4 out of 4 stars
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In a circus stunt I saw last summer, motorbikes crisscrossed around a spherical cage. One of the riders was a 13-year-old boy – presumably a member of a circus family and working in line with labour laws. How do circuses find their child stars in some parts of the world?
Elastic Girl by Olivia Rana is a fictionalized account of the lives of circus performers in India. Its themes include the effects of poverty, victimization, family scapegoating, and the oppression of women and girls. It takes place in a world where there are opportunities to be found; some can rise from nothing to fame and fortune.
The main protagonist is Muthu, the third girl born to a family hoping for the miracle of a boy. She finds herself treated very differently from her older sisters, working as a street vendor while they attend school. Playful and spirited, she has fun with her friend Maheesh. When she escapes drowning thanks to her ability to fold her body into confined spaces, a neighbour dubs her Elastic Girl. When she entertains a queue with her contortions, she expresses reservations about taking money from those who have little. Maheesh, however, says: ‘People will pay their last rupee for happiness.’
Gaining pay from entertainment becomes critical when the family falls on such hard times that Muthu’s father sells her to the circus. Ringmaster Mr. Prem claims that he cares for the circus children as if they were his own, but there’s something creepy about him. Muthu is taken under the wing of trapeze artist Gloria and trainer Mr. Kalpak. She is dismayed to learn that she cannot perform her Elastic Girl routine right away, but must start by dressing as a chimpanzee’s baby. Will hard training be rewarded with stardom, or will Mr. Prem demand a more unsavoury price?
One of my favourite aspects of this book was the handling of the complexity of the characters’ motivations. Many of the performers have been unceremoniously dumped on the circus by their families. While Muthu’s grandmother has told her that she is cursed and always does the wrong thing, her parents do care about her. They are in a desperate situation when her father takes her to the circus auditions, where acceptance by Mr. Prem seems to be a privilege. His reverence for glamour and stardom appears genuine. Although Muthu’s father seems naïve as he signs the contract, it later becomes apparent that there is more to the arrangement than meets the eye.
The book is superbly written. The tale unfolds now amidst heat and dust, now in monsoon downpours. We see the immaculate grounds of a palace and the brothels of Mumbai. We ride through streets packed with rickshaws and sacred cows. Though evocative and rich in detail, the style is never long-winded.
A third excellent aspect was the development of Muthu’s character. At first, she slots into her scapegoat role, blaming herself for everything that goes wrong. The devout Mr. Kalpak advises her that only unpleasant experiences teach us real patience and tolerance. He tells her that strengthening her mind is key to preparing for her Elastic Girl act. As she develops her performance skills, she grows in spirit, breaking out of old roles to find new purpose. Further information about her background is woven into the narrative with skill.
This book has no serious shortcomings and I rate it 4 out of 4 stars. There were some typos but not an excessive amount. Perhaps some of the minor characters appeared rather suddenly. Hindi words were used frequently throughout. I was familiar with many of them but would say the meanings are clear in context. I did not find a glossary, which some readers might feel is lacking. Some of the characters come to unfortunate ends. Readers should also be warned that this book contains graphic references to sexual exploitation, including the rape of minors. Consequently, those who would have a problem with those aspects should avoid this book.
Otherwise, I would recommend this to anyone who would love to read about a talented heroine who triumphs in the most challenging circumstances. The flowing style and short chapters make for a light read, although as mentioned, some of the subject matter is heavy. Showing both the dreams and nightmares of show business, this book raises questions about the ethics of entertainment and highlights the lack of choices available to the poor, especially young women.
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[Note from Author: One comment that came up quite a lot is that people were concerned about the graphic scenes of abuse, since it is mentioned in the review. Readers may think there is a lot of this content in the book, but it's actually very minimal. It is limited to two short scenes which can easily be skipped over.]