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Small Wonder

14/02/2015 10:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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Guinness World Records adjudicator Rob Molloy, right, confers the title of the shortet woman of the world to Jyoti Amge, in Nagpur, India, Friday, Dec. 16, 2011. Amge was declared the shortest woman in the world measuring 62.8 centimeters (24.7 inches) by the Guinness World Records. (AP Photo/ Manish Swarup)

This article is from Open Magazine.

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By Sunaina Kumar

In 1993, when Ranjana and Kishanji Amge, who live in the city of Nagpur, had their fifth child, a baby girl, an astrologer told them that their last-born will bring great fame to the family; she will travel around the world and her family will travel with her. Those were difficult years for the barely-educated middle-class couple, bringing up five young children and just scraping by. Ranjana spent all her time tending to their needs at home--cooking, cleaning, feeding--while Kishanji devoted himself to his fledgling transport business. In the circumstances, the idea of their boarding a plane even once in their life seemed close to fantasy.

"We never believed it. We did not have the resources to travel from Nagpur to Mumbai," says Kishanji Amge, a thickset man with a phlegmatic air, sitting in his living room on a cold morning in January. The family has just returned from a trip to Macau, invited there by Guinness World Records, after spending six months in the US. "Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Turkey, Italy, Romania, China, Kuwait," he rattles off a list of all the places they have visited.

Amge has just finished his morning prayers. The temple in the courtyard with an altar to Goddess Durga is blaring out bhajans that drown out his voice. The temple was built when their youngest daughter, Jyoti, turned three, and they were informed of her rare condition, a form of pituitary dwarfism, that doctors have not been able to precisely diagnose. They named their home, which has been in the family for three generations, 'Jyoti House', after her.

The living room where Amge sits is painted the pink of an antacid tablet, and is a haphazard museum dedicated to her--her framed photographs cover the walls along with a collection of trophies she has received for attending public events in Nagpur and other cities. A local scribe discloses that Jyoti, variously christened 'The Living Doll', 'Little Wonder' and 'Thumbelina', is the most sought after guest at public events, getting almost as many invitations as Nagpur's other two famous townsmen, Nitin Gadkari and Devendra Fadnavis.

The room, which is partitioned into two, gives the impression of an optical illusion. The furniture in one part is a mirror image of the other, sofas and chairs done in the same upholstery, one of average size and the other a miniature, like a doll's house. Jyoti's room upstairs, also painted in her favourite shade of pink, has a bed, a desk and a chair custom made for her. Her mother, a lean woman who appears toughened by a lifetime of arduous housework and the burden of a dependent child (Jyoti is unable to walk much and needs to be carried), remains largely in the kitchen, where she shows us utensils and cutlery which are also in two sizes--one for Jyoti and the other for the rest of the family.

Her father brings out copies of the Limca Book of Records and Guinness Book of World Records. They date back to 2007. The latest edition of the Guinness book features a double-spread on Jyoti, 'the shortest woman in the world' at 62.8 cm (24.7 inches). She weighs about 5 kg, and is comparable in size to an infant of a few months. The record is unlikely to be broken anytime soon, say experts. The only woman in history shorter than her was born in 1876 in the Netherlands: Pauline Musters was a mere 61 cm off the ground.

Jyoti, who is 21, has been an object of curiosity--locally and internationally-- and has been featured in several documentaries, including one by National Geographic. In India, she briefly courted attention when she appeared on the reality show Bigg Boss in 2012 and in a music video for Mika Singh.

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Image provided by Open Magazine

It was finally in 2014 that she stumbled upon the fame that was long foretold. Last summer, she got a call from the makers of the cult television show, American Horror Story, to play the part of Ma Petite, a member of a travelling carnival-- a character that unexpectedly ended up an audience favourite. When the character of Ma Petite was gruesomely killed off, fans flooded the internet with shocked, angry and sad messages. All major media networks and publications including People, Huffington Post, ABC News, Slate and Entertainment Tonight, have since covered her life story.

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All her life Jyoti Amge has resented being called a 'baby' or 'doll', but the words trail her like a shadow. Recently on Facebook, she had this message for fans of American Horror Story as the show reached its finale: 'I will like to thank the fans and all the people that have been so nice not calling me a baby or a doll I hope you liked AHS, I know I did'.

Like any star in the making, she takes a long time getting ready before shuffling into the room. Fractures suffered in childhood in both her legs have never healed, as her body does not produce calcium. No matter how many videos or pictures you see of the world's smallest woman--the camera makes her appear bigger--nothing can prepare you for how little she actually is. It is hard not to gawp, and then feel guilty about it. But Jyoti, long used to drawing attention, grins easily and extends her hand, revealing a toothy and winsome smile.

She loves buying clothes that are made specially for her. She shows her collection of tiny sneakers crammed into a drawer. She would love to wear heels, but these are ruled out because of her fractures. Her hair is tied up in a plait, and when left loose, it is longer than her. She is inspired to seek another record: the shortest woman in the world with the longest hair. The category does not exist, but she's confident of nailing it.

