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A very Hindu day

On the morning of our fifth day in Kolkata, my wife, Kris, and I exited the marble lobby of the Oberoi Grand Hotel and stood in the hotel’s walled courtyard. At the far end of the wall to our right, a wide gate opened onto a section of covered sidewalk. The crowd on the sidewalk parted to allow our friend Pramod’s tiny white Maruti hatchback to enter the courtyard from Chowringhee Road. The wheels of the car rumbled on the cobblestones of the courtyard as Pramod circled and pulled up next to us.

After we joined him in the car, Pramod drove through the courtyard gate and eased onto the sidewalk. Pedestrians flowed around us as we approached the edge of the road. Pramod slowly navigated the Maruti through a narrow inlet of reluctant bumpers and into the seething current of southbound traffic on Chowringhee.

The air was thick with dust and heat and the sounds of car horns. I squinted in the cloud of a bus’s exhaust as Kris called to Pramod from the back seat. “Thank you for taking us to the Kali Temple. Are you sure that this isn’t an inconvenience for you?”

Pramod smiled into the rear-view mirror at Kris. “It is no problem,” he assured her. “I have not been to puja in a few weeks. My mother is very happy that I am going today.”

Pramod was the younger brother of my colleague Vinod, with whom I had worked while living in Sydney. Pramod was showing us around Kolkata at Vinod’s request. The previous evening, when we mentioned that we were considering a visit to the Kali Temple, Pramod offered to escort us there the next day. We were happy to have a guide in the temple because we had no idea what to expect.

Before my arrival in Kolkata, I had learned almost nothing about the goddess Kali. The religious posters of Kali that I had seen for sale on the streets near our hotel represented the goddess as a multi-armed figure that stood on a supine Shiva while thrusting forth a long tongue, holding a severed head in one hand and a bloodstained blade in another. In some of the posters, Kali looked almost cherubic, with chubby cheeks and large, liquid eyes—which made attributes such as her necklace of skulls even more disconcerting.

I did not know much more about the temple that was dedicated to the worship of Kali. My travel guidebook noted that the Kali Temple, or Kalighat, was located on the bank of the Hooghly River and that goats were sacrificed in the mornings at the temple to slake the goddess’s thirst for blood. The guidebook also warned that the temple priests were known to pester foreign tourists for money. I was not sure what to think.

We passed through the chaotic intersection of Chowringhee and AJC Bose Road and then turned right. I gazed out of the window of the car, dumbfounded by the ruined, post-apocalyptic appearance of Kolkata. The streets were concrete doilies of potholes. All around us, buildings with crumbling facades and unglazed windows leaned into the morning sun. Weeds and saplings sprouted out of gutters. Men with short lengths of cloth wrapped around their waists bathed on the broken sidewalks, rinsing in streams from gushing water pumps. A man on a street corner sat on his heels and shaved another squatting man with a straight razor.

“This is it,” Pramod announced suddenly, as we rounded a corner. I snapped out of my reverie and looked stupidly in front of me. The street ahead widened into a small plaza that was choked with people, cars, and market stalls. At first, I could not see anything that corresponded to my idea of a temple. I then saw the whitewashed walls of a large structure to my left.

People coursed around the car. Men beckoned to us, pointing toward potential parking spaces in the middle of the street. Pramod ignored the men and looked for a spot where he would not have to pay to park. To my surprise, Pramod found an open spot along the curb of the street, in front of a line of small shops. He drove slowly through the crowd and then expertly backed into a gap between two cars. A group of beggars immediately surrounded the car. Pramod got out of the car and calmly waved the beggars away.

“We can leave our shoes here,” he said to us as we got out of the car, and pointed to the entrance of a nearby shop. We stood by the car and listened to the murmuring beggars while Pramod walked to the shop and spoke with a thin girl who stood at the entrance. Pramod called to us and waved us toward him.

