Guest post: A Canadianist in India

Happy February everyone. Isn’t this such a see saw of a winter! One day we’re clomping through snow and the next day rain washes it all away. Thinking of sunnier climes,  I was delighted when I got an email from Professor Shelley Hulan who is currently in India. Dr. Hulan participated in a conference “Changing Worlds: Reviewing and Reinventing Canadian Literature and Culture,” which took place at Catholicate College in Pathanamthitta, Kerala Province, January 23rd and 24th. She gave a talk on Rohinton Mistry and Sara Jeannette Duncan.

Here’s an account of some of her activities and observations. Dr. Hulan’s voice:

In case you were wondering: Truth is in fact stranger than fiction. Or perhaps fiction helps the truth be strange. Southern India is renowned for its circuses. On the way from Kochi, where I landed, we passed at least three, one of which was visiting Pathanamthitta itself. One of the conference participants, Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan (Head of the Department of English, Pondicherry University), told me of a village in northern Kerala, Tellicherry—or as it is now known, Tivalaserry—famous for its circus school. Every family in the village, it’s said, sends one child into the profession.

I hadn’t quite heard of this before, but I had a recent reading experience of a parallel. In Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel Cat’s Table, one of the characters, a young girl who has wandered the country in search of her paternal aunt and finds her with a circus troupe, trains as an acrobat and travels through India performing with the group.

The day after the conference, I ambled down to the small main floor lobby to take advantage of the comfy chairs and, hopefully, the free wifi. The wifi was a no-go, but I sat anyway in air-conditioned comfort chatting with the desk staff and reading a revised article submission to a collection I and a couple of colleagues are editing. I was making a herculean effort to imagine Don Delillo’s urban purgatory as I watched banana leaves waving lazily in a sultry breeze. Suddenly (though somehow unobtrusively) the little lobby became very full of people, many holding cameras. I saw the hotel’s assistant manager making his way towards me through the crowds. Leaning down, he explained in a gentle voice that the hotel was playing host to two soon-to-arrive special guests, who had married a couple of days earlier and whom the hotel was treating to a free honeymoon stay. There was to be a celebratory event in one of the hotel’s banquet rooms. Would I join them? Just then the guests of honour arrived—two of the performers from the local circus, who, as I understand it, had trained at the very school Murali had described to me the day before. After a brief photo op, the two proceeded with their well-wishers to the banquet room. I ran to my room to get my camera and followed. Once in the room I was asked to say a few words of congratulations to the couple (this turned out to be a common practice in Kerala). Milky tea and cashew butter cookies followed, which accompany every occasion formal and otherwise in Kerala.

So there you have it: the circus performers of Kerala Province, in fiction and for real.

Lady English Professor here again: watch this space for part 2 of Dr. Hulan’s adventures in India.


5 responses to “Guest post: A Canadianist in India

  1. Prof. Hulan’s experience is a good incentive to read Cat’s Table…

  2. Prof. Hulan’s comment about fiction making truth become strange reminds me of the anecdote about the student who was reading a Munro story that took place, in part, in a small town Ontario bus station coffee shop called “Pop’s Cafe.” Reading the story while in an Ontario lunch counter, the student looked up, took in her surroundings and realized they matched the description she was reading. She was in “Pop’s Cafe.” Fiction can take us to the strangest places without leaving home.

  3. Once I had the uncanny experience of reading a Michael Ondaatje poem and realizing that the midnight diner he was talking about was one where I had a weekly lunch date. This was more unusual because the diner in question only sat 8 people …

    Shelley’s adventure sounds marvellous!

  4. I can see why Duncan was entranced with India, writing some novels set in India and even marrying a British resident of India. By the way, I loved Duncan’s “Daughter of Today,” a novel that takes place mainly in the UK, and reminds me of Wharton or James. A very good read! I hope to read Duncan’s Indian corpus soon!

  5. Gord Higginson

    Duncan’s novels are not only enjoyable, but financially-valuable, too. I recently discovered that her first editions go for $200 to $300 a copy (depending on condition) and so, since she wrote about 20 (I think) novels, that’s at least $4000 for a complete set of first editions. It is a good idea to be on the look-out for first editions of any Canadian books when you are browsing in a used bookstore. You never know what treasures you’ll find 😉

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