Sunday, April 27, 2014

Reliving Childhood Memories ….. Almost

It has been roughly 25 years since I last went to the circus.

As a child I remember visiting often, and loving every minute of it, until around the time I was 13 or 14. That was when various kinds of activism eliminated all animals from the circus, and – for kids like me – took all the fun out of it. Yes, there are great circus shows worldwide without animal performers, but India of the late 1980s was not the place to find any of them. So circus watching died a natural death, and the heart pumping excitement of seeing the tents or a random poster disappeared. Soon, the tents stopped appearing and the posters were no longer put up. Nationwide, at least in the larger cities, circus troupes quietly disappeared never to be heard from again for the next quarter of a century or so.

I grew up, and the whole idea and excitement of the circus faded into the background of more grown-up pastimes. Until very recently. In the last couple of years, I have been seeing posters and billboards advertising the odd circus troupe in some remote section of the city or another. Steadily toying with the idea of going, especially now that monkey is old enough to enjoy it, I made up my mind to take her to one, one of these days, before she became addicted to technology to the exclusion of all else. And still, somehow or the other, we never quite made it. Time was never right, distances were too long, traffic too unbeatable, or the tents had packed up and left by the time I got around to it. Something always got in the way. And then, two weeks ago, one pitched its tents right here in my neighborhood!

Before a single coherent thought could form, I found myself walking back to the car clutching a handful of tickets! For the couple of weeks that it has been here, monkey has passed the grounds everyday with a sigh. She was marveled over the lights in the evening, and wondered about the big sleepy tents in the day. And every day, every single day, she has asked her father, or me, “Can we go one day?” so when I woke from my trance with enough tickets for a whole bunch of people, I knew my little one would certainly be pleased. But what I was looking forward to, more even than her excitement at knowing that we were going, was the wonder and awe I was sure to see on her face during the show – the same wonder and awe I remember feeling every time I was taken to see the circus – from as far back as roughly nine years of age (about as old as my daughter is now).

We didn’t tell her about the tickets. Being the weekend, I picked her up from her “dance” class (which is essentially an excuse for a bunch of kids to behave like total nutcases and go crazy with music) and told her we had to go somewhere. Now, strangely, my little one doesn’t like surprises, and when told something like that assumes that mommy is dragging her to some relative/friend’s home where she may or may not find company (given that most people we know are either childless or have much older kids), or to some boring grown up activity like shopping. So when the car turned into the fairgrounds, it was quite amazing to see her go from morose and protesting to lit up and bursting out of her skin in a split second.

Walking in, sitting down, I could see all the stars in her eyes that I had expected. She saw the incredible trapeze artists flying overhead with so much awe. She loved the little trained dogs, and birds (yes, SOME animals are back), she rolled around in laughter when the clowns did their thing, and shrieked with joy when the elephants worshipped an idol or played cricket. It was like being nine again for me too. The sheer vicarious pleasure of seeing all this for the first time through her eyes brought back all the memories of my own magical first time at a circus. I could feel all the awe, the surreal feeling.

And then, I looked around. I could see all the broken equipment, the dilapidated chairs, the holes in the tent and in the mats, but most of all, I could see the emptiness of the tent. For a weekend primetime show, the tent was terribly empty. Hardly 40% of the seats were taken, and we were the only people in the more pricey seats. Seemed strange at first, until I noticed the expressions on the faces of the kids that were there. Most of them, as young as my own or much older, looked bored, uninterested, and uninvolved. Many were fidgeting with their “latest” phones and tabs, and seemed hardly to be paying any attention to the action in the ring, except when they shot videos of it….presumably for facebook.

I wondered if it had always been this way and I had merely been too small or too enraptured to notice, or if things had really gotten that bad. Speaking to my father later cleared things up a lot. He was grown up and cynical enough even when he took us to the circus as children, but he does not remember it being quite so pathetic. Sure, circus has always been a little shabby around the edges, in India at least, but the abysmal situation we found on this trip is far, far worse than anything we could have even imagined. The entire enterprise seemed to be hanging on by the barest of threads, in danger of having to give up at any moment.

Somehow, we have managed to get our children to lose that sense of wonder that I remember so well. And more than that, we have managed to kill any desire to experiment, try something new, or be interested in anything outside their own narrow spheres. No wonder then that circus troupes all over the country are struggling so badly. Even under the best of circumstances, with packed shows, they are difficult and very expensive enterprises to run. All those people to feed and pay, animals to buy, feed, and take care of, equipment to acquire and maintain, lights, travel, setup, and on and on. Given that even a primetime weekend show has such dismal occupancy, one can imagine what the “not so popular” shows must be like. It is a miracle they are even making enough to continue to stay in the business at all!

