Human And Not Wholly Human, Writ By The Finger Of The Divine
by glossolalia

The People's Most Exquisite Circus, formerly the Royal Exquisition of Bombay and the Kerala State People's Egalitarian Fun Round, is still, after all these years, entertaining, delighting, and educating better than ever.

The circus is a zone of exiles that settled two, maybe three, decades ago like heavy spring clouds over one city block and did not budge. The brick theatre, with its patched canvas roof that shrieks and pulls itself free in great strips during high winds, is lined inside with rickety seats, narrower than any fundie missionary pew, rising nearly to eye-level with the child acrobats.

Between the circus and the city, the Hall of Marvelous Wonders intervenes, offering one more-first-or-last glimpse of the strange.

All the way through the Hall of Marvelous Wonders, which is neither a hall, being instead two trailers locked together, nor particularly marvelous, all things considered, there is something you should see. Between Sita the Monocular Oracle and Babu the Dancing Bear, who's just a sweet-natured mentally-challenged guy named Arjun in a hairy suit, and across the aisle from the stereopticon show, can be found the Dainty Albino Lacking Center, Ground, and Self, formerly Daniel Osbourne of Sunnydale, California, USofA.

That's him, right there.

Doesn't look like much, but he'll turn himself into anything you want to see.

Just tell him.

Perform, transform!

Go on, take just three steps -- five for the kiddoes -- down the Hall. You want to see the fearsome wolfboy; everyone does. Tell him to transform, cheer his change, marvel at the mogrification as it transects the reality we clutch to so dearly. Observe him, just a meek little peasant boy, cast out from love and family for the pathetic pallor of his skim-milk skin, white as camphor and unadorned, now turned into the awesome animistic mimic man.

Toss him a coin, urge him on toward liberty and life! Just two coins, then stand back. Stand back, brothers and sisters, observe his true face. Gape at the fierce rough beauty of his bestial form. Wouldn't we all like such lissome liberty, such primal power?

He is a wolf, thirsty for hot blood, pelt crackling with passionate electricity, and all your hearts beat faster at the sight.

Now he is an ape, orangutan, chimp and monkey, the most intelligent of all our animal friends, stripping fruit from its skin with quick, most clever fingers.

Pay him, he will play. Lusus naturae, the doctors and scientists say, eh? Ludicrous, silliest and chilling.

No one knows his entire story. Biography is not my pleasure, but I can tell you this. It takes just one crooked monk to smile broadly, black eyes glittering, and lead you off the rocky path of enlightenment, down into the garish alleyway bazaar of entertainment and spectacle. And aren't we grateful to that monk, else we would not know this boy, would not gift him with our eyes and fill his meager satchel with our generous coins.

Hie yourself to his cage, bewitch and beware your eyes. He'll rehearse, repeat, represent the bestiaries and all the fauna of this mixed-up little cosmic rock we call Earth our home. He rejects form as our beloved boneless equilibrists scorn gravity. All of us here, we hate the singular and static as we cleave to multiple flights of fancy and hybrid love.

If hybridity is heresy, then to blaspheme, don't you think, kind souls, to blaspheme is to dream? What secrets snuggle in his blood, nestling up to pillowy cells, concealing history and miscegenation, mystery and mistake? For this cannot be an Indian boy, not wholly, but someone inauthentic and partial. Secrets curled up, kitties in the sun, dormant and hidden before they unfurled and somersaulted through his poor mamaji, squealing, laughing, cackling, disclosing themselves in great milky splashes all over his little baby skin.

Morpheus is a god of dreams, morphology the study of form, but we don't need books and grammar and slide-rules here, do we? Of course we don't, because we are here, hardnosed realists, and we're watching this boy change before our very eyes.

Perform, wild mongrel mowgli boy! Transform!

You will reap the rupees from those more fortunate than you. And we in turn will thank you for the education.


That isn't the whole story. It isn't even a patchwork made from most of the truth. And anyway, there hasn't been a barker leading spectators to Oz's cage since last winter. Not regularly; sometimes Old Lal, the manager's snaggle-toothed great-uncle, remembers to come to work and shrug on his doctors' whites and play at lecturing, but even then, he spits seeds with far more dependability than he barks.

Oz doesn't particularly care. Whether it's true or not, it makes a cool story.

The monk part, at least, that's true enough. Up in the north, he sidled up and suggested that Oz was out of place, that he belonged elsewhere.

Not that Oz had ever been all that monastic in the first place.

This particular monk's name was Chanaya, an Indian left with the Tibetans in one of their refugee communities. He had a deformed left arm, mangled in childbirth into a very long claw, and bravado to spare, and less asceticism, even, than Oz.

