Apa sarkas tu? (What is a circus?), I asked Kak Shidah.
“It is a group of people who can play with very dangerous animals like the tigers, lions, elephants and even snakes”, answered Kak Shidah.
We were sitting at the tembok of our house with her two younger sisters as we usually did every evening. This tembok was the place where many local news would be circulated and some latest stories about our neighbours too would be passed on from mouth to mouth. News within our neighbourhood would be considered as ‘local news’ while those outside the boundary of our neighbourhood would be the ‘foreign news’. These news would be circulated through words of mouth and by the time the news reached the fifth or sixth person, the news would be highly exaggerated. Once a tiny snake sneaked into the kitchen and it was told that it was as big as a log. By and by even the colour of the snake’s skin would have changed from brown to orange and from orange to dark purple and the design too. When the tenth person was told of this tiny snake, it had turned into a huge dragon. This dragon that had sneaked into the kitchen wanted to eat some fried chicken that was on a plate placed on the table. When it found out that there wasn’t any more fried chicken left, it got very angry and wanted to eat humans instead. So it took us quite sometime before we dared to go to the kitchen.
There was one ‘foreign news’ we heard about a boy my age who nearly got his head chopped off by an Indian grass cutter. This Indian grass cutter was looking for young boys of about seven or eight years old and if he found one, he would chop off the head and kept it inside his gunny sack. He needed to chop off about ten heads a day. Then these heads would be thrown into a river where a bridge would be built. There was a very big and cruel jin living near the site where the bridge would be built and he would only allow anyone to build the bridge if he was given some children’ s heads to eat. What a naughty jin this jin was. So every time when an Indian grass cutter passed by, we would scramble home and hid under the bed for a few minutes until the poor grass cutter was out of sight. We would be shivering to the bone.
Besides the ‘local news’ and the ‘foreign news’, there was another ‘news’ considered very special and it was the ‘extraordinary news’; like a fun fair to be held at the Padang situated along Jalan Arab; a sandiwara troupe from Singapore would be staged at the Grand Paradise amusement park and even a cultural show from Indonesia coming to the Rex cinema. Now another ‘extraordinary news’ had been widely circulated throughout our neighbourhood and it was about a London Circus coming to Muar town.
“Waaaaa, a tiger is coming to our town?” I asked Kak Shidah again.
“Yes, not only tigers but also elephants,” Kak Fuzi interjected. By now our neighbours too had join in the conversation. Our neighbour Nora said that the tiger was bigger than the elephant and its neck was so long that it could reach the top of a coconut tree. When we asked her how she got the information, she said someone told her but had forgotten who that someone was.
Much as I can remember, the circus that came to Muar town during my growing days was before the era of independence and it should be around 1955 or 1956. However, I did not attend any of their performances as I was too scared to see real tigers and elephants. But our youngest uncle Wak Jis (Aziz Abdul Hamid) did. When he came home, I asked him about this intriguing circus and about the people playing with the tigers as what Kak Shidah told me. He told me the tigers did a lot of jumping on top of very big stones placed inside the tent of the circus. There was a man who looked after these tigers and he had with him a tali tas (whip) to hit any tiger that was lazy to jump. He also told me there were lions and these lions had very sharp teeth, sharper than the razor blade, and the elephants were so big, as big as our house. I was so overwhelmed by his story and later I told the same story to Kak Shidah and her two younger sisters; Kak Arah and Kak Fuzi.
I told them my version, that the tigers were three times the size of a morris minor and the elephants were so big that the tigers looked like very small kittens. Kak Fuzi’s eyes grew bigger as my story progressed with many added versions and Kak Arah could not close her mouth. Kak Shidah listened attentively like as though she had been possessed by an evil spirit. From afar, one could suspect that I was giving a very serious lecture to my three sisters, with my hands moving about exhibiting the way the tigers jump, the way the elephants walk. Before going to sleep I asked Wak Jis again if there were anything else he had forgotten to tell me, so that I could tell them to my three sister tomorrow morning.
The site of this circus was somewhere along Bentayan, towards the east of Muar town, quite near where the wet market was once. A friend once told me that during the day when they were not performing, some of these animals would be parading along some roads of the town. When the horses were brought to gallop along these roads, all eyes would focus on these beautiful animals and seeing these animals in Muar town would be a subject of continuous conversation for a very long time. And as usual, Muarians of my time were pretty good when it came to exaggeration, so these horses could even gallop faster than the latest model of Jaguar of 1956.
Sometime in the early sixties when I was older, there was another circus performing in town and the site was at the old stadium along Jalan Sultan Ibrahim where the Diamond Jubilee Hall stood. We called this area the ‘cowboy area’ because the famous Mat Cowboy and his neighbour Sharif whom we called Mat Sheriff lived within the vicinity. This time around, I watched the circus together with my two buddies Halim and Yem.
We managed to get the tickets on the second day and it was a full house. It was fun to watch tamed tigers doing some jumping in unison and how they jumped into a circle of fire. When the elephants’ turn to show-off, we watched the pretty white girls more than the huge animals because it could be another decade before we could see another Caucasian girls walking around Muar town. The acrobats too were superbly displayed with every scene performed was a cliffhanger. The children would be laughing all through when the clowns appeared. Some smaller children cried because they never saw any human being with such a big red nose. There was also a juggler with the bottles flying all over his body with not one bottle fell.
After midnight, Muar town would suddenly become like as though we were in a thick jungle. The tigers would lend their voices and it could be heard as far as one mile (I am not exaggerating, hehehe). The still of the night was enough for the town people to truly hear the growling of tigers which they had never heard throughout their lives. The next morning, many children would imitate how the tigers growl showing off their missing front teeth.
That was perhaps the last circus that came to Muar town because after this one, I have not heard of any other circus that had stopped in town to perform.