Josna Rege

146. Life on the Low Wire

In 1960s, 1970s, Childhood, Family, India, United States on April 28, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Toby Strikes a Bargain (

One of the first American novels I ever read was a children’s book called Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus, by one James Otis. I had no idea, reading it in India in the 1960s, that it dated back to the 1870s. America was an exotic and uncharted land, and anything could happen there. Toby Tyler was an orphan boy in a small town who ran away with a small traveling circus, convinced that the community and the camaraderie that he saw in it would give him the home he longed for. But as soon as he was on the inside, the circus took on a different, menacing aspect, and he was caught in a nightmare of cruelty and exploitation which made his foster home look like Paradise. Those ten weeks felt like forever to him, and they did to me too, much as I also derived a vicarious thrill from reading of his harrowing escapades and narrow escapes. (Funnily enough, I now teach Angela Carter’s 1984 novel, Nights at the Circus, in my Contemporary British Fiction course, and for all of its over-the-top grotesquerie, the turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century American circus it conjures up bears a close family resemblance to the one Otis described in my childhood Toby Tyler.)

I never experienced the classic American Barnum & Bailey circus directly. By the time we arrived in the U.S., it had ballooned into a massive, three-ring extravaganza which filled sports arenas like the Boston Garden and seemed so removed from the audience that there was no thrill in it for me. The circuses I had seen in India were even smaller than the ones in Toby Tyler, and the experience was inextricably associated with the up-close swish of acrobats’ ropes and elephants’ tails, the pungent whiff of sawdust and tiger manure. Close up, the thrill was visceral, and a middle-class child could imagine herself part of a romantic world in which one was taken from the cradle to be a performer, and became an integral, contributing member of the family almost as soon as one could walk.

Moscow aerialists (

A circus from Moscow came to Kharagpur, with a troupe of high-flying aerialists. A whisper of fear-laced excitement went through the audience when we realized that they were operating entirely without safety nets. High stakes indeed! We watched their flawless performance with our hearts in our mouths, as they not only carried out feats of acrobatics while flying through the air that would have been jaw-dropping even if performed on solid ground, but they transformed athleticism into high art with the grace and timing of Bolshoi-trained ballet dancers. Their lives were on the line in every moment; every performer had to entrust his or her life to the others, since one slip by one person could plunge them all to their deaths.

Afterwards, I tried to perform feats of acrobatics with my best friend Puttu. She lay on the ground with arms and legs outstretched and I balanced on her feet and hands. But alas, we had not been born into a family of trained trapeze artists, and we, poor earthbound children, had to write our essays and recite our times tables instead of being taught from earliest youth to fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

Circus elephants, Mumbai (

Another time an even smaller, homegrown circus came to town. All I can remember are the elephants and the acrobats. Looking at one of the elephants, my parents’ friend Gopal Mitra intoned, with a straight face, “The elephant is a creature of many long things.” My mother suppressed a giggle, and when I followed our friend’s gaze to the creature in question, I saw that he—for indeed it was a he—did seem to have a lot of curious appendages dangling and protruding from various parts of his anatomy. (More than forty years later, in 2009, the Indian government issued an order that 140 elephants living in 16 circuses and 26 zoos around the country were to be moved to special encampments in wildlife reserves where they would be able to graze freely. I do not know whether or not this order has been enforced, or whether facilities have been set up in these encampments to ensure that the elephants are adequately fed and cared for.)

Pinky, Sunita, and Ratna, Great Royal Circus, Gujarat, 1989. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark, Indian Circus (

The acrobats in this indigenous circus did not have the equipment or special effects of the Russians, but they were almost as accomplished and certainly took as many risks with their high-wire act. They carried out their amazing feats in a serious, almost businesslike manner. Very few artistic turns or fancy flourishes: this was work. As usual, they seemed to be a family, performing as one unit, used to putting with their lives in each other’s hands. I wondered at their closeness and concentration, at the oneness of their life and work, about the life of a child in that family.

