It was always around the time of this grand festival, where the ten-headed Rakshasa king would be burnt in majestic effigy.
It was Dassehra again, and my family (my father, my mother, my brother and I — my sister had not yet been born — were visiting my grandparents in their home in Badaun, in Uttar Pradesh. This was a city in north-central Uttar Pradesh near the Sot River, a tributary of the Ganges.
Reputedly founded about AD 905 by a Hindu ruler called Buddh, it grew to become in the 13th century an outpost of the Muslim kingdom of Delhi.
I remember it as a blend of Hindu and Muslim influences, with ruined Muslim fort and a large mosque, the Jamia Mosque, built in 1223 and restored in the 14th, 16th, and 19th centuries.
This was a yearly trip, and it was always around the time of this grand and gaudy festival, where the ten-headed Rakshasa king would be burnt in majestic effigy on a cold star-filled night in a wide field with stubble underfoot.
My grandfather once again took me (my brother was too young, an infant really) to see the lights and festivities in the small town, in a rickshaw pulled by a barefoot man with a bell wrapped round his finger.
We bought treats: cotton candy, peanut brittle, and savory fried foods. And we wandered together, my grandfather and I. There were kerosene lanterns everywhere and the clamor of vendors was at once cheering and depressing to me, because each vendor seemed to expend so much energy for so small a return.
One of the highlights of the mela was a man who climbed; slow as a sloth, to a perch raised high above a blue cistern filled with dark water. He would wordlessly douse himself with a fluid and then without undue ceremony raise an arm and light himself. Blazing against that indigo darkness he would pause for a moment and then dive into the cistern.
After what seemed a very long time he would emerge from the cistern, and scarcely acknowledging the applause of the onlookers, he would climb down the sides of the enormous cistern and with painful slowness start his Sisyphean climb again.
It was a spectacle that drew a steady stream of onlookers, but perhaps because it was impractical to shield the spectacle from anybody in the vicinity of the mela (since the tower from which the man jumped was so high), the price of viewing was probably rolled into the admission ticket.
As a result, possibly, the diver seemed equally unconcerned about attracting viewers and immune to the fatigue that this repeated close shave with death must have provoked in him. Or had his nearly inhuman intimacy with the secrets of surviving fire and water in such a succession induced in him a sort of elemental trance? For a young boy the fascination here was simply that there could be no trick.
The lion house was an entirely different sort of trick. It advertised itself by a roar, broadcast over speakers mounted above a yellow tent. When you entered you handed your ticket to a wan assistant who barely glanced at it and who pointed the way down a corridor that guided you along the periphery of the tent.
As you followed the turn you came upon a tableau: a decapitated torso in one corner, sprawled on a field of yellow cloth, with a huge red stain where the head would have been.
A few feet away, an arm protruding at an improbable angle from the same yellow field, and then, even further away, a head protruding from a jagged hole in what by now was discernible as a single yellow sheet.
A scene of a dismembered body, mauled by the lion. The yellow tent and the yellow field, the implausible body parts strewn on that nightmarish ground-enough to make me feel puke. But I had seen this exhibit before, on other visits with my grandfather, and I always asked to be taken to the lion house. What drew me?
It was not that I didn’t recognize, even as a child, that the whole thing was staged, what with the head poking out of the sheet a different complexion than the copper hue of the torso lying too rigidly to be a corpse-just holes in the sickly yellow sheet with body parts stuck through them.
It wasn’t just mawkish sentimentality that drew me to this small-town circus show again and again. The scene was lurid phantasmagoria to me nonetheless.
It was the way in which it was presented as somehow a banal violence, a violence that lay under the skin of everyday life for ordinary people-an allegory for the predations of daily life for the ordinary people, for whom Dassehra was not just a circus or fair but a mela, a religious remaking of the world.
I can now clearly imagine that it must have seemed something like this for my grandfather, for whom there was no discontinuity between the “real world” and the world that grew up like a protective wall around him when he chanted the name of “Bajrang Bali” like a mantra in prayer.
The reality, which he was invoking in prayer, was continuous with the world in which he earned a living as an advocate and also continuous with the allegorical world the Dassehra mela was, quite unapologetically an imperfect metaphor for the everyday world.
Today I envy him his certainties without wanting them. Then I only sensed them, took my cues about the lion house and the Dassehra festival from the perfect naturalness with which he accepted them as something more than mere entertainment or mere foolery.
There was, I knew even as I left the tent, no lion waiting to ambush me round the corner there, on the festival grounds, although there might be a lion in the shape of some other life-threatening nastiness.
But there would be something to look forward to at the end of the mela: the burning of the huge, multi-headed god of Lanka in effigy, recognizable in his demonic otherness and ethnic recognizability.
The giant would float, bloated, green, and gold, towering high above the crowd on an open field, and then someone with a casual torch would set him ablaze, destroying evil for a day.
This musing was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
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