We entered the shop and followed Pramod into a back room with faded green walls and a low ceiling. Pramod sat on a wooden bench and removed his sandals. He looked up at us and explained that it was forbidden to wear leather in Hindu temples. We removed our sandals and stood barefoot on the dirt floor. Pramod pointed at my leather belt and smiled slightly. I removed my belt, but decided to keep quiet about my wallet. We left our shoes and belts in a basket in the back room.

We followed Pramod out of the back room. Pramod stopped near the entrance to the shop in front of the girl, who now carried a bucket of water. “You can wash your hands here,” he said as he held out his hands. “You touched your feet,” he said by way of explanation, as the girl poured water over his hands. He rubbed his hands together and then left the shop. I rinsed my hands in the thin stream of water that the girl poured.

We left the shop and stood on the sidewalk, watching Pramod cross the street. A young man accompanied him, carrying a small tray of red hibiscus flowers and packages wrapped in leaves. Pramod stopped in the middle of the street, turned to look back at us, and then motioned us forward.

I looked at Kris, who was looking down at her bare feet on the sidewalk. In front of us stretched a muddy, refuse-strewn obstacle course of people and vehicles. She grimaced and looked back at me. I shrugged. We stepped into the street. We walked around parked motorcycles and dodged slow-moving cars. We made our way around groups of people who shopped at the stalls. We looked down for things to avoid stepping on or in. We finally made it to the other side of the street, where Pramod waited beside the temple’s outer wall. The young man with the tray disappeared into the temple through a door in the outer wall. I scraped my foot on a nearby block of cement to free it of something that was clinging to the sole.

We walked through the door and down a dim hall that opened onto a large internal courtyard which surrounded a two-story temple building. The courtyard throbbed with sounds: the walls of the courtyard reflected and concentrated the clamor of shouting and chanting. People flowed around us like rapids as we stood like logs, undecided and overwhelmed. We watched worshippers crowd into the entrance to the inner temple building.

Pramod left us to approach a grizzled, heavyset man who wore a beige, knee-length tunic and trousers. I assumed that the other man was a priest. Pramod and the priest shouted to make themselves heard.

After a few seconds of palaver with the priest, Pramod returned and instructed us to climb the stairs to our right to a second-story platform that ran along the wall of the outer building. We joined a long line of people on the platform. A priest at the far end of the platform blocked the entrance to a wide catwalk that crossed from the platform to the second-floor entrance of the temple building. Near the priest was a sign stating that the catwalk was for “VIPS AND SATHIS ONLY.” Pramod explained that a sathi was a priest. I guessed that the second floor entrance led to some sort of visitor’s gallery.

I peered over the edge of the platform and into the lower courtyard where we had just been. From my new, elevated perspective, the lower courtyard looked like the floor of a stock exchange. Priests were everywhere: shouting and pointing; directing traffic; carrying baskets of hibiscus blossoms on their shoulders. One priest thrust a red string necklace over the head of a surprised-looking worshipper. Another priest jabbed a person’s forehead with his thumb to apply a red mark.

The line on the platform surged forward: the priest at the entrance to the catwalk had allowed a group of people past him. I began to feel as if I were queuing for an amusement ride. The priest waved again impatiently, including us in the next group of people to pass. We crossed the catwalk and stood outside the upper entrance to the temple, joining a line of people who waited to enter.

The people in front of me moved forward. I now stood at the threshold of the upper entrance to the temple building. I could see that the interior of the temple was a vast chamber, thronged with priests and worshippers. A wide concrete path sloped down to the floor of the temple. The people in front of me walked down the slope and joined the crowd on the temple floor. I could not determine our destination: the center of the chamber was obscured by a large raised metal grating and by smoke.

I looked back at Kris and Pramod. Kris had not seen yet the interior of the temple. She had the look of a person on the initial ascent of a rollercoaster. Pramod inclined his head slightly to one side and made calm gestures to urge me forward. I stepped onto the sloping walkway and descended into the temple.

