Mean Girls was a formative movie of my youth for so many reasons, to the point where it was the first movie I purchased on DVD (at the same time that I bought my first DVD player). It was released in 2004, the same year I started high school, so I was of the generation it depicted. I also loved math. Indeed, my strongest Mean Girls memory is of my AP Calculus course in Grade 12. There were six of us in the class. One of the other students convinced our teacher to let us watch Mean Girls one day in class simply because it mentioned limits. I don’t remember what flimsy justification she proffered beyond this or why my teacher said yes, but it was a good time.
All of this is to say that this is why I was drawn to The Elephants in My Backyard. I saw a clip of Rajiv Surendra being interviewed with the two other prominent young male actors from the movie—all three of whom, it turns out, are gay—and the interviewer mentioned he had written a memoir. Hmm, I thought. He’s Canadian too, which is cool. I also like that this memoir isn’t really about Mean Girls, and while it is about acting, it is only tangentially about the movie industry. Rather, this is a story of what to do when you don’t achieve your dream.
Most of the book revolves around Surendra’s quest to be cast as the lead character in the adaptation of Life of Pi, a novel by another Canadian, Yann Martel. He even corresponds with Martel, excerpts of which are included throughout this book. Surendra, upon being introduced to the novel, marvels at how similar he and Pi Patel seem to be. He becomes obsessed with landing the role and devotes all his energy to preparing for it, to moulding himself into such a perfect Pi that no matter which director ends up being attached—for the movie goes through its own spate of growing pains and development hell—they will have no choice but to admit that yes, Rajiv, he is the one! He visits Pondicherry in India, learns how to swim, researches and interviews survivors who were adrift at sea—he pursues his goal somewhat singlemindedly.
As anyone who has seen the film knows, he was not successful.
In a society that fetishes success and demonizes failure—or uplifts failure only when it is a speedbump along the way to an eventual success—Surendra’s story stands out. Indeed, his story is the story of most people who enter film and television. He doesn’t go on to huge celebrity and an acting career after Mean Girls. He has comparatively few roles and has instead pursued other interests and means of making money, such as calligraphy. We focus so much in our society on career actors who rocket to fame as they land these huge roles or steady work when the reality for most actors is probably much closer to Surendra’s.
His writing style in the book is spare and penetrating. I felt like he was looking at me as I was reading his words. He doesn’t hold back in his opinions of people, places, etc., lauding those who helped him and were genuine, and being brutally honest about those who have harmed him. In particular, there is a chapter in which he reflects on his experiences growing up in a household with an abusive, alcoholic father … he doesn’t mince his words and doesn’t try to stay civil, let’s put it that way.
This was an easy book to read in a day, both because it’s on the shorter side but also because of how well Surendra has structured his narrative. It’s roughly chronological, with detours and flashbacks as needed, showing us how he goes from Mean Girls to research, living in India before returning to Toronto to resume school and working at a pioneer village. Interestingly, his romantic life and sexuality (Surendra is gay) doesn’t come up until the very end of the book. Again, although much of the book doesn’t discuss the film industry directly, most of the book involves Surendra’s obsession with landing this particular role.
I also love how much Surendra is into wool and knitting, going so far as to include a page at the end of the book with a photo of him in his favourite sweater and a technical explanation as to the gansey’s construction and history. As a knitter, this warms my heart.
This memoir fills a great niche. It belies many of the dominant narratives presented to us about actors and celebrities. It’s by a young, gay man of colour—a Canadian too—and asks us to think about how the intersections of race, class, immigrant status, etc. figure into our lives. And perhaps most obviously—but no less powerfully—The Elephants in My Backyard dares us to define success on our own terms, reminding us that failure is an option. It isn’t a case of “life works out for the best”—I hate it when people tell me that—but it is a reminder that we don’t control outcomes and that nothing we do can ever be enough to guarantee an outcome we desire. All we can do as we go through life is define our goals, work towards them, and adjust those goals as times change. Surendra may never have been adrift at sea, but in this book he shows himself to be adept at navigating the open ocean that is our lives and our desires.