In Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal’s Circus Folk and Village Freaks, Imperfection is the New Perfection

The idea of perfection or of being perfect engulfs us all in its suffocating grip. Our bodies, our work, our dress, our hair, and our everything must be somehow perfect in this deeply flawed society. Such are the contradictory expectations that society foists on us all, egged on particularly by the mass media and mass popular culture. Protagonists in movies, pop culture idols, and even politicians are projected as embodying the perfect. The ideal to achieve, then, is only perfection in all spheres of life.

Ancient Greek playwrights were perhaps one of the first to talk about characters with a deep flaw through the concept of hamartia which means ‘to err.’ Shakespeare’s tragic plays feature protagonists that are wholly defined by flaws such as Hamlet and his indecisiveness, Othello with his jealousy, or Macbeth and his greed. Even popular culture has slowly embraced imperfection, often treating its characters through a more nuanced lens rather than just the dichotomous notion of perfect versus imperfect.

Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal in her prose poetry novel, Circus Folk and Village Freaks, wholly rejects these superficial notions of the perfect ideal and instead portrays 18 different tales of characters who are misunderstood and rejected by society as being out of the ordinary, who we would also label ignorantly as ‘freaks.’

When society rejects these freaks in the novel, they all find solace and space in a village circus, whose circus master is more than happy to accommodate and make a spectacle out of them.

From Siva, the Snake Man who finds an affinity to reptiles rather than humans, to Miss Rita with her chin full of hair because of hirsutism, from the Siamese twins, Sita and Gita to Miss Luxmi whose passion was throwing darts; all kinds of people could make it big and feel accepted among the peculiar circus folk.

These are the two threads that bind the story together. All of the characters are portrayed as being different from the so called normal. All face some kind of rejection from family and then society until they stumble upon the all embracing arms of the circus shows where their talents are showcased and appreciated.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his short story, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, depicted a man with wings who mysteriously dropped from the sky into the house of a couple. The couple uses this man to make more money by displaying him for the townsfolk to gleefully stare and poke at. Much like how we would behave unethically in a zoo. While Marquez clearly makes a comment on the spectators’ rude behavior, that is not the case in Sanyal’s tales. The spectator is missing. Only the spectacle is there. So we as readers are left to speculate on the former.

Do the characters become a mere curiosity when they perform in front of the spectators? Undoubtedly, the circus crowds cheer them, are thrilled by their acts but do they understand what the characters go through? Or is it merely something novel and delightful to their eyes for one night, only to be forgotten the next morning? How much agency does the circus actually give to these so called freaks?

Apart from these questions, Sanyal’s 18 tales also mirror the ills of our own society whether it is the complete hatred toward same sex love in our society as depicted in ‘The Sad Tale of Vishu, The Village Exterminatory,’ or the deep rooted patriarchal scorn for the girl child as shown in ‘The Tale of the Organ Sisters.’

Yet, ironically, it is this very flawed society that fails to accept people who are different and will leave no stone unturned to see that such ‘specials’ are objectified for entertainment. This contrast comes through in Sanyal’s verses as well which are written in a unique style of the rhyming couplet.

“In a country where a trunk is revered with a smile,
Lived a man with a trunk, universally reviled.”

Thus begins the tale of Jeeva, The Elephant Man who is born with an elephant’s head. Using the idea of how the majority worships the elephant, Sanyal juxtaposes the irony in Jeeva’s life. Despite the odds though, Jeeva manages to triumph and love himself in the face of society’s revulsion. His character shows the meaning of self-love.

All in all, Circus Folk and Village Freaks is an engaging, quick, and thoughtful read. It will make any reader retrospect on ideas of how we view difference and otherness in people through prejudiced eyes. All the tales also have a folksy quality to them which is heightened by the skillful use of rhymes. Reading each of the 18 tales feels like sitting for a story telling session, where a lively tale of human dreams and depravity is being animatedly narrated and sung.

You can buy the book here.

