They are Belgian citizens, but they’d rather be in this part of Kerala with its circus legacy than go back to their European roots.
Veteran circus artistes Emile Vanderwielem (66) and his elder sister Gloria Vanderwielem (78) were born and brought up in circus tents in India after their parents reached the country in 1926. They are now happily settled at Kolachery near Thalassery, a town that has produced many circus company owners and artistes. Knowing neither Flemish nor French, their Belgian passports and regular contact with a sister in Belgium are the only connections they have to Europe.
“I am a Belgian citizen who has not been to Belgium even once though our youngest sister Margaret, now in Brussels, has been inviting me to spend some time with her,” says Emile, known as Minni among friends. He worked the horizontal bar, was part of the flying trapeze act and played the clown in various circuses before he retired in 2011. Gloria visited Belgium only once, in 1984.
Emile married into the circus, and India as well. He and his wife K. Sulochana, also a veteran circus artiste, share a two-storey house at Kolachery with Gloria. Though they can converse in Malayalam, their common language is Hindi, in which they reminisce about their days in the circus with their parents and sisters Rosina, who is settled in Mumbai, and Yolanda, who lives in Chennai.
“Circus is still in my blood and I miss circus now,” says Gloria, who was part of the trapeze act and did feats on the cycle. “If there is a second life, I will go to circus,” she adds.
The two siblings have no plan to settle in Belgium. Emile, in fact, applied for Indian citizenship in 1999 but there was no response from the authorities. The siblings stay here on work visas and have to undergo the annual hassle of applying for visa extension.
Emile, who married Sulochana in a circus tent in Ludhiana, says he retired from circus primarily because of the practical difficulties of reporting his arrival and departure in every city or town the circus pitches its tent. He is now planning to apply for Overseas Citizenship Visa which will be valid for 15 years. His three children are also settled here, one of them serving in the Army.