Running with the Circus in India

Mahul Gaon & Bandra East, Mumbai

In 2008 I went to Burning Man for a couple of pre-event weeks to help build a large metal sculpture. Then, I left early to drive to Boulder for six weeks of clown school with my teacher, Giovanni. I had a ticket to head to India for another six weeks when a friend connected me with a Clowns Without Borders-style service mission to build and heal community with clowns, fire juggling, and hula hoopers.

So I joined the circus, and for my six weeks together we traveled around in a shorty bus to various “under served” communities (rural and urban) in Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra.

Below is an excerpt of my travelogue, the two shows we did in Mumbai.

13 Dec. Mahul Goan public housing project. Vashinaka, Chembur. 

Since the drunken tribal & kerosene/bus almost-incident in Palghar, the circus has had a meeting, and we’ve agreed on a few key features of a new security plan — when we arrive, we stay on the bus while 2 scouts get off, meet the local contacts, check about availability of power, where we can change, how to set up a perimeter and safe stage area, seating kids and women up front, and we reserve the right to shut down or cancel the show at any time if our local partners and the community can’t keep things safely under control. We’ve also agreed on a buddy system. Yes, like elementary school kids at a museum. We feel good about this plan. What actually happens is this:

As the bus rolls cautiously through a broken narrow lane lined with concrete slabs of fetid housing, open sewer troughs, children women and men gaping at our shiny whiteness, anything to be out of their cells and the muggy Mumbai late afternoon heat, I am wearing a red clown nose with my head out the window. Every kid who sees me stops whatever he is doing and starts running beside the bus. After about 10 seconds there are 30 kids and the chug of the bus is mixed with the shrill swarming roar of a child army on a rampage. The circus is here! I get scared, pull my head in, close the window, and draw the curtain. Wow, too intense already.

When we dead end at the housing project, the front of the bus is surrounded by a curious mob. Our local contact has to push his way to the door. Our scouts – two women, one with magenta hair, the other with dreadlocks – get out, and are immediately swallowed into the street. We keep the curtains closed. After 10 long minutes, they return and say that we can change in some auntie’s apartment, which is around the corner, down the block, and upstairs. Deepak, our local contact seems very nice, and that he really does understand English. The group hesitates a moment before getting out of the bus. Then we buck up, grab our buddies, and head out. I ask our driver Ram Kumar to turn the bus around right now, so we’re ready to leave whenever we need to go. The street is alive with questions, with eyes, buddy groups are instantly surrounded by kids and teens wanting to touch, to shake hands, to ask, to check, to connect. The buildings look like eight story (walkup) concrete slabs of white bread – pockmarked and crumbling, 6 or 7 slices in a block, so close together it seems possible to jump from one window to the next.

With some difficulty and feeling intimidated, we get to the 3rd building, and as we’re about to turn into the dark walkway, two teens stop me and the one with attitude asks for water, for his friend. The friend seems dazed, either high or drunk or punch drunk. When I offer the water, the friend refuses, but the original guy takes some. A third guy asks for water, but I turn and walk up to the apartment. Inside the single room with a couch and TV and yapping small dog, 8 clowns are dressing and putting on makeup. Some of us don’t feel good about this. I’m not changing or putting on makeup yet, waiting to see what happens. After 20 long minutes, our two scouts are still out there somewhere. Chris and I decide to go out to find them. The energy here is thick and electric at the same time. We find our crew and struggle to the bus for a meeting. The scouts say that our performance area is this 40+ foot square concrete slab at the corner, which is raised up about three feet from the ground. The community open space. A gap in a row of ugly teeth. Just jump the sewage gully and climb on up. No electricity. No costume changes. No backstage at all – in the round. The bus across the street. Deepak, our host, can put a rope on the ground as a way to draw a line in the sand for the audience to stay behind. No security. Totally vulnerable. Getting dark. I vote for no show. Let’s get the hell out of here. Chris agrees. Jo agrees. Christy says: Well we’ve come all the way here, for these people, to make a contribution. What about just a spin jam — staff, poi, juggling, fire fingers, some flute, shruti box, and some drum? No costumes that aren’t already on, no props, no set, no battery or lights to carry. After a moment, we say ok, but let’s go fast, get the others, and move it.

