It's about ten til eleven when the lights flicker off. There are a few murmurs of surprise, but the source of the disturbance is quickly made clear: as the lights come back on, Mags Whitcombe has taken the stage. She moves across the stage floor with an understated grace; in fact, she barely seems to move at all beneath her long evening dress. No flapper, Mags' clothing does not so much create an illusion of boyishness or curve-less-ness as it completely hides her shape from the bust down. Her blonde hair is rolled into fat, unfashionable curls.
She is smoking. "Thank you all for coming. That’s the customary thing to say when one is on stage and greeting a room full of friends and persons with nothing better to do than drop by the Audubon on a Tuesday night – isn’t it . . . ?" She hums at her own joke and smoke seems to fall out of her nostrils. "I guarantee you all: This is something better to do. Oh yes. Tonight –" she begins to move across the stage again "– I give to you all a man unlike anyone else you’ve ever met. Vikram Kumar Ramanuja is more than just a performer. He is a . . ." She exhales and seems to deflate. Is she sighing or just expelling smoke from her lungs? "He is a man so great that none of you, nor I, will ever understand. He is a teacher, a guide, a master of the tantric arts; a seer among mere see-ers; a master among mere men; a maker among mere creatures.
"Tonight he is here at my request alone. Entertainment is not in his heart, only enlightenment. Some of you have already met him, and have had a taste of what he can do. The future is his to survey, the beasts are his to command, and the elements bend to his will. Tonight," she repeats, "he is here at my request, and what he does is no trick. I hope you enjoy; I hope you are edified; I know each of you will come away from this evening changed. Every last one of you . . ."
After Mags departs from the stage, the lights dim once again. Most of the crowd is now seated and a wave of half-expectant noise passes across the ballroom. Offstage, pipes are playing – high-nasal Arabesque chords. "Oh brother!" cries one member of the audience. "What next? A snake-charmer? A troupe of Turkish dancing girls?" Somebody laughs with the comment. Like a yawn, the laughter spreads. A muffled guffaw turns to a chortle, then a bellow, then a chorus of titters and giggles, and then – "Wait!"
There is a shape on the stage. It prowls in the darkness, on all fours. An animal? "It’s a leopard!" someone declares. The form moves about in the dark. A voice hails the audience. "So, I hear that you have come to see monkeys!" Its tone is reminiscent of any number of imagined South Asian voices, but the accent betrays British schooling.
Something springs from the stage – in the dark it is unclear whether or not the shape has been thrown or if it has been launched under its own volition. Behind Thelonius there is a gasp: a woman is clasping her hands together over her mouth. Her eyes are locked in a frightened gaze upward, where, suspended in the air over her head, is a huge, white-furred monkey. The size of a twelve-year-old, its long, ungainly limbs are spread out, as though it means to pounce on the woman. Its menacing fangs are bared and its black eyes – which shine in the dim light like glass beads – are as wide as the woman's own. Yet, it is motionless, as though it is just an image. In the air right above him, Thelonius can see that the beast is tethered to a rope, which extends into the darkness of the stage.
The creature begins to withdraw, but without moving and without coming to ground on the lady's face (as she surely expected it would). Stiff and motionless as a mounted specimen, the leaping thing is pulled backwards through space on its lead. In the dim light nothing apparently supports the monkey from above or below, yet it is drawn over the heads of the audience on an even plane as a toy train might be drawn across the floor by a child.
The monkey reaches the stage and the lights are turned up, but only enough to reveal the onstage form of a man: A very fair-skinned man, wearing a fine Mandarin suit and a bejeweled turban just like the one depicted on the poster. This can be none other than Ramanuja himself. "Ho!" laughs Ramanuja as he pulls the monkey down onto the stage floor. As it nears him, the animal returns to animated life and completes its leap, landing at the swami's feet. It shakes its joints out like an athlete preparing for a footrace and settles on its haunches. From his pocket Ramanuja produces a carrot for his assistant. The monkey snatches it and begins to munch away – with its relaxed pot-belly and calmed eyes, it is now rather more Buddha-like and less bestial. "Good monkey!" he says.
"Raju! Kud!" the swami commands, and the monkey does a backflip. "Kud! Kud!" The monkey jumps twice more, never dropping its carrot.
For ten minutes, the flying monkey tricks drag on. They're not all bad: Raju leaps, dances, strikes poses, and squeals on command. The crowd reacts positively to the decidedly non-mystical performance – indeed, if there is anything unusual about the show thus far, it is the animal's amazing powers of contortion and strength, which it executes with all the restraint and grace of a mime artist. Raju's most impressive trick is also his final one. His master commands, "Barh! Barh! Barh, Raju!" At this, the white monkey seems to grab hold of an invisible line and climbs up, up, up seemingly into thin air – until he has disappeared behind the border curtain and into the houselights. Once Raju is gone, Ramanuja bows and claps. "Please, congratulate my little friend!" he says smiling.
The lights dim once again. "That should satisfy those of you who wished for a circus show! Now, allow me a moment to prepare – I am not just a monkey-trainer." A member of the stage crew brings a large, cushioned stool out and positions it center-stage. Ramanuja takes a seat on the stool and folds his legs in a lotus position. He closes his eyes and allows his shoulders to relax.
Mags Whitcombe's voice projects dramatically from off-stage. "Please be silent while the great swami contacts the gods." Aside from a few whispers and the sounds of shifting, the audience complies.
After two long minutes, Ramanuja's jaw goes slack, his neck relaxes, and his arms drop. "Who has a query for the gods? They know all and we see their is'cripts." The quality of his voice has changed. It has now settled into the nasal monotone expected of such performances. "This has all happened before," he drones in his chant-like voice. "Who will dare to know the future?" His neck seems to regain its strength and Ramanuja brings his head fully upright. The swami surveys the crowd and selects one of the young tuxedoed men who earlier were suspicious of miscegenation. "Young, young master. What will you know?"
"Say, is my lady keen on that fellow at the 150 or not?"
"She is not," is the immediate answer. "Not as you suspect. But," Ramanuja adds, "it is curious and unfair of you, sir, to make such an inquiry, given your own conduct!"
The tuxedoed man’s sober friend once again leans over his shoulder, grinning. This time, his friend has no advice for him, only a punch on the shoulder. The audience laughs. "You don’t know what you’re talking about!" protests the accused.
"O-fo! Of course we do! Who else dares?"