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THE CROW ON THE CEILING FAN
Blood from Dwarfs
Usually, the dwarfs kept bringing him back—back to the circus and back to India. The doctor was familiar with the feeling of leaving Bombay “for the last time”; almost every time he left India, he vowed that he’d never come back. Then the years would pass—as a rule, not more than four or five—and once again he’d be taking the long flight from Toronto. That he was born in Bombay was not the reason; at least this was what the doctor claimed. Both his mother and father were dead; his sister lived in London, his brother in Zürich. The doctor’s wife was Austrian, and their children and grandchildren lived in England and in Canada; none of them wanted to live in India—they rarely visited the country—nor had a single one of them been born there. But the doctor was fated to go back to Bombay; he would keep returning again and again—if not forever, at least for as long as there were dwarfs in the circus.
Achondroplastic dwarfs comprise the majority of circus clowns in India; they are the so-called circus midgets, but they’re not midgets—they’re dwarfs. Achondroplasia is the most common type of short-limbed dwarfism. An achondroplastic dwarf can be born of normal parents, but the dwarf’s children have a 50 percent chance of being dwarfs. This type of dwarfism is most often the result of a rare genetic event, a spontaneous mutation, which then becomes a dominant characteristic in the dwarf’s children. No one has discovered a genetic marker for this characteristic—and none of the best minds in genetics are bothering to search for such a marker.
Quite possibly, only Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla had the far-fetched idea of finding a genetic marker for this type of dwarfism. By the passion of such a wishful discovery, the doctor was driven to gather samples of dwarf blood. The whimsy of his idea was plain: his dwarf-blood project was of no orthopedic interest, and he was an orthopedic surgeon; genetics was only one of his hobbies. Yet, although Farrokh’s visits to Bombay were infrequent and the duration of his stay was always short, no one in India had ever drawn blood from so many dwarfs; no one had bled as many dwarfs as Dr. Daruwalla had bled. In those Indian circuses that passed through Bombay, or in such circuses as frequented the smaller towns in Gujarat and Maharashtra, it was with affection that Farrokh was called “the vampire.”
This is not to suggest that a physician in Dr. Daruwalla’s field in India wouldn’t stumble across a fair number of dwarfs; they suffer from chronic orthopedic problems—aching knees and ankles, not to mention low back pain. Their symptoms are progressive, according to their age and weight; as dwarfs grow older and heavier, their pain gradually radiates into the buttocks, posterior thighs and calves.
At the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Dr. Daruwalla saw very few dwarfs; however, at the Hospital for Crippled Children in Bombay—where, from time to time, upon his return visits, Farrokh enjoyed the title of Honorary Consultant Surgeon—the doctor examined many dwarf patients. But these dwarfs, although they would provide Dr. Daruwalla with their family histories, would not readily give him their blood. It would have been unethical of him to draw the dwarfs’ blood against their will; the majority of orthopedic ailments afflicting achondroplastic dwarfs don’t necessitate testing their blood. Therefore, it was only fair that Farrokh would explain the scientific nature of his research project and that he would ask these dwarfs for their blood. Almost always, the dwarfs said no.
A case in point was Dr. Daruwalla’s closest dwarf acquaintance in Bombay; in the vernacular of friendship, Farrokh and Vinod went back a long way, for the dwarf was the doctor’s most visceral connection to the circus—Vinod was the first dwarf whom Dr. Daruwalla had asked for blood. They had met in the examining room of the doctor’s office at the Hospital for Crippled Children; their conversation coincided with the religious holiday of Diwali, which had brought the Great Blue Nile Circus to Bombay for an engagement at Cross Maidan. A dwarf clown (Vinod) and his normal wife (Deepa) had brought their dwarf son (Shivaji) to the hospital to have the child’s ears examined. Vinod had never imagined that the Hospital for Crippled Children concerned itself with ears—ears weren’t a common area of orthopedic complaint—but the dwarf correctly assumed that all dwarfs were cripples.
