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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

Israeli Forms of Identity (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, December 1, 1999).

New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).

Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).

Opium in the Naga Hills (Rahul Goswami, India, September 1, 1999).

A Saturday at the Auction (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, August 4, 1999).

The Bulls of Goa (Rahul Goswami, India, June 16, 1999).

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, May 26, 1999).

Hotel Alf (Akash Kapur, Poland, May 12, 1999).

Strolling Moscow's Broadway (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 28, 1999).

Uygur Luncheon (Jeffrey Tayler, China, April 14, 1999).

Onion Logic (Akash Kapur, India, March 31, 1999).

Dreamcasting Japan (Trevor Corson, Japan, March 17, 1999).

Talmud in a Taxi (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, March 3, 1999).

A Place of Healing (Jeffrey Tayler, China, February 17, 1999).

The Tiger Queen (Akash Kapur, India, February 3, 1999).

Holiday Moscow (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, January 6, 1999).

The Long Arm of the Chinese Law (Jeffrey Tayler, China, December 16, 1998).

Panama by Panga (Benjamin Howe, Panama, December 2, 1998).

Tower of Babel (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, November 18, 1998).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

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Israeli Forms of Identity
December 22, 1999

I rolled along under Calcutta, enjoying the smoothness of the subway ride, the cool and the dark, the breeze from the open car windows. India makes one appreciate the simpler pleasures, and I concentrated on them, attempting to distract myself from a certain anxiety. I was nervous about my aboveground destination -- Kalighat Temple, the shrine to the Hindu goddess Kali. Would not the visit of a non-Hindu to Kalighat -- a pitha, or holy pilgrimage site -- amount to a profanation of sorts? But because Kalighat is the most important temple in the city -- Calcutta is named after it -- I had decided to suppress my reservations and go.

I emerged from Kalighat Station into a warren of collapsing stucco houses and winding streets. The cooking fires of sidewalk dwellers scented the air with oil and curry and emitted a smoke that, struck by the setting sun, enveloped the scene in a burnished glow. There was, however, no Kalighat Temple to be seen, and so I set off down the narrow lanes to find it, falling in with the rush of creaking cycle rickshaws, honking taxis, and scurrying pedestrians, all of which were heading in one direction. Eventually I came upon rows of storefronts selling effigies of gods and goddesses, baskets of marigolds, and buckets of hibiscus blossoms. The scent of incense mingled with the smell of sewer filth; Sanskrit chants, a cacophony of cries, and murmured supplications filled the air. The smoke was thick, the heat dizzying. My eyes stung with sweat, and, wondering if this was Kalighat, I stopped to wipe it away.

A hand reached out from a shadowy doorway and grabbed my forearm. "Let me show you the Temple. I am a Brahmin of Kalighat Temple."

The Brahmin had pale skin, a trimmed mustache, intelligent eyes; he wore a blue-and-white checkered dhoti and a pale blue shirt. His nose was arched, almost Roman, and it gave him a regal air. "What is your fee?" I asked. It was customary to pay a fee for visits to temples.

"No fee. Kalighat welcomes non-Hindus. It is my duty to show it. For free."

He led me into a stream of people flowing into Kalighat, blossoms and verse books in hand. I found the temple difficult to understand. It was made up of many concrete alleys, brick chambers, and tiny courtyards; the people inside were rushing, shoving, readying themselves for devotion.

The Brahmin pointed to a ragged leafless shrub sitting on a patch of elevated ground; its branches rose through holes in the roof. The Barren Tree. Women had tied ribbons and stones to it, hoping it would enhance their fertility. After more shoving and scrambling around the maze we reached a flyblown chopping block, spattered with blood and scraps of flesh -- I recoiled, remembering that my guidebook said that human sacrifices used to be performed here. A man had thrust his neck into the cavity centered in the block, and was mumbling prayers. "He's showing his willingness to sacrifice himself for Kali," said the Brahmin. "The blood is from a goat we sacrificed this morning." Another man pushed past me and forced his head into the indentation; an argument ensued over whose head would occupy the block. When they saw me they fell silent and stared in my direction, and I turned away. The Brahmin walked on and I followed.

A yard-wide lane led round to stairs, up which a crowd was thronging, pushing toward an illuminated chamber behind a balcony. "The goddess Kali!" exclaimed the Brahmin.

Between the bodies I caught glimpses of what appeared to be mad eyes set in a three-foot-high red and black ceramic head that spewed a long bloody tongue. Kali. The goddess suffered a hail of hibiscus blossoms from her devotees. The flower sellers at the edge of the throng motioned to me, holding up clutches of rupees as a way of indicating their prices. Wouldn't I like to buy a few blossoms and toss them at the goddess? I shook my head. A man climbed into the pit with Kali; he stroked the eyes, the tongue; he pleaded with the effigy, his voice cracking. Sensing the fervor of a four-thousand-year-old faith that I did not share, feeling eyes on me, I perceived my presence there as improper, vaguely obscene even. The sweat and heat and press of bodies decided me, and I turned to head out.

The Brahmin caught up with me at the exit. "Follow me to the Sacred Pool." He opened a door leading into an empty courtyard surrounding a pool of greenish water. "Now, please record your name in our guest book" -- here he produced a ledger from his pocket -- "along with the number of sacks of rice you are donating to the poor. One sack costs 1700 rupees. We accept cash."

He looked down his Roman nose at me. I was taken aback but tried not to show it, and took out a hundred rupee note (about two-and-a-half dollars -- the customary guide fee in such situations) and offered it to him. He shook his head: 1700 rupees was the minimum for "a sack of rice," he insisted, a hint of indignation tingeing his voice. "Examine the book! Look at who has donated and how much!"

There were British, German, and French names and addresses next to amounts of 1700 rupees on up, but no Indian names -- though Indians had to be the chief benefactors of the temple, I doubted that they paid cash to insistent guides in deserted courtyards. "We are too bashful to write our names here," he said. "Okay, so how much money do you have on you?"

I handed him a hundred rupees -- he had done a decent job as a guide. "I don't accept fees, only donations," he said. I thanked him and walked out into the alley. He didn't move to follow me. I hurried back toward the metro, suddenly feeling alone on the crowded streets.

Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow, and is the author of Siberian Dawn (1999). He contributes regularly to The Atlantic Monthly and files frequent dispatches for Atlantic Abroad.

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