace. He did not want it to appear to the crowd like Reba was a coward, or they were not going to complete the performance.

Once he was backstage, Ghosh approached Reba, who was visibly shaken and was pacing in a small circle, with a terror-stricken face.

‘Reba, ki holo (what happened)?’

‘Something was wrong. I know it. I could feel it.’

Although her heart was still racing, she felt a lot calmer now that she was out of the situation.


Ghosh had overseen the whole thing. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Nothing was wrong.

‘Just check! It was uneven, there was some type of pressure.

Perhaps a rock or something we missed …’

Her voice trailed off, uncertain about what it could be.

Ghosh turned and walked back into the ring. By now the audience was starting to filter out in frustration, after a very anticlimactic finish to the night. Reba’s stunt was the last one; there was nothing else to show. While the Master of Ceremonies had tried to fill time to reduce any disappointment, it became clear the show was over. No elephant stunt would take place.

Ghosh walked to the centre where the mattress was still resting on the ground. Around the edges of the ring, stagehands were beginning to clean up in preparation for the next day’s performance. Reba tentatively entered behind him, not sure if she should walk all the way to the centre. She was still haunted by what she had felt, deeply embarrassed that she had let the audience down and aware of the spectators filtering out. Some were turning back to see what was happening, unsure whether they should leave or not.

Ghosh circled the mattress. It looks absolutely fine, he thought. What is wrong? This is the same set-up that is always used.

He picked up a corner of the mattress and looked underneath it.

The ground was smooth and even.

Just to be sure he motioned to the stagehands to pick up the other corners and move the mattress off to the side so that they could inspect the ground more closely. He bent down, putting his face close to the earth, scanning the area. There was not a pebble to be found. Nothing was there that could have

disrupted the act. They picked up the mattress once again and moved it back to the centre.

Then he saw it.

What on earth …?

On the mattress, there was a small section of stitching that appeared different from the rest. Around the edge, the thick thread that bound the top to the side was worn evenly, except for one section that looked like the stitching was newer, the thread cleaner. The edges of the fabric were frayed and pulled.

It looked as though the fabric had been cut and resewn.

Ghosh’s eyes widened in shock and anger. Suddenly, he yelled in full voice, ‘Cut it! Cut it! Open this up! Give me a knife!’

A stagehand pulled a small knife out of his pocket and handed it to Ghosh who ripped open the newly placed threads. He grabbed the two ends of fabric and pulled them apart strongly, ripping the mattress open.

Reba walked closer, still unsure of whether or not she wanted to look. Then she heard audible gasps from the stagehands looking on. Ghosh was now completely shocked by what lay in front of him.

Nestled within the padding of the cushion, was a circular knife.

Ghosh stared at it in utter horror and surprise. Slowly he stood up, keeping his eyes fixed on the metallic sheen of the knife. His chin tucked into his chest, eyes gazing down, he stood perfectly still.

The world stopped around him.

Reba, still standing back, realized something had happened. What was causing this reaction in her Bishtuda?

She had to know.

Slowly she walked towards the centre of the ring, leaned around Ghosh and looked. When she saw the shiny blade of the knife, her heart stopped. She did not make a sound, but heard a thundering boom in her head.

It was then that they both realized the extent of the situation. Had the act continued, the weight of the elephant would have pressed Reba’s body down onto the knife. It would have pushed all the way into her, stabbing her with 2,000 kilos of force. And no one would have realized because it was hidden underneath her body, a heavy wooden plank and the grandeur of a grown elephant. Perhaps she would have tried to gasp or scream as the knife plunged in. And in order to scream she would have to let out her breath. If she let out her breath, the weight of the elephant would crush her body in an instant. She certainly would have died, if not from the stab wound then from the mass of the elephant, right before the eyes of a live audience.

This was not a mistake, an instance of a careless stagehand overlooking a pebble on the ground. This was intentional.

‘Someone wanted to kill me.’ Reba said out loud, perhaps to herself, perhaps to Ghosh, perhaps to no one.

They were both horrified. Silenced. Reba was afraid for her life, yet relieved she had lived. Someone wanted to murder her.

They slowly stepped back, the knife lying there under the lights of the ring. The mattress lay torn open. They faced the knife for several steps, then turned their backs to the scene and walked to the dressing area. There was nothing more that could be said. In stunned silence Reba gathered her things, not bothering to change out of her costume, and walked out into the Calcutta night air with Ghosh by her side. Together they rode north.

Working solely on muscle memory, Reba prepared herself for bed. Her mind, which had been racing during the act, was silent now. Not peaceful, but completely blank. She let the void of sleep overtake her.

Someone tried to finish me off …

Ida Jo Pajunen

​Ida Jo Pajunen is a writer and artist. She holds two Master's degrees: one in Gender Studies from the University of Cambridge and another in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She makes her home in Minnesota, USA, but travels all over the world to teach practical yoga, history and philosophy, and to perform music. She is a lifelong and award-winning violinist and vocalist.