Six-year-old girl in street performance, Gauhati, 2009. Photo by Anupam Nath (UN Children’s Rights from

A few days later I caught just a glimpse of that life. I must have been out bike-riding with one of my friends on open ground somewhere on the outskirts of the Hijli campus, when we came upon the circus encampment. No caravans, no color,  just a straggling group of makeshift shelters and bedding laid out on the bare, dry ground. A flickering fire, with someone cooking; costumes hung out to air; essential equipment in small bundles; and—the embodiment of my imaginings—a tightrope, with a child my age on it. Not a high-wire, but a low one, set up for practice, for there was clearly little downtime in this child’s world. No romance, no heart-pumping excitement, but a transient, hardscrabble life in which survival itself depended on flawless performance every time. No exceptions or allowances possible, even—or especially—for children. If I had ever had the slightest desire, like that American boy Toby Tyler, to throw up my settled life and run off with the circus, it vanished in that instant, at the sight of that small, spare, intensely serious child, balancing on the low wire, the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Very moving, Jo. The bonds of familial trust – glamorously portrayed in daring circus performances – revealed to be such a grueling burden for the little ones. Childhood robbed in service of a childhood fantasy.

    • Ann, I don’t know how much I trust my own memory or retrospective projection on this one. You are absolutely right that these family acts put a tremendous burden on the children, even if they’re not living from hand to mouth (look at what has been revealed about The Jacksons, for example, and what a hard taskmaster the father was). But does the fact of the constant pressure mean that there was no mutual trust in the family, or that the children never felt a sense of satisfaction when things went well? No doubt in most such cases there is both. I wonder if children working in a traditional family occupation are necessarily—or always—being exploited or abused? How much of our outrage is a function of the lens that we choose to see it through? Now that I look back on my memory of the scene, I’m not even sure if I can see the child in my mind’s eye, though I can clearly see the low wire set up at their encampment. But the children were there, part of the act: I had seen them just a day or so before. Did I come away from the scene back then feeling what I felt today as I wrote the story, or was some of that feeling a result of my adult judgment? To sum up, I agree entirely that as children we project rose-colored romantic fantasies on the circus. And while part of me can’t help but feel that those “bonds of familial trust” don’t only inflict suffering, but may also provide some security, I also know that children need a childhood, and that children growing up in poverty have precious little of it. (OK, I’ve just taken about 300 words to repeat what you just said beautifully in 30!) x J

  2. I still remember the atmosphere in my childhood, when a circus was in town: excitement, anticipation and a touch of fear. The fear was based in the books I read detailing the behind-the-scenes of a “Big Top” (sorrry, can’t recall the titles off the top of my head now) and also in the stories in circulation about how many of the circus urchins were in fact kidnapped children. (How true were they, I wonder?)

    Now, as an adult, the only emotions the memories of circuses in India evoke are sadness (for the malnourished and ill-treated animals and people pulling all those stunts) and shame (because I indirectly was responsible for that treatment by being a passive spectator)….

    • Hema, I too was wondering just a couple of days ago how true some of those childhood horror stories were that our parents told us, and how much they were just told to us to keep us obedient out of fear. I was watching Slumdog Millionnaire in preparation to show it to one of my classes, and remembered how my parents forbid us to open the door to strangers when we were visiting Calcutta, because, they said, we would be kidnapped, maimed, and sent out to beg for the gangland bosses. Is Slumdog sensationalizing those horror stories or is it in fact common practice for gangsters to lure street children into prison camps with an ice-cold Coca-Cola, teach them to sing bhajans, blind them, and then send them out to beg?

      I agree, I can’t derive pleasure from circuses anymore, even here in the States. If you haven’t already, try reading Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, and your fate will be sealed!