Up in the little room, the group agrees with the plan to play with the glo and fire toys, play some music and scramola. Matt says “but I’m not finished with my makeup, what do you suggest I do?” I reply “how about not finishing, and let’s do the show and run like hell?” 5 minutes later, he’s the first out the door.

Like prizefighters, we have to fight our way into the ring – across the gully, up the steps, through the audience, and over the rope, lying on the ground limply. The audience surrounds us on all four sides of the raised platform — kids in the first rows, seated with some moms, groups of women, teens and young men standing, hundreds more watching from windows and balconies of the surrounding buildings. Behind the platform, running between blocks of flats, is an open sewage creek, the main drain for thousands of residents. Along its banks, a few men sit idly, playing cards. The audience seems calm, patient, welcoming. The crew starts setting up tarps and dipping toys in kerosene, and I work the crowd wearing a red nose and Joshua Alvin’s pink baby hat. I haven’t worn his whole tight kids outfit since Delhi when kids tried to pull my pants down after two different shows. I think it was too much, too low status for street work. The kids here seem great. We stare and laugh an giggle. We run or recoil from each other in fear. If I get close to the rope, a dozen kids want to shake hands, but its better to keep some distance, since I can’t shake with all of them, and that’s what they’ll want. It will be a constant flow of hands for hours. 

As we are about to light up the first fire fingers, a random guy comes up to Christy and says: “You’re using fire?” Yes, of course, that’s what we do. “Well… don’t get any fire in there, or there, or there, or there”. He points to four open squares in the corners of the concrete slab, partially covered with larger concrete chunks. Well, why not? “Gasses” he says. When pressed, he seems reluctant or unsure how to give more information. Finally, he adds, “latrine”. Oh, so he’s saying that we’re all standing on the top of an enormous septic tank, a massive toxic shit grenade that passes for “community open space”, and we’re about to start a fire show? There’s a moment of pause, where I imagine we are all thinking about canceling the show. Its almost dark, and there are a few hundred people waiting to see what happens next. I hear a lighter click, the fire fingers spring to life, and evidently, the show is on.

As the first performers start to spin their magic in the twilight, I feel safe and calm. This is a nice audience. Two or three toys are lit at a time, and with musicians following, work the corners of the platform. We switch sides, switch toys, move around easily, avoiding the hazardous manholes for about 45 minutes. The darkness settles in and there’s a campfire feel to the whole event. Then, the fire and music are extinguished, and the bellows-driven shruti wheezes its last. Chris looks at me nervously. Our force field of protection suddenly seems gone, we both can feel it. And the darkness drops heavily on the platform. We stand to bow, making a circle, all of us facing out like a wagon train, and I shout, “Is all our stuff together, in the bag?” “Mostly” is the wrong answer shouted back. And then the crowd follows the dark. They’re all around us, pressing in and pushing each other to get closer, already too close. We grab our gear, backpacks, and cameras in a panic. Where’s the stilt walker? Do you have the fuel? The first few performers splinter off, shoving through the crowd. The buddy system is trashed in the chaos. The rest of us start for the bus, grabbed and poked, violated and molested, or pushed from behind, carrying a load of gear down the steps, off the platform, into the dark. I see my buddy of the moment, Christy with the magenta hair, whirl around to a young guy, grab him by the shirt front, and start cursing him out, threatening to beat the shit out of him. He and his friends point to each other in denial, and are laughing. I grab her and yell at her to get on the bus, to walk in front of me. I use the heavy red bag as a cudgel, leaning into whomever impedes my flow with warm, kerosene-soaked pieces of metal. At the bus, the engine is running, Sanjay has the boot open, and we throw our stuff in, slam the boot, and struggle to the front where Chris and Deepak are shoving kids off the first step, prying their hands from the hand rails. We jump in, I’m usually last. “Head count”. Eleven, and Sanjay. Ram Kumar, chello! Let’s get out of here. Some kids run along side the bus, cheering, banging on the sides with their hands. Inside we’re like bees on in a bottle – buzzing, bouncing, terrified, thrilled, struggling to find the handle, somewhat surprised to be alive. When Chris realizes we’ve left Deepak behind (he left his car at our hotel, and rode with us in the bus), we scream that we’re not stopping. Deepak can fend for himself. He works in this community. He’ll be ok. We’re not going back to Mahul Goan for anyone or anything at this point.