Ruskin Bond Photo

On Ruskin Bond’s Birthday, Revisiting His Writings and Their Impact

Ruskin Bond’s writing has always been a constant in my life since reading his stories in my English school textbooks. While the world only recently is going gaga over cherry blossoms, I still vividly remember reading in school about the quiet innocence and perseverance of Rakesh from the short story, The Cherry Tree, and how he planted the seed and despite all odds, was rewarded with the pink blossoms.

The depiction of the utmost simplicity in the characters’ actions and the vastness and joy that nature provides them has made Ruskin Bond’s writing endearing and lovable.

Most of his novels are set in the hills. The stories profess the writer’s close bond with the mountains and its people. His stories will always have characters that also, like the author, share a close bond with the nature that surrounds them. The closer they are to nature, the fuller and better their lives are. These characters will cherish the tiniest of miracles that nature offers to them like Rakesh’s delight at seeing the cherry tree blossom. These innocent delights, bereft of any greed, make Bond’s characters memorable. They enable the reader to take a break from the rat race and appreciate the simple pleasures of nature.

Ruskin Bond was born on this day in Kasauli in 1934 and after living in different cities in India and outside, he decided to make Mussoorie his home. He continues to live there in the Ivy cottage and regularly haunts the bookshops of the famous hill station.

Bond blithely intertwines his own experiences in his stories too so that on reading them, one  might feel one knows the author better and along the way, can also take a trip down memory lane of how things used to be before in the towns and hills. Several of his stories therefore are coloured with an autobiographical tint, revealing the tidbits of the author’s many journeys in life.

The other literal journey that Bond often depicts in his stories is the railway journey. Trains are an indispensable mode of transport even today, despite the boom in the airline industry. Back then, when Bond was younger, trains were perhaps the only affordable means of travelling across the country. Railway journeys with all its delights and discomforts are another portrayal of India in his stories. These portrayals will make one feel nostalgic about one’s own past journeys on the train.  The Night Train At Deoli and Time Stops at Shamli are two such short stories that feature a rail journey and the autobiographical element. Both are stories that I fondly remember. Who can forget the little girl selling baskets at the station at Deoli that mesmerized the author protagonist in the former story? The latter story is about the adventures that lay for the author when he got off at Shamli station on an impulse, instead of going to his destination, Dehradun.

Delhi Is Not Far is one of Bond’s rare novels that are not set in the mountains. Instead, it takes place in the fictional small town, Pipalnagar, in the plains. All the characters have small jobs and dream of moving to the big city, Delhi. It is only the narrator, Arun, an aspiring Urdu writer of detective novels, who takes the leap and boards a train for Delhi. What makes the novel special is the portrayal of the idea of Delhi or the big city as well as the lucidity of each character’s aspirations and the empathy the writing evokes in the reader for them. At a time when migrants have become homeless in their own country, this novel remains relevant for its moving portrait of the common man.

The Kitemaker is another short story set in a city, possibly Delhi again but that is not mentioned outright. What the story projects clearly instead is the inevitability of change and how the relentless march of time has transformed the city and the profession of the kite maker, Mehmood. He reminisces fondly the days when he was well-known for his majestic kites throughout the city, when children and men alike had time enough to fly them and how his masterpiece, Dragon Kite, had created a stir and attracted crowds. The story not only describes briefly the kite maker’s life but also allows the reader to pause and understand the ephemeral nature of time and the disappearance of the joys in the simple things, ‘like kites and daydreams.’

Thus, in an increasingly busy world, where we are caught up with our own races and demons, we must reread and revisit Ruskin Bond’s writing. His writing is an indulgence that allows us to stop, reminisce, and remember the simpler and older ways of life that gave everyone moments to rest, reflect, and appreciate the little things and people around us.

Cover Image by Jim Ankan Deka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Illusion or Disillusion

Haven’t we all wished to rewrite the fate of a certain fictional character because we thought they deserved better? Haven’t we all wanted to know what were our favourite characters thinking during the toughest of their times ?  While some of us create an alternate destiny  and let them live happily ever after in our heads, there also a few of us who write a fan fiction as an ode to our favourite characters. But then there are others who feel strongly about them that they can go on to write a full-fledged novel based on those emotions.  Continue reading “Illusion or Disillusion”