Calcutta in the 1880s —cultural, artistic, revolutionary. A well-connected class and caste of reformers made waves through India, and the Indian revolution, for generations. One small part of this story, lost in our revolutionary nostalgia, is the nascent formations of the Indian circus — specifically, a Bengali circus, with Bengali entrepreneurship, spirit and skill. Tiger Woman, by Sirso Bandhopadhyay, takes us through the formation and troubles of the Great Bengal Circus, and the passions of its founder, Priyanath Bose.

A note must be made when we talk about translations. Most Indian languages have a music to them that doesn’t translate well into English. This is not because either language is bad — they are simply foreign to each other. Of the current generation of translators from Bengali, Arunava Sinha is perhaps the most well-known and prolific. His Tagore in the 21st Century is a vital, breathing text, which gives us a view on what Tagore must be doing with such beauty in his own tongue (I recommend it highly if you have never read Tagore before, or read Tagore in English and didn’t like him.) So when I say that Tiger Woman is dull narrative, with dull prose, I think the flaw (as I see it) must lie with the original author, and not the translator.

Tiger Woman is a narrative about ‘What Happened’, not ‘How’ or ‘Why’. It does not take the time to explore its characters in depth beyond their most relevant passions. What does Sushila, the eponymous Tiger Woman, want? What does her sister want? What drives Ganapati, the magician, escape artist, the lover? What drives Priyanath Bose, who founded the circus on (almost literally) blood, sweat and tears? You never learn these characters as people. They come into being for the sake of the plot, and to serve one single narrative goal — form the circus. It is interesting to see a narrative set in British colonial times that spends so little energy on dealing with the British. In Tiger Woman, the British are not an oppressive colonial force to be evicted from the country – they are invaders, yes, but also competitors. The Great Bengal Circus takes on a patriotic, revolutionary fervour in that it must be better than British circuses; sexier, with more dangerous stunts, more stunning acts. In some ways, Priyanath Bose is free, privileged, and blessed, not the bloodied revolutionary I have come to expect from stories set in colonial India. Ganapati Chakraborty is a similar character, walking away from privilege in order to learn magic ‘tricks’ to perform for the masses. (These masses are rarely shown in great detail either. Everything is gossamer thin
in this novel.)

The social forces that drive the characters are quite clear, and handled with nuance. Ganapati and Priyanath are both sons of privilege, who cannot yield authority or share responsibilities. Ganapati has, at least, freed himself from the shackles of traditional life, but Priyanath cannot do the same, attempting a double life as householder and circus manager, and failing desperately at both. Sushila is an orphan, reliant on Priyanath for her career and for her happiness. The novel takes us through their paths to show us their inevitable endings. Only Ganapati escapes — it is his expertise, after all.

What of Sushila, the Tiger Woman? We learn very little about her internal life. The blurb tells us she is the centre of a love triangle between Ganapati and Priyanath. The text tells us she loves the tigers she performs with; she is brave and vulnerable. What is Sushila outside of these two men, outside of the tigers? We do not know. The narrative also brushes over her sister Kumudini, clearly a fierce young woman who — we don’t know any more.

This shrinkage of women, of people, to fit the bare bones narrative of setting up a circus robs the story of any dramatic drive. Why should we, here in the 21st century, care that someone tried to set up a circus — an out-dated and outmoded concept now anyway — at the turn of the century? Why does
anyone care?

Bandhopadhyay tells us he has removed historical facts from the story because he did not have enough evidence. But we don’t get to see his other sources, nor does he make much of what he gives us. We walk away from his novel aware of missed connections, of lives lived unwell. I now look for a non-fictional history of the movement to create an Indian circus, and hope that it will show me their lives with some effort at empathy, at celebrating them as people and not puppets at a

It would be nice to hear how the tigers fared, too.

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