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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.