      Thank you for commenting. J

      N.B. OK: a mere five minutes of internet searching has confirmed that thousands of children (perhaps as many as a million) disappear every year in South Asia, many are used in begging rings, and exploitation is widespread. It is often the children’s own families who send them out to beg. While the horrific maiming we saw in the film might be relatively rare, such cases have been documented. I found an article on a site maintained by Railway Children a UK-based advocacy and support organization for street children, that explicitly addresses the question of whether the representation of street children in Slumdog is accurate. (Its response: Yes and No; worth reading.) So our childhood fears were not baseless, and, even if exaggerated at times, neither were our parents’ warnings.

      • That was an instructional article (the part about the street children’s innate dignity hit me hard because I can only guess how exceptionally hard earned it is). I think even as children, we knew there was truth in our parents’ warnings, because growing up in India you couldn’t be not street smart and also you couldn’t avoid coming across street children.

        Thanks for the book reconmendation. It sounds right up my alley!

        • I was moved by that part of the article, too, Hema. (And I’ve always disliked the part where the little boy is willing to jump into s**t just to see Amitabh Bachchan.) While we couldn’t avoid coming across street children, I wonder how much middle-class people (myself included) actually “see” the children—eye to eye—as loving, suffering, aspiring people like ourselves? I think we are trained not to see them—to screen them and their world out.

  3. Trust you to teach me something new, Josna! I didn’t know that Toby Tyler started out as a book. I saw the movie as a child and have only once, I think, found someone else who did. I loved it and was completely carried away by the thought of a more exciting life than the suburban one I was having. When my mother later took me to see Barnum & Bailey at a huge arena in downtown Cleveland, I was terribly disappointed. All three rings seemed miles away and it wasn’t fun or exciting at all. Even the first rows were too far from the action for the clowns to interact with anybody (I’ve never been a big fan of clowns).

    I finally understood what all the excitement was about in the early ’70s when I went through Checkpoint Charlie to see a Russian circus far out on the edge of East Berlin. One small ring, maybe 10-15 rows of seats, everything up close, the acrobats and animals only 5-6 feet away, wow. Everything was top-notch, despite the small size of the troupe. I worried about the treatment of the animals, but the illusion of magic was so successfully carried off that I floated home on an adrenaline rush. I assume they were state-supported and now wonder if there were family members together. I learned just a few years ago that there’s a village in Daghestan (in the Caucusus), or possibly it was Georgia, where training in acrobatics is sort of a traditional cottage industry, so it could be that even in Soviet times there was family involvement.

    Ultimately, though, what a sad topic this is. I haven’t read your linked article yet, but will. I have wondered about the accuracy of Slumdog.

    • How is it that we seem to have such parallel lives, Sarah? You know Toby Tyler (BTW, I read that Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a “bad boy” novel following the success of Toby Tyler), have been to a Russian circus which sounds a lot like the small Indian traveling circus I saw), and had the same response to the Barnum & Bailey extravaganza. Yes, it is sad, poverty is sad; but then, too, as you suggest in your comment about the Mexican family circus, it represents a dying tradition of skills being passed down in families which may or may not spell child abuse depending on the individual case and one’s point of view.
      Will you write about your Eastern European sojourns sometime? Those times, both during and in the aftermath of the dominance of the Soviet Union, need to be preserved in memory.

  4. I just remember that on Thursday night I saw just a couple of minutes of a show on PBS about a Mexican family that travels as a circus. Terribly poor people. The bit I saw showed a man and little girl of about 4, probably grandfather and granddaughter, he sitting on the stoop in front of a trailer and the little girl crying nonstop while he coaxed her through practicing back walkovers (from a backbend, going onto the hands and circling the feet over the head and into standing position). Was it abuse? It is simply a sterner training than I’ve ever had? I don’t know, but I couldn’t bear to watch.

    • Dear Sarah, what a coincidence that you just saw that program! I’ve gone to PBS’ Independent Lens website and found a trailer to the documentary, Circo: . Now I want to watch the whole film.

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