When most Indians are celebrating Diwali and Rama’s return to Ayodhya after vanquishing the demon king Ravana, it is overshadowed by a lesser known festival, Kali Pujo when Kali, a more virulent form of Durga, is worshipped through the night with great fervor in Eastern India. As a Bengali, I was very much a part of this tradition, and we would go out late in the night, to pay our respect to beautifully decorated idols of Kali, resplendent in her garland of blood red hibiscus flowers and demonic heads. We would have bhog after midnight, the highlight of which was an oxymoron – the unusual vegetarian goat curry. If you think this curry is made out of trendy fake meat, you are very much mistaken. Kali Pujo, predates fake meat by centuries! What apparently makes this curry “vegetarian” is the lack of onions and garlic that are otherwise always used in a traditional Bengali goat curry. The goat for this curry is comes from a male goat that was sacrificed at midnight, a ritual I was witness to once as a little girl.
We were at my dida’s (maternal grandma’s) house in Purnia. My widowed grandmother, was a devotee of RamKrishna, a Bengali saint, who in turn was a devotee of Maa Kali. She would take us to the Purnia Kali Bari at least once during our stay with her. It was a trip that I enjoyed very much with its rhythmically bumping rickshaw ride as it snaked through tall palm trees that had little clay pots strung right around where their leaves ended. It looked as though the trees had necklaces around their neck. I enjoyed looking at the daring men who climbed way up high with minimal safety gear to collect the sweet sap from the pots. The sap has a nutty smoky flavor that tastes a bit like maple syrup. It is mildly processed to make yummy nolen gur that went into flavoring my favorite desserts. The sap of some other palms were used to make toddy. What that tastes like, I can’t tell, because I have never had any. Most of all I loved the serene setting of this little temple by the river amidst lush tropical greens.
This time we were in Purnia for Kali Pujo and yes, as usual, we were going to venerate Maa Kali – this time at the Purnia Kali Bari. Like before we jumped on to our parents laps, and bumped along the road as our parents hugged us tightly. Little did I know that this trip was going to be quite different, one that would be seared in my memory.
As, we disembarked on this new moon night that lay suspended between the end of Sharad and the start of Shishir, I was taken aback by the sound of prayers being offered to a male black goat. Oh, how handsome he looked with his garland of bright red hibiscus flowers shining brightly against his silky black fur as he was gently being guided towards the sacrificial altar. As the goat realized its ultimate fate, its joyful pride dissolved into trembling bleats which despite their softness, split right through this dark night. Oh, the poignancy of his bleats! I ran as far away as I could and shut my ears, waiting for that blissful serendipity of the place to return. A few short moments later, all went numbingly quiet, as the giant sword, swiftly decapitated this goat in one fell swoop. It was over – but not for me. I just couldn’t get those plaintive bleats out of my head. With my heart in shards, it became impossible to settle into the quietness of a Hemant new moon. The sight of that goat curry made me gag, and I couldn’t eat it. Even though it didn’t make me a vegetarian, and I continued to enjoy our Sunday goat curries for many years, I couldn’t forget this little goat – so happy in its veneration, so terrified of its ultimate end.
In the process of painting this, I came to realize that I had been so shaken by that event that I had forgotten what time of day this deadly ritual had taken place.
Much has changed since then. Activists have managed to highlight the cruelty of this practice and most temples now sacrifice a gourd instead of a goat.
But despite all their activism, eating meat and the number of brutal slaughterhouses have increased manifold in India. During the process of capturing this memory, I started to wonder is it really worse to occasionally eat a few small bites of meat of an animal that was raised with love, venerated, and killed with compassion and the belief that because of this great sacrifice, he shall be reborn as a human being than to stock up our freezers with mounds of beautifully butchered shapes of meat that bear no resemblance to the being that they came from?
As we ramp up to Thanksgiving, I question our activism that results in hiding from sight what we can’t stand to bear. As we gather around any festive table, perhaps what we should be most thankful for is the being that gave its life to bind us together around the table to cherish our friends and families, and nourish our bodies and souls.