While India and Indians across the world celebrate Diwali and worship Lakshmi, 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 see beautifully decorated idols of Kali, resplendent in her garland of blood red hibiscus flowers, and have bhog, 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, is too old for this modern take. 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 made from a male goat that was sacrificed at midnight, a ritual that I was witness to just once when I was 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 Mother Kali. So, we would always pay a visit to the Purnia Kali Bari (Kali’s home) , a visit that I very much enjoyed everytime we were at my grandma’s. I loved the rythmically bumpy rickshaw ride all the way to this little temple, on the banks of a river and surrounded by lush green tropical trees. I enjoyed looking up at the various tall palm trees, with little clay pots strung right where their leaves ended. It looked like the trees were adorned with necklaces around their neck. I admired the men high up on the trees, with minimal safety gear, collecting the sweet sap from the pots that tasted similar to maple syrup and was used in making my favorite desserts. I loved the distinctly slightly smoky nutty flavor that this sap, or nolin gur as we call it in Bengali, imparted to my favorite desserts. Others were used to make toddy. What that tastes like, I can’t tell, because I have never had any.
But this trip was different, one that is seared in my memory. It was the night of Kali Pujo, and we were going to the Kali Bari, whose usual serenity I loved very much. But, this new moon night that lay suspended between the end of an Indian autumn and the start of winter, lacked the peace I had come to associate with this place as prayers were being offered to a black male goat. He looked so handsome with his garland of bright red hibiscus flowers that contrasted vividly against his shiny black fur while he was gently being guided towards the sacrificial altar. When the goat realized its ultimate fate, its weak trembling plaintive bleats still managed to sear the night and 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, but the memory of those plaintive bleats had broken my heart along with the serendipity I had come to expect. The sight of that goat curry made me gag. Even though it didn’t make me a vegetarian, and I continued to enjoy our Sunday goat curries for many years, I never forgot this one goat. I hadn’t even caressed it, like I often did the goats that reigned the roadside on my way to school.
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 the ritual had taken place, and that while I couldn’t eat that particular goat, it didn’t stop me from partaking of other goats.
Animal activists have long been up in arms and many places have stopped this ritual and sacrifice a gourd in place of a goat. But despite all their activism, slaughterhouses continue to thrive as we have become more and more alienated from empathizing with the terror of an animal that feels no different from a human who knows he will be killed. Is it really so terrible to occasionally eat a few small bites of meat of an animal that was treated with care, and killed with compassion, and fed many, 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? Ironically, eating meat and the number of brutal slaughterhouses have certainly gone up in India even as many temples have given up this once in a while ritualistic sacrifice. As we ramp up to Thanksgiving, I question our activism resulting in hiding from sight what we can’t stand to bear. Out of sight is out of mind? As we gather around any festive table, perhaps what we should be most thankful for is the being that gave its life to bring us together around the table to cherish our friends and families.