The Chennai teacher who ran off to join the circus | Condé Nast Traveller India | International


Driven by curiosity Manna Abraham sent in her CV for the job of a travelling teacher in the US in 2004. Within 15 minutes of hitting the send button she was called for an interview and soon after asked to fly to Detroit from Chicago to meet the team. All along no one told her where it was that she would be teaching. In Detroit, put up in a plush hotel and treated with style, Manna was floored. It was only as she walked into a makeshift arena for her interview, plastered with cutouts and posters of animals, acrobats and clowns, that her radar went up. It was a job with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, one of America’s largest and longest-running circuses. 

Rolling with the circus

Her CV with her previous teaching experience spanning Kuwait and the US, coupled with degrees in Maths and English Literature, and diplomas in special education, pastoral and general counselling, stood out. The circus knew they wanted her even before they had met her. However, Manna was confused, afraid and unsure, at the end she decided to just go with the flow. On a video call from Chennai, with a broad smile she says “I am one of the few who actually ran away and joined the circus!” While the job sounded exciting, adventurous and very cool, there weren’t many takers. At the end, it was every bit unconventional as it gets. 

The circus is on the road
The circus is on the road
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Soon after her interview, as she was still coming to terms with working in a circus, the accommodation that she was offered blew her mind. “That’s your new home,” said her escort as he pointed to a train. In her head, Manna thought this was all a joke. But far from a prank, the train, one of the longest privately owned in the US, was her home for the next eight years, taking her to 48 of the 50 states. Her 7×12 room had a small kitchenette, a bed, storage and a lavatory. Nearly 60 cars long, the train rolled into cities across the length and breadth of the country entertaining thousands over the course of its 146-year run. Performers, technicians and animals, including lions, tigers, and elephants lived on the train. Manna recalls “My neighbours kept changing, I could have a lion one day and a bear another.” 

An Asian elephant steps off the train ahead of a show. Photo: Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images
An Asian elephant steps off the train ahead of a show. Photo: Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

A fiercely independent person, who doesn’t get swayed by what people thought or said, it was this attitude that allowed her to take on a job that was completely offbeat. Now, years after having left the circus, Manna still wonders: “What did I do!”. She does firmly believe though that all this was preordained and orchestrated. 

Learning to teach, all over again

As the only teacher on-board a train with nearly 300 crew, she had a tough job on hand. She says “I had to do everything that a teacher in any part of the world does, such as preparing lesson plans and looking through the work of the students.” But her class was no ordinary one, as she had a motley bunch of students ranging from the ages 4 to 18. They were children of those who worked at the circus or who were performers themselves. While the medium of instruction was English, there were many students who didn’t speak the language at all. Just like the acrobats who put in hours of practice to perfect mind-boggling acts, Manna had to walk a tightrope, balancing the demands of teaching while conjuring up methods that would work in her classroom—a temporary setup in the city or town the circus was stationed at. 

Manna's class
Manna’s class
Mougli and the owner with his daughter, who was Manna's student
Mougli and the owner with his daughter, who was Manna’s student
With Maasai the lion
With Maasai the lion

At times, she had to teach herself first so she could then teach her students. “The more difficult it was or the greater the challenge, I loved it,” she adds. Deeply passionate about teaching, she focused on imparting knowledge that would come to use rather than teaching the children for the sake of teaching. She had to deliver a standard syllabus, but employed creative ways to make sure her students learn. It was her father who instilled in her a love for learning in unconventional ways. He gifted her an atlas on her eighth birthday, and the two spent hours pouring over it, learning about places far and wide. In the same way, Manna made learning fun, teaching a variety of concepts through projects, following a hands-on approach. The class managed many events including small weddings and festivals. From setting a menu, planning the logistics to serving, the students would be involved in all aspects. In one project, the students had to familiarise themselves with the workings of the train, spending time with the crew, learning about wiring, plumbing, and more. 

Being with a circus had its perks. Stationed in Washington DC once, Manna and her class visited the Smithsonian, where they were treated to a special behind the scenes tour of the Natural History Museum completely free of charge. 

En route to San Diego
En route to San Diego

The Indian ambassador

As the only Indian on-board, Manna was the self-proclaimed ambassador of the country. She encouraged her co-workers and students to try Indian food and even organised an ‘India Day’. Once when she got a chance she took the whole class to an Indian restaurant. All the students were taken into the kitchen where they learnt how to make tandoori chicken and naan.    

With 27 nationalities and an assortment of animals on-board the train was a moving village. The crew referred to it as a city with no zip code. “There were births, deaths, affairs, divorces and weddings—there was nothing that didn’t happen there,” says Manna. While the camaraderie was high, there was ample drama and plenty of skirmishes and tensions. Living and working with people from diverse family backgrounds and with completely varied value systems, wasn’t always easy. Manna worked hard to build bonds with her students and their parents, some of whom were with her for only two years, the length of their contract. Now years after having left the circus, many still stay in touch with her. 

Performer Davis Vassallo (L) speaks with his daughter Adriana before the show. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Performer Davis Vassallo (L) speaks with his daughter Adriana before the show. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

As a parent stepping outside her comfort zone, this unconventional job enabled her to take care of family commitments. “There were other jobs out there that would have paid the bills, but they did nothing for my soul,” says Manna. While it was a lot of hard work, when the opportunity arose, Manna managed to slip in some sightseeing or spending time with friends and family based in the city the circus was stationed at. At such times, she looked forward to small luxuries like a tub bath and eating home-cooked food. 



Updated: January 5, 2021 — 6:42 am

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