It makes me sad though, the fact that my daughter, one of the few children I know who would rather play outside or go to the circus than sit in her room with her PS2, may not be able to enjoy this wonderful display of human skill for much longer. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What would you NOT do for love?

A heated, almost vitriolic, conversation (with me being harsher than I like to be) with someone recently got me thinking about some of the same issues again. Issues, beliefs, I hold very dear, feel very strongly about, and often get taken to task for. Things like my definition of love, trust, boundaries.

Given our cultural bias against relationships (affairs as we call them), love, and love matches, and the dismal, abysmal way bollywood handles, and has always handled, the issue of finding and falling in love, it is not a wonder that my views seem strange and alien and so impossible to so many. This person who I was talking to, on the other hand could be the poster child for the Indian concept of love/relationships, (apart from a few minor matters) in a culture where Devdas is considered a great example of a lover.

Being mistreated, cursed out, emotionally and even physically abused, having no self respect, no boundaries and no rules … this is love to most. This friend, and her spouse, are both textbook examples of this type of true love. He, for more than a decade and a half, has accepted everything that she has done to him, including but not limited to having one relationship after another (and often asking him for advice on how to handle them). Before anyone jumps in and starts screaming about different families and open relationships, let me put that ghost to rest. This is not a balanced, open, loving relationship.

Much as one partner makes constant public statements (almost obsessively) about how much they love the other, and much as another partner (also obsessively) captures the other (in myriad moods and every which outfit) on paper, the relationship is of the kind I have often deplored as a result of arranged marriages. This one though, was a love match, required a fight against social norms on more than one level, and was expected (I certainly expected it) to be the kind of strong, emotionally invested, mutually fulfilling relationship I love to see.

Instead, over the years, I have seen emotional attachment dwindle to lip service in the matter of “are you home safe” and “I love my partner so much!”, conversations are nonexistent, each is totally disconnected from the other and has a separate life, and “home” is a physical space they just happen to share. The relationship is a dead, empty space each fills in their own way. What’s keeping them together seems to be more inertia and apathy than any genuine desire to belong together.

One great lover has begun this process. Over the years I have seen acceptance upon acceptance of the partner of every transgression, every crossing of boundaries, every infringement of every precept of decency, almost. I believe in love. Been in love quite madly, (more than once, which is also a problem for most Indians with their “true love can only happen once in your life” mentality), but I recognize a few facts. And one of the most basic of those facts is that I cannot, and WILL not give up my self-respect, my identity, and my basic dignity, for anyone, no matter how much I love them.

I firmly believe relationships need boundaries. Just because one is in love, and in a relationship, is no excuse to mistreat or hurt the other, or to tolerate being mistreated and hurt. There have to be some things the partners will not do to each other, some hurts they will not inflict, some lines neither will cross. And if they do, it is not OK or tolerable or forgivable; especially not if it is a repeat offence.

The other partner, in the outside relationships, and increasingly so as they got older, seems to take the same kind of shit from the partners/lovers, as they dish out at home. Probably more, come to think of it. They keep saying they hate it, that the other person is treating them so badly, so cruelly, and that they feel terrible about it; angry, hurt, disgusted, self loathing. But, and this is the big issue, they not only don’t walk out of those poisonous relationships, they keep taking the crap not just from that partner, going back for more even after being kicked to the curb like a stray dog, but they keep choosing the same kind of partners over and over again (or alternatively keep driving whoever they choose to be that person with their needy, clinging, weirdness, or something). In short, every relationship ends up exactly the same, where they have to keep taking a daily dose of really bad treatment, verbally, emotionally (most often), but keep going back for more, pushing and pushing and pushing.

I don’t get this. If someone had dared say half of those things to me… I would have walked out then and there. Even my partner of 13 years, (with a mutual history of 27 years) father of my child, doesn’t have that right. And if they did, if they said some things, handed me some crap (not that he ever would), I would be gone. And once I have shut someone down…. They stay shut down. I’ve done it with friends who crossed the line, relatives, as well as exes.

No one, absolutely No One is worth more than my self-respect, my dignity. I learnt, the very hard way, to respect, value, and love myself, and I won’t let anyone … no matter how madly I may love them … trample on that or take that away from me. And if they love me, and are worthy of being loved in return, they wouldn't dream of acting that way. When someone does, and another agrees to tolerate, and goes back for more, that is not love…it is slavery.