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For the premiere of American Horror Story, she wore a frothy pink frock, curled her hair and put on a lot of makeup. "I felt I was floating in a dream. I see my life in Hollywood now," she says in her piping voice, interspersed with frequent giggles. Her presence is both endearing and mirthful. Once you get past the giggles, you begin to see how quick-witted she is. She volunteers to change her outfit several times during the shoot, her expressions an odd mix, both coquettish and childlike.

She spends most of her time tapping away on her smartphone, engaging her growing tribe of social media devotees. The iPhone 5 she uses seems incongruously big in her hands, the length of it spanning her forearm. In a shoebox, she keeps the handwritten letters and cards she receives, along with marriage proposals. One ardent American admirer has been persistently pressing his suit on Facebook. She intends to block him, she says with a hint of embarrassment.

While growing up, she was too weak to go out and play with other children. After school, she would sit at home all day and watch television. It was then that she began to imagine herself onscreen. She has watched every Salman Khan film and hopes to work with him. For short actors around the world, the greatest challenge is to step out of the genres of horror and pantomime. The present season of American Horror Story is called 'Freak Show' and it is about misfits and outcasts who come together, although the show does an admirable job of portraying their world as 'normal'. "I don't think working on a horror show makes you a freak. We are as normal as anyone else and that's the message of the show."

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One of the first things she did after returning to India was to go to a theatre and watch PK. To get a view of the screen, she had to sit on the armrest of the seat. This is how she always watches movies. She points out other ways in which her everyday life is hampered by her size. "I can't switch on light buttons in a room. I can't reach for anything on the table, like that remote or mobile phone you see. I can't sit on a car seat. I have to be wary around children, who shove me around a lot. They get confused when they see me. 'Is she an adult, a child, or a doll?' they wonder."

"I can't switch on light buttons in a room. I can't reach for anything on the table, like that remote or mobile phone you see. I can't sit on a car seat. I have to be wary around children, who shove me around a lot."


Another problem is that she cannot go anywhere by herself. Everyday, one of her sisters or her father must escort her to college, where she is enrolled to study Home Science. In public places, like coffee shops and malls where she likes to go with her friends, she gets mobbed by crowds. A hint of bitterness creeps in. "People react to me oddly and talk down at me. They say, 'Jyoti, what is your name?' and when I reply and say, 'When you know my name, why do you ask?' they answer in surprise, 'Oh my God, she talks!' They insist on taking my photos even when I refuse."

Sometime later, as we are sitting and talking, that is exactly what happens. The doorbell rings and a neighbour brings in a stranger, his relative from Indore, who has come to see Jyoti. The woman takes a photo of her on her mobile phone. Jyoti looks up, a flash of irritation crosses her face, but she politely sees them off. The woman leaves, satisfied. She can go back home and brag that she saw the smallest woman in the world.

On her recent visit to Macau, Jyoti met 'the tallest man in the world'--Sultan Kosen from Turkey. "He stood next to me, but I couldn't see much of him. He looked like a tall, tall building to me," she says,widening her big saucer-like eyes. She has frequently posed with the shortest man in the world, a 75-year-old from Nepal, at events organised by Guinness. It is reassuring for her to meet such people. It gives her the chance, for once, to stare and not be stared at, and not feel as small as she does with average-sized people. "All my life, people have stared at me with astonishment. I have faced a lot of ridicule. I used to be scared of going out. But, I can now talk on a mike and address audiences. I want other short people to come out and experience life the way I have."

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The story of Jyoti is the story of how a family fashioned what could have been an onus into an opportunity. Her elder sister Archana, who is 31, acts as her manager. She is a canny woman who seems perpetually fretful about her sister's well-being. She used to work as a teacher, but has given up her job. Jyoti is the sole provider for the family. Her father has abandoned his business and has aspirations of launching a political career for her. He plumbs us for contacts, for the Prime Minister with whom he wants to arrange a meeting for his wondrous daughter, for publishers to whom he wants to sell her story. "This is the beginning for her. She is the most famous person in Nagpur. In fact, she has made Nagpur famous in the world. I only want her to get what is her due," he says. Jyoti's sister through the interview displays a marked unwillingness to give away too much information on her, as if trying to conserve a resource that she fears will run out.

"They could have hidden her away as a child who is different. It is common in a small city. But they brought her out into the world, made her succeed against the odds, and that is commendable," says an acquaintance of the family. "The problem now is that they keep looking for new ways to monetise her. Like the Taj Mahal, they will soon want to charge tickets for meeting her." The family's unfeigned devotion to her, though, is plain to see--their lives are adjusted around her needs. Jyoti credits them for drawing her out of her shell. "I've seen a lot of people like me, dwarves who are not supported by their families and constantly feel as if they are inadequate. But my family has never made me feel that I'm different. They are proud of me."

In the National Geographic documentary, The World's Smallest Girl, a curious thing happens when Jyoti is taken to a pilgrimage centre by her parents. The crowd sees her and starts worshipping her as a devi. Whenever this happens, and it happens frequently, it sets her off. "If I had any special powers, would I not make myself taller?" If she could, would she do it? She reconsiders. "It is impossible for me to be taller. Besides, my height has made me famous and go up and up."

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