If the hallmark of a good novel is that the reader will keep ruminating on the characters and situations that she came across long after having finished reading the book, then John Irving’s A Son of The Circus, published in 1994, is easily a modern great.

Irving goes to some length in the preface to make the point that his novel is not about India, but only set in India, but it can just as easily be both, if for no other reason than the sheer variety and diversity of Indian life that it takes in – the travelling circuses of Western India and the dwarfs who work there, Bombay club-land, Western hippies in Goa, pimps, prostitutes and transvestites, as well as the “holy fathers” who run and teach in Jesuit schools in India.

The protagonist, Dr Farokh Daruwalla, son of a militantly atheist orthopaedic surgeon in Bombay, leaves the country just before independence to train as a doctor in Vienna and eventually settles in Ontario, Canada, with his Austrian wife. He feels neither Indian – not having lived in, and therefore known, the country for long – nor Canadian, having been mugged early on and thereafter failed to assimilate himself fully into Canadian life. Somewhere along the way, he converts from Zoroastrianism to Catholicism, although doubts about his religious beliefs linger and inform his existence almost continually.

In the course of his lifelong quest of getting to know the country of his birth, he visits India periodically – the novel is set in the 1990s – when he volunteers his time for the treatment of poor, crippled children and dwarfs which brings him close to travelling circuses. He is a contemplative man yearning to be creative, which impulse leads him to writing screenplays for Hindi crime thrillers.

These are centred around an anti-hero, Inspector Dhar, in which role he casts John Daruwalla, one of two identical twins born in Bombay in the 1950s of a louché American actress who abandoned him in the care of the Daruwallas in the fifties and returned to America with the other twin. The Inspector Dhar films lead to a series of real-life murders in Bombay that seem to mimic the ones in the film and meanwhile, Martin Mills, the twin in America who has become a missionary, returns to Bombay to teach in a Jesuit school. Of course, he is mistaken as his twin, of whose existence he does not even know!

Many stories, like many Indias

All this might sound like raging confusion, but Irving’s story-telling genius seamlessly merges a crime thriller with many other sub-plots, among which is the tale of twins separated at birth who eventually unite, only for them to find out that both are gay from which they infer that their real father was a bisexual paramour of their feckless mother – a simultaneous wink and nod, as well as a spoof, of the clichéd Hindi films of the period. Readers familiar with Irving’s oeuvre will surely notice his usual leitmotifs – conversion and religion, sexual mores and seduction, dwarfs and circuses – but this is the one novel which is set in a context completely different from all of his others, which may well be the reason that some of his other recurring themes, such as bears and wrestling, do not show up.

But even more than the excellent plotting, the essence of the book, as in almost all his other novels, is the compassion with which Irving gazes at the less fortunate in society – in this case, Indian society – and his vaulting imagination that is on display on every page. Thus he is able to develop his plots and characters at great length, while simultaneously going off on extended tangents.

These are the digressions – the many chapters on life in the circuses, slums, red-light areas as well as posh clubs – that are not strictly necessary for the development of the multiple plots, but that afford the most pleasure and reveal how immersed Irving must have been in India when he wrote this novel, and how sharp an eye he has for observation and analysis.

To wit, sample this delineation of a minor character:

“Old Mr Sethna disapproved of Inspector Dhar movies. He was exceptionally disapproving in general, a quality regarded as enhancing to his position as steward at the Duckworth Club, where he routinely behaved as if he were empowered with the authority of the club secretary. Mr Sethna had long ruled the dining room and the Ladies’ Garden with his disapproving frowns...the steward was such a fanatical Zoroastrian that Farokh’s fiercely opinionated father had described Mr Sethna as a Parsi who carried all of Persia on his shoulders...He was tall and exceedingly lean, as if he generally disapproved of eating, and he had a hooked, disdainful nose, as if also disapproved of how everything smelled. And the old steward was so fair-skinned – most Parsees are fairer-skinned than most Indians – that Mr Sethna was presumed to be racially disapproving, too.

At present, Mr Sethna looked disapprovingly at the commotion that engulfed the golf course. His lips were thin and tightly closed, and he had the narrow, jutting tufted chin of a goat. He disapproved of sports, and most avowedly disliked the mixing of sporting activities with the more dignified pursuits of dining and sharp debate.”

Reversing the gaze

Although dismissed by critics at the time of its publication, these elegant and extended forays into seemingly disconnected paths make the book a page-turner; even at 830 pages the reader is left wishing for more of this gay romp across countries, times, characters and situations.

A number of Indian authors in recent times, most notably Jhumpa Lahiri, have looked at America through Indian eyes – A Son of The Circus may be the closest thing to the opposite, being possibly the only modern Indian novel by an American author. Also, the novel will evoke, for some Indian readers, that about-to-be-forgotten slice of our recent past – the pre-cellphone, pre-liberalisation India of the 1980s and ‘90s. The taxis in Bombay are all Ambassadors (should they have been Fiats?), the only two five-star hotels are the Oberoi and the Taj, the means of communications of urgency and importance is the telegram!

Tautly plotted yet expansively written, A Son of The Circus is then a testament to a powerful novelist’s immersion in India and its diversities. It deserves to be relished, large chunks at a time like some vast and sumptuous meal that almost never ends!