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.