Freaks and geeks

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on April 03, 2020

It’s my turn to find something other than You-Know-What to talk about. And I’m all ready. “The book I ordered arrived yesterday,” I tell Bins, on WhatsApp. “It’s by a famous guy named Ricky Jay. The book’s called Jay’s Journal of Anomalies.”

“I don’t want to talk about animals again,” says Bins at once. “We did that already, the last time.” Five minutes go into clarifying the subject. “The late Ricky Jay was a performer and sleight-of-hand artiste. He also had a special interest in offbeat performers of other kinds. He used to publish a journal about some of the extraordinary freaks and small-time roadside performers of the past.“

“Oof!” Bins snorts, as he walks up and down in the backyard in New Delhi. “I don’t understand why you’re fascinated with freaks!” I grin, on my side of the planet. The reason is simple, I tell him. “So-called freaks are just people who don’t fit within the social definitions of ‘normal’. Since I too am something of an Outsider, I naturally sympathise with people who don’t fit in to their social group for some reason.”

The book is a fascinating compilation of oddities: The woman with a small ram’s horn growing out of the side of her head; the man whose girth was almost the same as his height; the men and women who attempted to simulate being crucified; the Japanese “face-contortionist” who could scrunch his face up by lifting his lower jaw to cover his nose. The illustrations are mostly engravings, but in some ways these drawings, by being somewhat crude, are more precise and detailed than a photograph would have been.

Bins is still not convinced that this is a subject worth sharing. Fortunately, I have anticipated his reaction and have an alternative focus of attention. “Okay, so this is someone in a related field. An English mentalist, called Derren Brown.” There was a time when we both used to watch a TV programme called The Mentalist, starring Simon Baker. “But this is a real person. And he’s amazing. I watched a show of his on Netflix called Miracle.”

Derren Brown doesn’t ever claim any supernatural powers. In fact he goes out of his way to insist that his aim is to show his audience that reality is marvellous on its own. “On the show, he tells the audience that many of us are trapped in what he calls bad personal stories, which prevent us from fulfilling our own potential. Then he gets people to do astonishing things.” “Such as?” asks Bins.

“Well,” I say, “he gets a young woman from the audience to sit in front of him and eat a tiny piece of glass!” “Not possible!” exclaims Bins. “Not safe either!” Yet she does it. In tight close-up: Crunches, chews and swallows. She seems okay. “He’s a dangerous madman!” yells Bins. “It’s just another trick!” “Watch the show,” I tell him, smiling calmly. “It’s really worth it.”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on April 03, 2020

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