01 December 2019

Circus Folk and Village Freaks by Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal

There are organs and organs

 This attractive-looking hardcover book turned out to be a surprising treat. Each of its eighteen stories, all written in verse, are about people who are different. Not just different but significantly so, some quite peculiar, and the stories deal with different aspects of how the difference arose, how it was dealt with, and what happened in the end. Along the way, each story has earthy overtones. It starts quite naturally – I was surprised at first and then admiring, but as it went on and the bonking got more intense, I wondered whether it wasn’t just to say that people who are different are actually like everyone else – or that by virtue of their difference they are more highly sexed. Though the question occurred to me while reading, I forgot to ask it to the author when I had the chance. The former, I suppose, based on what she revealed of herself and her book through the discussion.
Aparna told us that she woke one day about a year and a half ago, with a strong vision of a character. “It was about 5 in the morning,” she said. “I tapped my husband on the shoulder and I said, ‘Subramanyam’. So he said, ‘No, darling, it’s Abhijeet,’ and he turned around and went back to sleep.” The Strange Case of Subramaniam the Crocodile Man was forming rapidly in her mind. Noyon, their son, was not yet four and though Subramaniam was clamouring to be let out, Aparna was a busy mommie and did everything she had to do until finally, at the end of the day, she could sit down at her computer and write down the story.
Over the next three weeks, she had written eighteen stories, waking every morning with new circus people and village freaks performing various antics through which they conveyed meaningful messages about human beings and the way we lead our lives. After a rapid, fully-charged run, Aparna stopped and only looked at her stories two months later: “The first thing I said to myself is, ‘You are sick!’ I could not believe I wrote these stories.” (And her mother would moan, “Where did I go wrong, was it I who filled such nonsense in your head?”) For Subramaniam had turned out to be a ‘Crocodile Man’, a source of income but unable to gratify his wife, who had to make her own arrangements. Pablo the Clown had a ‘foot-long schlong’ which women thronged to view and engage with. Vishu, the Village Exterminator, came between a husband and wife in an unusual way. Urvasi, the Devadasi, developed culinary skills that threatened to make the entire village and its surroundings obese. Miss Rita, born a bonny, baby girl, developed a ‘fertile chinny-chin-chin’ which sprouted a thick crop of hair. Murali, the Metal Eater, is a reverse-Midas who eats and coolly digests metal:
Sweet Murali, with a whistling throat and surreal digestion within –Never ate a bit of meat or gran, but gorged himself on mountains of tin
Miss Luxmi, The Daredevil Dart Thrower, highbred, born wealthy and fancy free, happened to be too dusky-toned to attract any good Brahmin boy.
Of Sita and Gita, the Siamese Twins,
Who separated themselves in a bid to winLove, and for half a heart each, a home –
Instead, lost it all and grew old alone.
Twisted passions, lustful charity, drunken brutality, servitude and fawning delight, accommodating girl, dumbstruck wife, furiously praying, gilded cage – these are a few themes; they are also phrases picked at random from these tales – or fable, allegory, parody, if you will.
People close to Aparna told her that the book reads like an autobiography: “I grew up feeling like an outsider. I dealt with mental health issues for a very long time. I have major recurrent depressive disorder, and it took me a very long time to find a kind and compassionate neuropsychiatrist. Growing up, I felt like a square cog in a round hole. So the book addresses a lot of issues to do with a person not fitting in – a freak, as it were. I grew up in a conservative town and people would look at me and say, ‘What is this?’ So I guess this reflects my experiences. Issues are important to me, whether the LGBTQ community, caste, physical appearance or others.”
Aparna’s stories veer towards South Indian motifs including names, features and other hints, and this Aparna explained by saying while she had tried to be geographically neutral, she had grown up with the work of RK Narayan and when constructing this world, the visuals that came to her said, “Malgudi”.
While each one had turned out pretty much whole in terms of its theme and content, the rhyme in which it manifested was lacking. Aparna said that her work had been published in international journals like Pen Review and others, but more abstruse and in free verse. She now began a rigorous study of metre with the help of a mentor, Shantanu Anand, and every syllable in the book was read and re-read at least eight times to put it into the exact metre. Still, these eighteen pieces do not follow a satisfactory structure. They are not in the same metre; some verses change metre in the course of the verse; in some, I was unable to stretch them to fit a metre at all. Aparna is not, she said, a master like Vikram Seth who wrote Beastly Tales from Here and There, and maybe one day would be skilled enough to write in a particular metre. Meanwhile, her next book is short-form prose and is on the theme of variations in ways people torture each other.
This book is hugely amusing but it’s also strewn with pathos. Its plots are inventive, and the illustrations by Rachna Ravi, aesthetically pleasing, are a great lead-in to each story. Most interesting, a stroke of genius I felt, was that while the male organ is bandied about quite lasciviously, when female organs are brought to the page, they turn out to be brain, lungs, liver and heart.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 30 November 2019