Deepak calls and apologizes profusely, saying that his NGO held a meeting immediately afterwards, and discussed how what happened was an inappropriate way to treat guests. He says the show has become a talking point for the community. He says everyone loved it and us. We look at each other, confused. In a crazy way, that’s exactly what we’re trying to contribute with this circus – a focus for community dialogue, for change. With no message to our show this time, we’ve clearly fulfilled our mission, in contrast to some shows where we weren’t sure of our impact. This is a group of people who never get a kind word or hand. We’re so exotic, so new. This whole setup is as confusing to our guests as it is to us. 

Our driver Ram Kumar says “Not good. Bad people. Cleaners, this kind”, by which I conclude he means they are untouchable caste. Yes, well that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? To reach out to these people? I thought about the guys who asked for water; my colleagues had been asked as well. Suketu Mehta’s book Maximum City includes stories of slums that don’t have running water, except in the sewers. The city trucks water in, about weekly, though not reliably, and there are frequently fights and occasionally riots over access to water. Here. In Mumbai. We came to Mahul Goan and did this show. Who does that? Later, the idea circulates in the group that there may be a difference between being afraid for your life and actually being in danger. Matt is super pissed because his girlfriend’s buddy bailed on her when the show was over, and the petite redhead was left to find her own path to the bus. We decide that, all in all, we’re glad we did this show, and agree we need to revisit our security plan. Someone asks for clarification on how the buddy system is supposed to work. No one answers. We try to sleep. I feel proud to be a circus freak. 

14 Dec. Bandra (East).

The next day’s show is supposed to be much mellower. Its at a mosque ground, which means we have to be finished by 6 pm, before sunset. About 100 kids from the school. We can drive our bus in to use as a backdrop for the stage, which will increase security. Shreeta, our local contact, has been pretty organized. She works for the Center for the Right to Housing, and said this community was targeted in the Hindu on Muslim riots of ’92/’93, and has been ghettoized. “They’re somewhat sensitive”, she says. I ask about clothing, if women especially should cover up. She says No, this is cosmopolitan Mumbai. But she asks about messages in our show, to see if there might be anything that might tweak them. Clean air? Clean water? Give a hoot, don’t pollute? I think we’re ok.

The community sits behind the Bandra suburban rail station; the mosque grounds and hard shacks stand right by the tracks, no fences, kids and people walking across the tracks, rail stock lying about, rocks and rail gravel and dirty soot everywhere. Ram Kumar nudges the bus down a very narrow lane, at moments I’m not sure the bus will make it, but somehow the car or bike or goat gets pushed out of the way and the open air barbers, drying laundry, telephone wires, food stalls, and everyone wondering: Are they lost? What are these idiots doing here? I can read it in their eyes.

As we pull into the mosque ground, we’re happy to see Shreeta accompanied by a few teachers, all armed with sticks. Now that’s what you need to control a mob of kids. Sticks. I know it sounds bad, but riot cops in India carry lathi sticks, not guns (p.s. the Wikipedia entry on “lathi” is scary & worth a look). Sticks are useful for moving cows, monkeys, dogs, protesters, and unruly mobs. The teachers with the sticks so their job, whacking a kid or two on the head, and soon the kids are seated in the shade, eager yet obedient, and I play with them for a while, goofing and clowning. But after a few minutes, I don’t know what to do with them seated, and there are too many kids to stay in one place. So I stand up, blow my samba whistle, point “Charge!” and march off toward the rail tracks. The kids explode to their feet, I can hear the roar behind me, and we tear across the grounds. I am feeling like a Pied Piper, kids all following me wherever I will lead. I feel the power, and at the same time, the danger. I feel I am in the lead, but not in control. All of a sudden, Christy grabs me with fire in her eyes, “You just ran them across the stage! We’re trying to set up. They’re supposed to stay on that side of the rope”. Oops. My mistake. So with another whistle-blast, I lead them back and sit them down again and try some bubbles, blowing a bunch at a section, moving on. But at each section, as the bubbles come out, the kids want to rise to their feet, and there is a mini-surge of the same war cry. Some jump, clapping a bubble. All of them wary of a stick that may be hovering, waiting to strike. The bubbles are like waving raw meat at a tiger. With each mini-surge of sound and motion, I feel a bit more nervous. The kids are obedient, but not calm. They’re barely able to stay in their seats. I can feel the excitement, the energy pulsing, pushing at the flimsy gates made of sticks. I decide to put the bubbles away. Too intense.

