If Bilesh Ladva ’11 were born in India a hundred years ago, his caste might have relegated him to a life of making clay pots. His ancestors were Kumbhars, or potters, and belonged to a class in the middle of the social hierarchy of ancient India.
Fortunately, Ladva said, the British Empire in India asked his maternal and paternal grandparents to migrate to Kenya to work as bank clerks. They were diligent bankers and had a good grasp on the way financial systems worked. Their exceptional work performance was rewarded with British citizenship, and soon his grandparents moved to London and Bolton in England. His parents later moved to Cambridge, where he and his younger brother were born. In 2007, his family moved again to Houston, Texas, where his younger brother is attending college, more than 5,000 miles away from Cambridge, 8,000 miles away from Kenya and 9,000 miles away from his ancestral homeland of India.
Though he was interested in physical activities like cycling and schoolyard soccer while growing up, he discovered a more intriguing sport on his 15th birthday.
On June 3, 2004, he received cash and a few other gifts he cannot recall. What he does remember, though, is a present from his parents: a set of three juggling balls.
He said he remembers thinking casually, “Oh okay, cool.” The balls were the standard kind, split into four different colors: red, yellow, blue and green. After studying the very small set of instructions that accompanied the set, he was able to juggle three balls after only a week of practicing a few minutes each day.
That summer he learned more advanced tricks, but one stumped him as it had many other jugglers before him: the Mills Mess. Mastering the Mills Mess is considered to be a watershed moment for any novice juggler. The trick is named after Steve Mills, who invented a juggling trick that involves crossing and uncrossing your arms successively while juggling three or more balls, creating the visual effect of a wave of balls. At the 1975 International Juggling Convention in Los Angeles, he did not know how to teach this trick to advanced jugglers, and they declared that it was a mess. Since then, the trick has been referred to internationally as the Mills Mess.
“After three to four months of juggling I hit a roadblock in learning that trick,” Ladva said. “I checked out YouTube, and it wasn’t that helpful because I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I tried to see who could teach me.” He demonstrated the trick as he spoke, alternating his hands and crossing one over the other as he juggled three imaginary objects.
When YouTube failed him, Ladva did a quick Google search for “Cambridge jugglers” and came upon the Cambridge Community Circus, which was 15 minutes away from his home by bike. Every Sunday evening from 6 to 8 p.m. for the next two years, Ladva joined a group of performing artists: jugglers, trapeze artists, unicyclists and others in a space meant for practicing, learning and sharing new tricks.
With the help of more advanced jugglers at the Cambridge Community Circus, he soon mastered the Mills Mess and graduated to more complicated tricks involving knives and fire.
“At first I was scared, but after that you get used to dealing with those two things and getting the balance of the prop that you’re juggling,” he said.
He explained that he now feels very comfortable juggling knives and fire, but because he is “a pretty hairy guy,” his forearms get singed while juggling flaming torches. On campus, he has not been able to obtain approval for juggling fire. “The University doesn’t really look kindly on the use of fire near trees and such, though, so we practice that at the home of a professor who’s also a member of the club,” Ladva said. Quickly he added, “We haven’t killed anyone yet!”
Occasional “fire nights,” when the team comes together to juggle fire props, take place at the home of operations research and financial engineering professor Birgit Rudloff. She and her husband Andreas Hamel, a former ORFE professor, joined the club because they have been juggling for years. Rudloff and her toddler often come out to Sunday club practices on Cannon Green.
Ladva is around 5 feet 4 inches tall and has a medium frame at about 135 pounds. He has wide eyes and wears his round eyeglasses pushed tightly against his face, leading to a slight resemblance to a dark brown owl with short black hair. He has difficulty starting words with vowels or soft sounds and was diagnosed with a speech impediment of stammering when he was only a few years old.
On his personal blog in an entry dated June 22, 2008, he explained that stammering is commonly misattributed to “nervousness, shyness or being mentally unstable.” In fact, stammering is occasioned by the brain’s difficulty in sending the correct signals to the vocal chords to start or end words. Ladva explained how emotional and psychological situations worsen his stammer: “Very often it is partly due to the frustration of not being able to convey these [emotions] in a manner fitting for the purpose envisioned in my mind, i.e., there is a sharp distinction between what I want to say and how I say it.”
On campus, he is also a member of Cap & Gown Club and devotes eight hours to the cycling team every week, while also taking four classes as an economics major. Like learning the Mills Mess, succeeding in the bicker process at Cap & Gown as a sophomore was a major milestone for him. He was afraid his stammer would put him at a disadvantage because he was told that the club looked for people who could converse well.
In July 2009, reflecting on his acceptance four months later, Ladva wrote in a blog entry, “The feeling of elation was almost indescribable — to find a group (and a large group at that!) that accepted my stammer and welcomed me as a social equal pleased me greatly.”
In the last category of factors that affect stammer that he listed — stress and fatigue — he explained that controlling a stammer requires a conscious mental effort of concentration and relaxation, also a key component to success in juggling. In later blog entries, he detailed how his comfort level and self-esteem plays a vital role in controlling his stammer: Talking to good friends and family members is much easier for him than talking to strangers.
At a recent sushi study break at Butler College, Ladva was with his friends when the question arose about whether juggling was even a sport. His friends answered by asking whether video gaming was a sport. Despite the stammer that sometimes leads to four-second gaps between words beginning with vowels or soft sounds, he loudly asserted that juggling was a sport.
From the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition of sport from the 28 listed entries was met with everyone’s approval:
“4. a. An activity involving physical exertion and skill, esp. (particularly in modern use) one regulated by set rules or customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others.”
“I think juggling is a sport,” Ladva said. “I think juggling, when you assign those conditions, it is a sport.”
He explained that like many others, he considers it from an artistic perspective, but there are national competitions in juggling where jugglers are judged on endurance. And there are winners and losers in juggling in specific situations: Jugglers compete against one another in national and international juggling events, with the winners being able to keep balls raised in the air the longest and performing difficult tricks. Two years ago, he provided as proof, he organized an all-day juggling event as the president of the juggling club. He’s even had a broken nose because of the sport.
During a performance in Richardson Auditorium during Princeton Preview weekend, more than a thousand admitted students watched as a team member smacked him over the face with a juggling pin. Ladva continued to juggle despite the blood pouring out of his nose and over his mouth. The pre-frosh laughed, apparently thinking it was part of the act.
Despite his packed schedule, he regularly shows up to juggling practices. He insists that juggling is an art and a skill and that people who want to learn it just as a party trick quickly turn him off. Regardless of the motives of the roughly 30 members of the juggling team, he is always eager to teach.“I just put myself in their shoes,” Ladva said. “When you teach a person to juggle, it’s almost certain that they’ll learn — it just takes time. When they first get that pattern going, it’s the best feeling in the world.”