The noise inside the temple was an assault. Priests rang bells, chanted, and shouted at worshippers; worshippers prayed, chanted, and shouted back at priests. Everyone seemed peevish. People jostled for position in line. An elderly woman stiff-armed me out of her way.

The air was thick with smoke and incense. The chamber was illuminated with naked fluorescent lights and candles. The floor was wet and covered with scattered papers and trampled hibiscus petals.

I looked behind me. A priest stood next to Pramod, pressing hibiscus blossoms into Pramod’s hands. The priest chanted as Pramod closed his eyes and raised the flowers in his cupped hands to his forehead in prayer.

Kris now looked like a rollercoaster rider who has just seen the drop ahead. I felt what I hoped was a flower petal sticking to my left heel. I suddenly realized that we were not going to observe the worship of Kali from some visitor’s gallery but were participating in Kali puja—whether we wanted to or not.

The line lurched forward a few steps toward the center of the room. I could now see what I thought was the main altar area ahead and to my left, still obscured by the metal grating. In the wall that faced the altar, I could discern the elevated entrance to a room or alcove.

The worshippers crowded at the edge of the narrow channel that formed between edge of the metal grating near the altar and the wall below the elevated room. People struggled to stay in a particular place near the altar while priests worked to move them along.

Pramod tapped my arm and pointed toward the altar ahead of me. “The people are fighting because they want to spend as much time as they can in front of the goddess,” he shouted to Kris and me. “They want to stay there and pray for something—whatever they need.” He pointed to the priests and continued. “The priests want the people to move along. They have to push them.”

We moved closer to the altar area. The noises of shouting, chanting, and struggling were stupefying. I stumbled into the channel and looked to my left, finally able to view the altar unimpeded.

I was unprepared for the sense of elation that I felt. I had not expected to be excited to see the idol that represented Kali. I then thought that I should not have been surprised at my reaction: after the clamorous approach to the altar, I would be anxious to see anything.

Kali’s altar was covered with garlands of marigold and hibiscus, smoking sticks of incense and candles, and bells. In the center of the altar was a black hemisphere that appeared to be made of cast iron or stone. On the hemisphere were three raised orange eyes. Two of the eyes were horizontal; the third eye was between and perpendicular to the other two.

My view of the altar was brief. After two or three seconds, I was shoved into a set of interlocked arms that barred my way. People tugged on my shoulders, directing me to look to my right, into the small room across from the altar. The floor of the room was at the level of my shoulders and contained a large black box, covered with flowers, with the word “DONATIONS” emblazoned on it in orange letters. “Whatever you feel!” shouted one of the men who barred my way.

I did not feel like donating anything in this situation, to say the least: I was literally being strong-armed. I looked back to find Kris regarded me rigidly. We were trapped: other men had brought their arms down behind her and Pramod. Pramod bent his head and flicked his fingers forward again, calmly, shooing me along. After a few seconds, the men suddenly raised their arms and pushed us past the altar.

The noise level dropped precipitously on the other side of the altar, as did the density of people around us. Pramod led us out of the temple room. Begging children clutched at my pants leg as I followed Pramod down a long corridor.

We left the temple and negotiated our way back across the muddy street to return to the shop where we had stored our shoes and belts. The girl who poured water over our hands before we entered the temple now waited on the sidewalk.

“You can clean your feet here before getting your shoes,” Pramod said. As the girl poured water over his feet, Pramod demonstrated how to use one foot to wipe the other.

We collected our shoes and belts from the basket in the room at the back of the shop. On the way out of the shop, Pramod pointed at an unwrapped leaf package, similar to those that we had brought with us to the temple. A few lumps of yellowish dough rested on the leaf.

“These are sweets,” Pramod explained. “People bring them as an offering when they go to the temple. You can eat one.” He picked up a lump and popped it in his mouth and handed another lump to me. “I did not eat breakfast. We usually fast before going to do puja.”

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