5000+ planks of wood, 300+ spectators, 90º from the ground at 80 km/h, and no helmets.
It’s a Sunday evening in Gurgaon’s Bihari Colony. The din from the vegetable market nearby is all but drowned out by loud-speaker announcements drawing hordes of people towards a fairground, where beyond the huddle at the ticket booth, past the Ferris wheel, the Break Dance, the Topple Tower and other rides, a huge, closed-in structure is attracting its share of the crowd.
From outside, the thing is shaped like an urban water well, the raised kind that appear periodically from between city buildings, but without the stilts, and made of wood: a squat cylinder built with thousands of planks, with the bottom section tapering into the ground beneath.
It is the Maut ka Kuan, the Well of Death, where daredevils ride motorised vehicles around the inside circumference of the walls with such speed they become parallel to the ground.
After buying a ten rupee ticket, I take the makeshift metal staircase to the top of the well and join the 200 plus spectators on the platforms that stretch around its upper edges. A circular metal railing about five feet high keeps the spectators from falling in.
To great cheers from the crowd, three performers appear through a removable wooden panel in the lower wall. They stand in the middle of the circular, earthen space, lit by a 200 watt tungsten bulb attached to the top of a rusty metal pole, and wave to the audience as if they were theatre actors taking a preemptive bow.
They mount their motorbikes, all tattered Yamahas with chipped paint, multiple dents, and no mudguards or kickstands. They rev the engines, slip quickly out of first gear, and reach the well’s top edge in no time, whizzing by at speeds of 70 to 80 km/hr, just under the feet of the first row of spectators. Some children reach for their mothers’ hands, others hide behind their fathers’ legs. I hear a man who appears to be in his early 20s proclaim, “He is riding as if the bikes have magnets in them.”
The crowd is getting thicker and so is the air, smoky with the scent of burnt petrol. Riders zip around the well with new energy as a new layer of spectators settle in behind those already present. One man at the front bends over the metal railing and holds out a ten-rupee note. Immediately a rider passes, grabs it, and holds the note in his teeth while circling the well. Then I spot another man standing against the railing, holding out not money, but three fingers. Taking the cue from the gesture, the three riders hold hands while circling the well in a synchronized loop for the show’s finale. On the man’s face is a small smile of satisfaction, maybe pride. The man is Mumtaz Ali, 32, the event’s organiser and scion of a daredevil family empire.
“We grew up seeing our father and uncles perform in a Well of Death with thousands of people watching and cheering, some squinting, and others with eyes wide open as if to match their hanging jaws,” says Ali. “They were heroes then, and we always aspired to become like them.”
Ali’s family hails from Kathputli Colony in West Delhi, a neighbourhood historically known as an entertainers’ enclave. “In this [neighbourhood] of more than 2 500 people, almost everyone is an artist and performs at least two to three art forms,” says 45-year-old resident Raju Bhatt, a puppeteer.
There has been talk in recent years about the Delhi Development Authority, under a 2009 slum rehabilitation scheme, relocating the colony filled with puppeteers, magicians, musicians and acrobats to a Faridabad housing complex, and transit camps have been built, but Ali says, “We have not got any notice from the DDA to vacate our houses. They keep saying the government will give a better house to us, but it never happens.”
Ali says his great-grandfather arrived in Kathputli from Uttar Pradesh with only a small tent to shelter his family. Today, the colony is mainly a cluster of tiny mud houses separated by narrow lanes, making the Ali family’s three-storey home starkly distinguishable from its surroundings. The carnival life, and the Well of Death, have been good to them.