One Christmas day I was witness to a beheading. It was around six years ago and I was in India, specifically Calcutta, or Kolkata as it has been renamed (just as Mumbai, sadly, is no longer Bombay). I had flown to Kolkata from Bangkok, more or less on a whim. I ended up staying in India for half a year, drifting in a slow arc across the north of the country to Mumbai, from where, more or less on a whim, I flew to South America. I used to feel embarrassed when other backpackers asked me how long I’d been in India, and which places I’d seen so far: my list of sights seen and cities visited was so spare, and theirs invariably so long and rich, despite the fact that I’d been in the country far longer than they had (they tended to be on whirlwind visits before getting back to their engineering jobs in Holland or whatever), that I always felt like an irredeemable slacker, my indolence betrayed even in an activity already all-but-indistinguishable from idleness, namely gap-year style backpacking.
To anyone who’d like to get up close and intimate with their sense of alienation, of not belonging, I recommend going to India. The otherness of the place is so intense that – at least this is the notion I entertained during my time there – it becomes somehow delocalised: the fact of being in India recedes even as it overwhelms, opening up the possibility of experiencing alienation in its purified form. The sense of estrangement is strong enough that it breaks free of its local predicates and approaches an absolute state – in other words, it all gets a bit existential.
On the Christmas day in question, I was hanging out with a Muslim friend. I can’t remember his name, so let’s just call him Ahmed and be done with it. Ahmed was a street vendor: he had a little stall from which he sold knick-knacks – rubber balls, key-rings, fluffy animals and cheap toys for children. He was around thirty (I was younger) and I thought him the kind of person who, had he gotten the right breaks in life, could have made something pretty impressive of himself. Kolkata is predominantly Hindu, but there is a sizable Muslim community. Ahmed was devout (nearly everyone I encountered in India was devout), and wore white Muslim dress and a skull cap every day, or at least that’s how I remember him. Ahmed had told me to come meet him that afternoon so he could show me around the city. I was curious about Kolkata’s Christian community, so we walked to the cathedral and looked in on the mass service that was just finishing up. It was curious to see Indian people, usually garbed in robes and saris, now wearing their suits and finery, standing outside a church, shaking hands and smiling at one another. If it weren’t for their dark skin and the exoticism of their surroundings, the faithful may as well have been the parishioners back in Crumlin Village, Dublin, where I had dutifully attended Christmas mass even into the years of my virulent, Nietzsche-enhanced atheism, a family-placating concession to tradition.
Afterwards, Ahmed led me down a series beggar-strewn streets and alleys (the number of beggars in Kolkata, it must be said, beggars belief) till we arrived at the temple of Kali, Hindu goddess of destruction. She’s a wild bitch, Kali: the one with a necklace of severed heads, a further severed head held aloft in one of her four hands, ISIS style, and a big blood-stained knife in the opposite hand. I had a bit of a thing for Kali. Ahmed and I were not supposed to enter the temple, where an important festival was about to take place, because neither of us were Hindus. But Ahmed had brought along a change of clothes, and he took off his hat as we approached the turnstiles leading into the temple (I remember a lot of turnstiles at the holy places of India, giving the impression that you were queuing for a football match when you were paying tribute to the elephant god Ganesh or whoever). My appearance must have been close enough to that of the typical strung-out hippy wanderer for my spiritual beliefs to be anyone’s guess: I was permitted to enter the temple by the stern-faced, machine-gun toting guard.
The atmosphere was like fight-night. We pushed through the crowd to get a ringside vantage, the ring being a grey altar on a dusty stone floor marked off from the crowd by a low wall. People bustled around (as VS Naipaul writes somewhere, no-one teems like the Indians), and we waited to see what would happen. When the temple had reached, in the sense of grossly exceeded, capacity crowd, the ceremony began. Two burly, formidable looking men in dark robes appeared from behind the scenes and stepped into the ring. One of them was cradling a white baby goat, bleating in fright as it was held before a crowd that, by now, was literally baying for blood. The other man was holding a curved sword, not unlike the one that Kali brandishes in most depictions. The first man carefully stretched the terrified goat out over the sacrificial altar, which was constructed of dark grey slabs of stone. After some ceremonial toing and froing, the man with the sword raised it high, then brought it cleanly and vigorously down on the goat’s neck. The head flew off and thunked onto the dusty ground, where it rolled about, squirting blood. The decapitated body slumped forward and fell to the ground. It spasmed violently for quite some time, ejaculations of blood spurting rhythmically from the stump.
It was electrifying: the intoxication of witnessing a scene so intense, violent and bizarre was heightened by the knowledge that, firstly, we were not supposed to be there – we were transgressing onto what already felt transgressive – and secondly, that it was happening on the holiest day of the religion in which I had been raised. It was a Hindu ceremony, but the sacrilegious frisson of being there as a nominal Catholic made it feel Satanic.
After the beheading, Ahmed and I ducked out of the crowd and made our way to the temple’s exit. We parted on the street outside. I imagine that was the last time I saw Ahmed. In the evening, the guests at my squalid hostel gathered on the rooftop for a Christmas party, exchanging Kris Kringle gifts. I hadn’t been drinking for a while, but I made an exception that night. I stayed up till dawn talking to a pretty girl who left just when I thought something might happen between us. The next day, my body’s defences down, I fell ill, and so began an appalling week in which I was unable to leave the hostel for weakness, fever and diarrhoea. I passed the time by hallucinating onto the walls and ceiling, and by vomiting and shitting. Eventually, emaciated and sallow, I found the strength to board a train and leave Kolkata for another teeming city to the north. I will probably never again set foot in Kolkata – a city which enchanted me – or witness the decapitation of a goat. The spraying stump of that sacrificial animal, and its frightened bleating moments earlier, and the long curved blade of the slaughterer, and the crowds, and Kolkata, and India itself all feel like a dream as they recede into the past, becoming a story that surprises me even in the telling of it, because it happened and it almost feels as if it didn’t. And that is fitting enough: if I understood the Hindu philosophers correctly, they were of the view that none of our lives ever really happened at all.