You don't belong here, he told Oz after one morning's prayers while they both stirred the butter tea and were not supposed to talk. With your talents, you could dazzle them all. But not here.

Oz nodded. He was white, a Westerner, a silly American boy who thought he could learn something from the ancient wisdom of the East. Or something like that is what the monks said to one another. They might have been right.

Instead, having followed a thick and contorted chain of Chanaya's associates and cousins and brothers-in-law once-removed, he's here. Or, not here, because right now he is at home, but at the circus.

His home, this tiny two-room flat up the back stairs from the family Appadurai's apartment, hidden from the rest of the complex and unknown to even the tax collectors. Oz lies to friends at the circus about where he lives. One last holdover of his Western upbringing, this silly grab for privacy.

Here at home, which isn't a home, he can pretend that he is just this, bone-tired and alone, and it's a play as much as anything he does in the Hall of Marvelous Wonders. Sleepy hardworking man is a costume like snarling wolf, jaw-snapping croc, and chirping mongoose. Which is to say, play and not. Real but also deliberate.

When Oz wakes this morning, the monkey is gone.

There are no borders here. What's public is private, what's private, public. Entire families, four generations, bathe in the ornamental fountains that stud boulevards in the old British quarter; quarrels and murderous fights and tender, whisper-laden sexual encounters all occur in alleys, stairwells, theatre balconies; rats and monkeys roam freely over temple grounds, municipal dumps, and apartment buildings equally. There is no privacy, only snatches at intimacy. Games of privacy.

The monkey appeared his first morning here; he comes and goes, but Oz has come to depend on his company. This city abounds with stories about giant monkey men, vampire monkeys, baby-eating wild swarms of feral monkeys. So Oz is appropriately grateful that he has only a single ill-tempered monkey who eats fruit and nuts and plays with his hair.

Gone with the monkey is Oz's breakfast, his favorite blue t-shirt, and his last two bottles of Igora Royal Train Purple hair dye. Oz's scalp aches and when he scratches at it, his hand comes away purple; monkey likes Oz's hair, and likes to decorate it more.

Still well before dawn, he walks through sleep-crusted streets toward work. The sky is green. Really green, lime-scented and pebbly, studded with a few wan stars. Banners and confetti rise before his feet; last night was the full moon, Hanuman's birthday, and red sindur powder is everywhere.

On you, o Hanuman, attends good sense and great wisdom, Oz chants as he hurries toward the circus.You dispel the darkness of evil thoughts and your physique is beautiful golden colored and your dress is pretty. You wear ear rings and have long curly hair.

Oz likes a god you can flatter. It's a good approach, praising both wisdom and personal style. Covers the bases, you could say.


Oz stands for twelve hours a day in his spindly balsa-wood cage, bare- chested, wearing plaster shackles around his ankles. Those in the circus work three shows a day. Acrobats, fire-eaters, contortionists and hypnotists. But Oz and the other marvels are available all day long. During shows, between shows, after shows.

Any hour of daylight, he is available, standing ready to change.

He waits on the threshold and lets force of belief coexist with its inverse, lack of attachment. He believes he can do this; he does not care if he does.

He is not human, so he does not love his human shape. He is not wolf, either, so the shapes he can assume are not merely vulpine.

He waits a lot and has plenty of time to think.

This is a rough magic, a different sort of control and liberation. He channels the power into filigreed streams and lets it wreak effects over his skin and through his tissues. Sometimes he wonders what kind of magic this is, what others -- those with books and education -- would call it.

This is a combination of fakery -- being shaved, staying mute, all to maintain the illusion that he is a young albino from Tellicherry -- and mimicry.

What transformation means, he can't say, not any more. What he knows does not easily translate up into words. In any language, and he knows that because he knows now eight languages. He knows how to stretch, and breathe, and let change settle through him. He knows that opportunities are just chance, random but inevitable, and he explores each one as it is suggested.

Tissues twist, contort, and pull into new shapes. Every single one, from skin to the lining of his throat to the bulbous clusters of his lungs and the spongy mass of his cock, they are all each one changeable. Each one is a multitude of costumes, if he believes enough and lets it happen.

He wears himself, new shapes and strange forms, and coins clatter around his feet.

He is desire, embodying fantasy with a shrug and obeisance; he is them and what they want to see. Projection, introjection, abjection. He sells their fantasies of primeval nature and liberated animality back to them, rupees on the floor.


He does not have many friends here. Tagore, the ringmaster and leering clown, talks to him whenever the opportunity presents itself, but Tagore talks to anyone. Sita the One-Eyed Seer does not care for Oz's near-nakedness, which discomfits her, and says, at best, a brief hello at the start of each day.

