Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reflections: Water for Elephants

Jacob Jankowski is a ninety three year old man rebelling against the rigid confines of a residential home for the elderly. He struggles to cope with his decrepit body and his slippery mind that fazes in and out of his unforgettable past. Jacob recalls his time as a veterinarian in a Circus in the early 1930s. His memories are a bitter-sweet mixture of fondness, sorrow and guilt, but the past unwaveringly haunts him to somehow help him make peace with it. In this story, the reader gets an inside look at the unglamorous backstage of a Circus - starting from the hierarchical segregation of its people, the cut-throat survival tactics, the conniving politics, the pitiable lives of captive animals, to the bits of humanity and camaraderie that surface amidst much cruelty. The story is an explosion of romance and drama that is sure to reorient our perspective on Circus performers.

I actually have been to the Circus only once, and even that is a very hazy memory. In general, my parents and I have primarily felt only pity and sympathy for the human and animal performers, rather than any awe. Especially in developing countries like India, the concept of human or animal rights hardly exists in such trades. So going into this book, I had the same mental-model of a Circus as the author presents. Although it wasn’t much of a surprise in that regard, it still shocked me. You get punched by the brutality of the story. When I started the book, I was so drawn into the setting and the characters that I wanted to watch the upcoming movie based on this book. But after reading about the violence and callousness, I’ve decided not to. I get easily affected by disturbing visuals of gore. When I have enough of such images floating translucently in my mind, why make them more real and graphic by watching the movie. Or so I tell myself now :). Let’s see how tempted I am when the movie comes out!

The aspect that I was most impressed with was the characterization of the old and crabby Jacob Jankowski. Sara Gruen garners the human elements of the story by her exceptionally good characterization of the old man. She pays attention to every single detail of the experiences and angst of an old man abandoned in a place that no longer acknowledges him as a person with an identity, a personality and even a spectacular past. Jacob is transformed to a real, living person. More than the Circus, it is this parallel thread that is precisely and sensitively portrayed. I would be tempted to watch the movie just to see if the actor pulls off this role!

The book is obviously well-researched, for Gruen incorporates real incidents and accidents from history into this story. Gruen also does justice in bringing out the pitiable lives of vagabonds during the  Great Depression, who scurried through life and braved through indignities, just to scrape pennies. Although the story definitely takes the glamorous sheen off the notion of a Circus, it is an absorbing story of survival, humanity and the heart-warming bonds animals and humans can share.

Digested Thoughts: The story makes for an emotional and engrossing read. Gruen’s writing is commendable, and her characterizations are excellent. This is an interesting read on the life of Circus performers. It makes one respect the value of survival and of course, our cushion of financial security!


SecondSight said...

This is one of the few 'newer' books that I loved for its writing and the imagery, and Jacob seemed like a more gritty Gerald Durrell or James Herriot in his love of animals :)

Though I think the attitudes of humans towards the animals they work with/ love transcends the economical boundaries of developing vs. developed countries :)

Karthik said...

Yes, I think people from India already have an impression of circus life not being as glamorous as it seems, and sadly I guess even the seats aren't filled up in the shows. I myself have gone only a couple of times. But this reminds me of a really old hindi serial that used to come on dd I think:-)

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - I picked it up because of your recommendation :). True about the overall attitude of humans towards animals, but in developed countries, at least the awareness and laws push people to pay some attention to animal rights - but not always of course! See, I really expected it to be more like James Herriot's but the animal focus wasn't as much - just a few pages in the overall book...

Karthik - Yeah in this online era who has the patience to go to a Circus ;). What is the dd serial? I'm blanking out... :)

SecondSight said...

Of course- the DD serial was called Circus !! With Shahrukh Khan when he used to be like-able, and Renuka Shahane and a few other big names :).

N- I was referring more to the emotions associated with the animals, and their starring roles in the story, than them being focal points really.. didn't mean to mislead you :)

Karthik said...

Secondsight beat me to it :-) Ya, it was called Circus, though I dont remember anything about it now except that it was popular:)