Yet the doctor could never persuade Vinod to believe in the genetic reasons for either his or his son’s dwarfism. That Vinod came from normal parents and was nonetheless a dwarf was not in Vinod’s view the result of a mutation. The dwarf believed his mother’s story: that, the morning after she conceived, she looked out the window and the first living thing she saw was a dwarf. That Vinod’s wife, Deepa, was a normal woman—“almost beautiful,” by Vinod’s description—didn’t prevent Vinod’s son, Shivaji, from being a dwarf. However, in Vinod’s view, this was not the result of a dominant gene, but rather the misfortune of Deepa forgetting what Vinod had told her. The morning after Deepa conceived, the first living thing she looked at was Vinod, and that was why Shivaji was also a dwarf. Vinod had told Deepa not to look at him in the morning, but she forgot.
That Deepa was “almost beautiful” (or at least a normal woman), and yet she was married to a dwarf—this was the result of her having no dowry. She’d been sold to the Great Blue Nile Circus by her mother. And since Deepa was still very much a novice trapeze artist, she earned almost no money at all. “Only a dwarf would be marrying her,” Vinod said.
As for their child, Shivaji, recurrent and chronic middle-ear infections are common among achondroplastic dwarfs until the age of 8 or 10; if untreated, such infections often lead to significant hearing loss. Vinod himself was half deaf. But it simply wasn’t possible for Farrokh to educate Vinod on this matter, or on other matters pertaining to the genetics of his and Shivaji’s type of dwarfism; his so-called trident hands, for example—the stubby fingers were characteristically splayed. Dr. Daruwalla also noted the dwarf’s short, broad feet and the flexed position of his elbows, which could never be fully extended; the doctor tried to make Vinod admit that, like his son’s, his fingertips reached only to his hips, his abdomen protruded and—even lying on his back—the dwarf exhibited the typical forward curvature of the spine. This lumbar lordosis and a tilted pelvis explain why all dwarfs waddle.
Dwarfs are just naturally waddling,” Vinod replied. He was religiously stubborn and utterly unwilling to part with as much as a single Vacutainer of his blood. There he sat on the examining table, shaking his head at Dr. Daruwalla’s theories of dwarfism.
Vinod’s head, like the heads of all achondroplastic dwarfs, was exceedingly large. His face failed to convey a visible intelligence, unless a bulging forehead could be attributed to brain power; the midface, again typical of achondroplasia, was recessed. The cheeks and the bridge of the nose were flattened, although the tip of the nose was fleshy and upturned; the jaw protruded to such a degree that Vinod’s chin was prominent; and while his thrusting head did not communicate the greatest common sense, Vinod’s overall manner proclaimed a personality of great determination. His aggressive appearance was further enhanced by a trait common among achondroplastic dwarfs: because their tubular bones are shortened, their muscle mass is concentrated, creating an impression of considerable strength. In Vinod’s case, a life of tumbling and other acrobatics had given him especially well delineated shoulder muscles; his forearms and his biceps bulged. He was a veteran circus clown, but he looked like a miniature thug. Farrokh was a little afraid of him.
“And just what are you wanting with my blood?” the dwarf clown asked the doctor.
“I’m looking for that secret thing which made you a dwarf,” Dr. Daruwalla replied.
“Being a dwarf is no secret!” Vinod argued.
“I’m looking for something in your blood that, if I find it, will help other people not to give birth to dwarfs,” the doctor explained.
“Why are you wanting to put an end to dwarfs?” the dwarf asked.
“It doesn’t hurt to give blood,” Dr. Daruwalla reasoned. “The needle doesn’t hurt.”
“All needles are hurting,” Vinod said.
“So you’re afraid of needles?” Farrokh asked the dwarf.
“I am just needing my blood right now,” Vinod answered.
The almost-beautiful Deepa wouldn’t permit the doctor to prick her dwarf child with a needle, either, although both Deepa and Vinod suggested that the Great Blue Nile Circus, which was in Bombay for another week, was full of other dwarfs who might give Dr. Daruwalla their blood. Vinod said he’d be happy to introduce the doctor to the Blue Nile’s clowns. Furthermore, Vinod advised the doctor to bribe the clowns with alcohol and tobacco, and it was at Vinod’s prompting that Farrokh revised his stated reason for wanting the dwarfs’ blood. “Tell them you are using their blood to give strength to a dying dwarf,” Vinod suggested.