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.