A couple of minutes into the show, a woman comes up to ask Jo, our sound tech, to turn off our dark Russian psychedelic trance music – there’s a funeral in the mosque. Jo turns it down, but leaves it up just enough for the performers to hear our cues. We have a nice show. Daytime. Quiet without dialogue, and now without music, but fun. And the kids enjoy it, they get the jokes and clap for the fancy juggling and hooping. There are more like 400+ people watching now, adults and kids. 

As each prop or set piece comes off stage, I notice that Christy is putting it directly into the boot of the bus. Good call. At the end of the show, we bow, and then the wild roar of the kids breaks loose, a tidal wave of sound and people rush in to meet and greet us. We’re ready this time. We grab the sound gear, the battery. Toss it on the bus, and hop in. All in about 2 minutes, maximum. “Head count!”. Kids are banging on the door of the bus. Ram Kumar pushes the bus down a rocky embankment, into the alley again. The kids run alongside us, yelling, banging on the sides. We’re barely able to move forward, and kids are following. I take a photo of the kids out the window of the bus, and then I hear a loud bang.

“The kids are throwing rocks at the bus!” One, two. Then a series. Then more keep coming, big ones. We rush to shut the windows, pull the curtains, people screaming “Why are they doing this?” covering their heads with cloth, and then the back window shatters. Rocks and glass shower the seats and floor. Chris holds a piece of plywood over the hole, and the rocks and glass keep coming, are bouncing around him, but he’s protected under the ply. Ram Kumar is honking like mad to get a goat out of the road. Christy is angry, looks stern, and says, “I’m going out there” I look at her and almost punch her in the head for her own good but say nothing. She sits down. I am standing in the front of the bus, looking backwards, trying to keep my head higher than the windows, and to see what’s happening. Not the time for duck and cover in my book. I’m also changing my clothes as fast as I can — pulling off my red check pants and plaid vest, pouring water on my long Indian neck scarf to take off my makeup. When rocks start coming through the window, and if you can’t move the vehicle, what if the bus gets surrounded? What if the next thing that comes through the window is on fire? All I know is that I need to be out of clown face and fashion, and into something that might possibly let me blend into the crowd if I am forced off the bus in the middle of all this. The goat  moves. The bus moves. The taxi moves. The bus moves again. More rocks and glass. Then we’re over the train tracks and free, into normal congestion, kids still following. Chris’ cell rings. Its Shreeta, our local contact. She wants us to stop, so she can catch up in her car, to talk, to assess. We scream at Chris to refuse to stop, the kids could still be chasing us. We tell Shreeta we’ll meet her 5 or 10 km down the road. 

When we stop to check the damage, everyone is ok. Sanjay, our driver’s assistant, has been hit in the head by a rock but says he is fine, and refuses to press a lukewarm Fanta against his forehead. Shreeta apologizes profusely, and says she will find a way to pay for the window. When we ask for an explanation, she says that perhaps because the kids were so excited, they wanted to meet us, to get close, and when we just up and ran, they got frustrated and did what dogs or monkeys would do — they chased us. Ram Kumar says, “Bad people, this. Pakistan, America, India. All trouble.” He’s blaming the chaos on the audience being Muslim. He’s said this before. I ask. “What about yesterday? Those were Hindus”. Ram Kumar pretends not to understand me. Everyone agrees that we are canceling tomorrow’s show. Even Christy. We don’t care who. We don’t care where.

I’m going home to San Francisco in a few days, but next for the group is a trip to the caves at Ellora and Ajunta, then to Goa for a couple of weeks. Rest and relax and try to figure out what’s gone wrong.

How can this show go on, I wonder? How can the group stay safe while completing their mission of service to others? My friends, the clowns, will need to figure this out before hitting the road again in mid Jan.

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