Haroun the sword-swallower is a good friend, but he has been in hospital for three weeks now, a broken leg from a drunken tumble going gangrenous around the knee.

Dawa might be his friend; Oz isn't sure. She's too young, probably, to be a friend. She is tall, somehow more gangly than the other six skinny girls who make up the troupe of Seven Breathtaking Equilibrist Sisters of the Heavens. She looks like the monks Oz left behind, round heavy-lidded eyes and cheeks permanently flushed, but she ran from him the first time he spoke Tibetan to her.

That was the only time he has ever seen her scared.

How do you know that? she asked the next day, whispering in Tibetan, pointing to her mouth. She had crept into the hall, glancing over her shoulder almost compulsively. Tongue, language?

Speak a little, he said. Used to study.

You sound ridiculous, you know.

Oz nodded. Probably, yes.

Dawa fingered the card mounted on his cage, the photocopy, several generations removed, of an old woodcut of a wolfman and abbreviated, breathless headlines advertising his fabulous skills. What's this say?

That I'm in the bardo, he told her, choosing the words carefully. The in-between space of not-life and not-death, change and demons and souls mingling. He watched her eyes flick back and forth between the card and his face. He didn't know how long she'd been away from home, if she'd even understand what he meant, but eventually Dawa flipped her long braid over her shoulder and grinned.

Can you look like this? She jabbed at the card.

Step back and I'll show you.

Dawa sucked her upper lip between her teeth and stared at him. Fearless little girl with bones like a bird's. No.

Oz rolled his shoulders and let the change come. Like letting the night fall, he had little choice in the matter. Fur gathered and grew, sprouting like spines from his pores as the marrow-deep ache of fangs and claws set in.

Dawa stayed still, watching him, her mouth opening and stretching into a smile.

He only does a metonymy of presence, letting his torso change, staying human below the waist in his cut-off trousers and fake shackles. Dawa pointed at his legs and complained.

Do you jump for a trapeze that's not there? he asked and she scowled.

He has no other friends.

You can always go, they say and think. You don't have to be here.

He knows it's true. Potential mobility clings to him, his skin color, the warped pages of his US passport. No such potential for Lal, Dawa, the monkey; Oz knows that this is in no way just. Nor does he quite understand how far his guilt over it should spread.

He thinks of the narrow windowed cells that line the streets in red- light districts. In Amsterdam, Hamburg, Bangkok, where the women display themselves and hold up signs -- a whip, a schoolgirl's bag, a pony's saddle -- that indicate their specialties. He thinks of the junkwallas lining the streets he takes home, the men who sell anything and everything they can get their hands on. He thinks of commerce and spectacle, property and display. What you have becomes what you are, and this in turn commodifies through some sedimentary, inexorable process into what you can sell.

The second greatest presumption of them all is that he plays the outcast here yet he can always, somehow, leave.

The greatest, of course, is that he is paranoid enough to believe he can possibly know what people think of him.


Fish today! Green and silver fish.

He opens his eyes -- feigned trance, much-needed nap, it's a little of both -- and sees Dawa. Not supposed to be in here.

She grins and shakes the bars again. Hawk. Black and gold hawk. With wings!

Oz does birds fractionally better than fish, which is to say, pretty badly. How about a cat?

Dawa shakes her head.

He tells Dawa stories, misremembered and truncated, strange wind- twisted versions of what were already bizarre feats, about the hungry baby god with a monkey's face who ate the sun, thinking it was a fruit. Who flew to Lanka and buzzed through a demoness's ear and saved the queen. He acts out the stories, shrinks and swells, soaks his skin with sindur, performs the feats.

Dawa doesn't know the stories, so she loves them. She laughs at his choppy Tibetan and pokes him to shrink again. Fly now! She flaps her arms to demonstrate, not trusting him to understand the words.

Oz shakes off the red monkey skin and drops to a squat. I can't fly.

Dawa laughs at him and her voice is full of pity. Poor you. I can fly. Very high, past the stars even.

In this cage, he is what they want. But when Dawa looks at him, she doesn't want anything. It's too stupid, silly and hopeful, to think that she sees him; they both reject reality (form, gravity). More like, Oz looks back at her, she winks, and their smile is, often, one.


It is impossible to romanticize anything here. No mysticism, no wisdom, despite what people elsewhere would like to think. As if spirituality accumulates in inverse proportions to GNPs and the availability of clean water and the relative darkness of skin.

