Clear-Eyed in Calcutta
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By Andrew McCarthy
I blinked. I missed it. Instinctively, I had closed my eyes. The black goat’s head had been pressed down between two small stone pillars, then held in place by a thin metal bar. Swiftly the machete was drawn up into the air—and with no pomp in an otherwise elaborate ceremony—came whooshing down toward the taught, thin neck of the bleating goat. When I opened my eyes after no more than an instant, the two men holding the four legs of the now decapitated animal were flinging the carcass back, away from the altar. The body bounced up against the wall behind them, then slid back a few feet into a pool of water and blood that was gushing from the angry artery of the goat’s neck. The legs were still twitching. People, mostly women in colorful dress, rushed in and dipped their fingers into the blood, dabbing their foreheads, and then the foreheads of their children. The small horned head of the sacrificed goat was tossed beside its recently separated torso. All the while, the tongue was protruding then retracting, as if the animal were gasping for breath it would no longer need. The eyes still appeared to contain life. My recollection is that the goat was still bleating, but that can’t be correct.
I had been up in the hill country of West Bengal, in the soft climate of Darjeeling in the lesser Himalayas, sipping delicate teas and hiking through crisp air over steep trails, before descending into the plains and humid chaos of Kolkata—although everyone I met who lived in the city of 14 million still called it Calcutta.
Little about Darjeeling’s charming provincial decay prepared me for Calcutta’s assault. Yet in truth, the cacophony and filth and poverty I found on the streets did not approach the squalor I’d always conjured in my imagination whenever I’d heard the word “Calcutta” before I ever saw the place. Only occasionally during my visit, when I would come upon a horribly disfigured small child, or a family of four living in a doorway, did the profundity of human degradation take me so wholly off-guard as to stop me in my tracks or make me gasp.
Like any place that exists with death hovering in such open proximity, Calcutta throbbed with life. The City of Joy’s natural condition struck me as one of openhearted generosity.
At the Victoria Memorial, the monumental shrine to the Queen left behind by the British, I wondered why the Indians hadn’t ripped it down. Sipping tepid, watered-down coffee through a straw, I engaged in a passionate discussion on nuclear weapons and pop music with a few of the local intelligentsia, one flight above the street in the smoky College Street Coffee House. I woke early and got lost among the millions of carnations being strung together for wedding celebrations at the flower market, then walked across Howrah Bridge, one of 6 million people a day who do the same. I attended a raucous and joyful cricket match. I also visited Mother Teresa’s Mission of Hope, as well as her Kalighat Home for the Sick and Dying, then her orphanage—I came away with a decidedly mixed feeling about the diminutive nun who was so invested in suffering, and who seemed to me all too human in her love of the spotlight.
But most memorably I walked amid crushing crowds—rarely with a tangible destination. Wholly, thrillingly anonymous, a singular cell pulsing through a giant throbbing organism, I was carried along for hours, relieved of individuality. Smells—cumin and excrement, frying grease, jasmine and human sweat—registered and dissipated without consequence. Images—perilously thin men squatting atop idle rickshaws, naked children peeing in the gutter, stunning young women—all unfurled as I was swept onward. Thoughts slipped past without relevance—my mind rested. Decisions were unnecessary. Life amid so many was cheap. And imperative, the sensation made even stronger at night, when the heat would soften and the dim, straining streetlamps left Calcutta’s darker corners to mystery while a gauzy mist hung in the air as people sought respite from over-crowded dwellings.
During the best of my travel, I’ve felt the relief of locating myself by losing all sense of the familiar. Nowhere did I experience that more than in those swollen masses of humanity.
An introvert by nature, I wasn’t a born traveler. Rather, I took to the road as a path away from a natural timorousness—an active effort to move more fully into the world I knew I wanted to inhabit. So when a long familiar timidity came sneaking back to reassert itself in the instant the machete came sweeping down toward the goat’s vulnerable neck outside the Kali Temple, I knew that I would need to return to the site.
Just as years before I had coaxed myself to climb aboard a listing riverboat headed down the Amazon while fear seized me, and as I had marched on through the wheat fields of northern Spain when internal voices urged me to retreat, I was compelled to take one more step in a lifelong journey away from trepidation.
The following day I approached the enclosure behind the temple of the Hindu goddess of destruction. The area was riotous in preparation for the impending Kalipuja Festival. Throngs of the devout were lined up to gain entrance to the temple. Drums were pounded, chanting filled the air. Just as I arrived, a black goat was being led to slaughter.
It strutted confidently through the crowd at the end of a short rope. Between an old man with a long white beard and a black haired woman in a bright sari, I stood just beyond the sacrificial area—a 10-square-foot pen with burning incense and flowers littering the ground beside the altar. The animal was taken in hand by two men in sweat-stained T-shirts. Its head was shoved down between the pillars, exactly as I had seen done the day before. The condemned goat bleated once. The crowd surged forward. The machete was raised, then quickly brought to bear. The head fell, the body was hurled aside. And people—as by now I knew they would—rushed in to anoint themselves with the sacrificial blood.
My eyes were wide open.