A son of the Circus, by John Irving, is a novel of characters. What I mean by this is that it is not plot driven, but more of a study of the highly varied cast of personages that inhabit it. The plot twists, the mysteries, murders, etc, are merely a background against which different people get to reveal themselves to us.

Its main character is an orthopedist doctor by the name of Farrokh Daruwalla. An indian that is not an indian. An eternal outsider. “Foreigners are foreigners all their life” his late father would say.

And what a father he was. Always critical of everything and everyone, from India and its caste systems to Ghandy. Nobody was spared his opinions, christians, muslims, hindu, parsis...

Dr. Daruwalla was born in Bombai (now Mumbai), educated in a catholic school, studied medicine in Vienna where he married a vienness woman and went on to reside in Toronto, Canada.

By this chancy way of growing up, he missed the important moments of his native country (the independence of India) and whenever he goes, he's never truly at home.

But this is also the story of several other characters, all of whom revolve around him one way or another:

His adoptive brother, an actor that goes by the improbable name of Inspector Dhar, who happens to be one of the persons the Bombai populace loves to hate. He stars in a series of movies, written by Dr. Daruwalla (who happens to be a closet screenwriter) that always manage to enrage someone, by stereotyping and making allusion to generally believed prejudices (the police is always corrupt, taxi drivers are maniacs, etc). In his non-indian life, he is a serious theater actor. He also has a twin brother whom he has never met:

Martin Mills, Dhar's twin brother. He doesn't even knows he has a brother and his story is one filled with frustration and self pity. He arrives as a priest in training completely clueless of the city hatred toward a man who is his identical twin. Hilarity ensues, but not for long. He is rescued by one of Dr. Daruwalla's dearest friends:

Vinod. A dwarf who is a former circus clown turned entrepreneur. He owns a rather shabby taxi company and is Dhar's and Dr. Daruwalla's driver and link to India. He is also of special interest to the doctor, because in addition to being an orthopedist, he is also trying to find the genetic markers for achondroplastic dwarfism.

Inspector Patel, the real policeman (as opposed to the fiction that is Inspector Dhar), and his wife Nancy cross the doctor's path at crucial moments in his life. To say more of them, would be to give away an important part of the book.

Several other characters: a transsexual, two orphan children, an semi-competent obstetrician, an always disapproving steward, Hollywood vermin, find their ways in this book, by means of several murders, fanatic proselytizing, acts of charity, AIDS, menacing phone calls and many others situations.

The timeline for this books jumps back and forth to key parts of the Doctor's life: his youth with his parents and his studies in Vienna, his second honeymoon (now in his forties) and the present, with an age weary Farrokh haunted by the ghosts of the past.

Even tho this book is not intended to be about India (as the author clearly states), it gives an insight of the world of Bombai, however shallow an insight it might be. For people interested to learn about this city, they could do worse than this book.

A side note: Until recently, to the best of my knowledge Inspector Dhar was a fictional character that only exists in this book. However, Salman Rushdie in his book The Moor's Last Sight also makes mention of him, along with other famous detectives of fiction.

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