People like him go to Nepal and India, think they can go to Tibet, and pick up enlightenment like they do brass prayer bowls and bright skulls strung as malas. Exotic things are for sale, whether material or metaphysical.

If he were a monkey-god or Dawa, he could slip loose from gravity and fly. Tumble through the air and embrace mobility.


He rarely visits the show itself, but he has seen Dawa, her skinny body perching high as a dove, then twisting and falling toward the net. Flying. She is fearless, even more so than the other kids in the troupe. Fearless, wrapped in spangles, her black hair flowing behind her.

He watches them practice today, Dawa and two other girls flipping hand-over-foot along a rope strung ten feet off the ground. No spangles today, just their grimy never-white-again underclothes, their hair tied back tightly. Dawa sees him leaning against the back stoop of the Hall and waves.

She knows a little Hindi now, some Urdu too, but she tosses out instructions bodily. Gesture is all, elastic gesture and demonstration, not language.

Best show in town, eh?

Tagore's behind him, breath foul as pickle and rye, clapping Oz's shoulder. Oz nods and doesn't look around.

Those mountain girls, Tagore says into Oz's ear. Nothing like them, so boneless-bendy.

Acrobats and gymnasts, Oz thinks, then realizes too late what Tagore means. The elbow in his ribs, the harsh-moist jocularity of Tagore's chortle.

So fresh, brother. Capable of anything you might imagine. Want.

Dawa is, at most, nine. Oz swallows hard against the sudden sick swell in his gut and spits on the ground.

Get them cheap, too, Tagore adds, not noticing or not caring that Oz is trying to slide away. So I hear. Most parents're glad to be rid of more mewling mouths, yeah?

I'm late, Oz mutters as he skirts Tagore and makes toward the Hall's entrance. He escapes only ten meters and hopes the spectators are few and far between today.

Nausea claws at him from the inside, like a parasite.


The monkey is back.

He's a big one, almost two feet tall, with skinny arms, the fur matted and dirty, and a beetroot face. He shouts at Oz as Oz opens the door, cackling gibberish. As the door clicks shut, he lunges like a cream and red bullet, his shriek cutting sharply before him. Oz sidesteps him and pulls the melon rind from his satchel.

The monkey catches it with eager, eerie fingers and sits back on his haunches to push his face into the fruit. No distinctions can be made that will hold for very long. A monkey lives like a person in Oz's flat, and a person hopes for a life as bountiful as a rat's.

The monkey knows this. He lobs the sticky rind at Oz and chatters.

More, he wants more, so Oz holds out a lemon and four chestnuts in his palm. The monkey's fingers scrape Oz's skin, sharp nails that make him shudder, as he grabs them, then pushes the lemon between his teeth.

Propitiation is a word Oz probably already knew. It's got the whole Latin-multisyllable whiff of Sunnydale, after all. But it's a word that only makes sense here.

Oz feeds the monkey, offers him what he can afford, and in turn, it doesn't bite him (often) or chew off his face while Oz sleeps.

Oz fries last night's rice with a tomato and wraps it all in two large chapatis. One for him, one for monkey.

Getting some company soon, Oz says when dinner is over.

Monkey turns his black eyes on Oz and bares his incisors.

Deal with it, Oz tells him and monkey almost nods.


The moon eases off the previous night's fullness, and Oz walks quickly back to the circus block. He is himself tonight, whoever and whatever that is right now, and he finds Dawa by scent and sight in the girls' bunks beneath the stands.

There may be no borders here -- or if there are, they're permeable ones, tissue-thin and frequently patched and easily transgressed -- and Oz may not belong here, even as he sells the spectacle of his lack of self, but collaboration is another thing entirely.

It smells foul back here, but she smiles, meeting his eye. He almost smiles back until she sits up on her narrow, swaybacked cot, and pulls off her undershirt. Her chest is narrow as a twig, ribs standing out, tiny nipples like kitten's eyes staring back at him as she opens her arms and cocks her head in a parody of flirtation.

No, Oz says, in all eight languages, and then again. No, not that.

Dawa looks puzzled and slowly pulls her shirt back on. Not allowed in here.

Want to take a walk? he asks, ignoring her, handing her a t-shirt of his own and a pair of boy's shorts from the fashionwalla.

She twists her braid up around her head, tying its tail to its root like the snake that eats itself, and pulls on the trousers. I'm a boy, she says.

Yes, Oz says, taking her hand, leading her silently out of the building. Tagore, Manager Lal, any of them could be lying in wait. The burden of all difficult tasks of the world, he thinks, Dawa's hand cold in his, become light with your kind grace. Flying now. Don't look down.

Don't look, Dawa chirps, making fun of his accent. Don't look!


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