I am in Calcutta with my attorney friend Charlotte. We’re trying to be tourists. If we can be tourists, then we’re not failures. We’re not the people who couldn’t convince a village of teenage prostitutes to join a class-action civil rights lawsuit. Who couldn’t make the case that water, electricity, and education would outweigh the drawbacks of standing up to the local mafia.
We’re staying at the Hyatt, washing off three weeks’ grime and dirt and the discouragement of a job undone, mission-not- accomplished. We have one day to be tourists before flying home. We go to Kalighat.
The Temple of Kali is a white dome rising above a courtyard, surrounded by a marketplace selling offerings. There are frangipani and marigolds strung like necklaces, garlands of limes, piles of red and gold cloth, cookies and sweets arranged on lotus leaves, all to tempt the Goddess and entice her notoriously-merciless spirit to fix your problems. Long lines of pilgrims stretch from the six entrances, the women in bright, dressy saris and salwar khameez suits, the men in white or pastel kurtas and loose pants. Everyone’s barefoot on the dirty pavement, skirting mud puddles, soda spills, and the occasional pile deposited by a sacred cow or free-range city chicken.
“You need guide? You want temple guide?” is a constant refrain. I wave the men away while Charlotte pulls out our guidebook.
When Kali steps with the left foot, sword in one of her right arms, she is rage, Chaos, the Goddess of the cremation ground. If her right foot is forward, she is Kali Ma, mother of the universe, creator of language, her two right hands making the mudras of fearlessness and blessing.
While we’re reading, our guard is down; a guide attaches himself to us. His name is Bapi.
“Now I will tell you rules of the temple! First you must remove shoes!” We stuff them under a flower stall, feeling dubious. Bapi says, “No-one will steal shoes! Is against temple rules to take shoes!”
He takes us to the temple bakery, which serves food to the poor. We visit the lingam of Shiva, a four-and- a-half- foot stone phallus – Charlotte and I both decline to pray for fertility. We enter a small courtyard where a little black goat is tied and bleating.
Bapi says, “You are very lucky today. Normally is sacrifice only once each day, but now is festival time so next sacrifice at 3:15.”
I don’t carry a phone or wear a watch here, but the big shirtless guy standing by the altar ahead is sharpening a machete with his hands pointing to 3:12. The goat digs in all four heels as someone drags it across the courtyard. “Goat is always black, goat is always male! That is to represent the devil!” Bapi drags us to some steps for a better view. I look away. Then I ask myself, “How many times in your life will you be able to watch a goat sacrifice?”
The answer is once.
Worshipers crowd towards the goat, dipping their fingertips in blood and touching it to their foreheads to take away sins, then wiping their fingers on the back of their hair, rather than soiling their clothes. There is a distinct lack of public hand-washing in India. Still barefoot, I say into Charlotte’s ear, “I stepped in goat shit,” and she answers back, “I stepped in goat blood.”
Bapi puts us in the line for the inner temple, the main event, the Space Mountain of Kalighat, audience with the Goddess herself. He blesses flowers for us, pressing them into our hands, curling our fingers tightly, then gives additional instructions:
“Temple is crowds! Bags in front please! There will be pushing! Do not look at Goddess too long, you must see her very quickly and throw!” Bapi mimes a strong overhand.
The crowd roars and surges into the temple. Suddenly we’re in a hundred-person mosh pit in a room the size of a large American bathroom. Men and women jostle and shove. Something hard – an elbow? a sharp nose? – strikes me between the shoulder blades. To my left, the alcove where a hot tub would be glows with gold and candlelight. Two sweaty, bare-chested acolytes shovel offerings out of the way as fast as they can, making room for more. Between them is a lump of rough black stone. Kali. She is inhuman – a squat triangle with three eyes, strangely like a Brady Bunch tiki god but also terrifyingly real. Chaos is here.
Everyone pushes and yells prayers and throws offerings. I take my hand back, connect with someone’s face, yell, “Sorry!” and fling my sticky handful of flowers at Kali. “Now!” cries Bapi, grabbing my wrist and pulling us out.
Behind the main temple, Bapi walks us around the sacred pool, blessedly quiet and free of all but a few pilgrims. We leave the last of our flowers before a statue of Shiva, where Bapi hits us up for temple donations. I give four hundred rupees. Bapi pressures me until I turn out my purse and say, “Dude, that’s all I have on me.” Charlotte gives two thousand. I hope Shiva will average it out.
We take a cab home. The driver misses the turn for the hotel driveway, makes a sharp and sudden left, and a moped hits the taxi broadside. The moped-rider – thankfully unhurt – steps off his bike and begins to shout, and suddenly we are surrounded by more moped-riders and bicyclists, shouting in Bengali, hands twisting off the side mirror of the cab and reaching in through the half-open window, punching our driver and grabbing him, pulling him out. The stink of bodies fills the taxi, hands pressed against the windows like paparazzi. It happens too quickly to think and I am too tired to be frightened, but I am angry. I do not know if Kali has come with me or if this is my sense of injustice or only my desire to be back in the white European shower at the Hyatt, but I am suddenly strong, suddenly Chaos, pushing the door open against the still-running moped, against the crowd that is now a mob of 60 or 70 shouting men. I slide through the gap and stand next to the taxi.
“He didn’t mean to hurt anyone!” I shout, and there is a terrible power rising within me, rage and fury that I cannot turn away guides or get rid of beggars or feed the poor or make a difference to teenage prostitutes, “It was an accident! Leave him alone!”
I don’t find out until later that traffic mobs often tear the offending driver to pieces or beat him to death. I don’t know if the mob sees Kali dancing on the battlefield on the corpses of the slain, or if they are merely confused that a redheaded white woman in a sari is yelling at them. But the mob lets go of our driver and disperses. We head up the driveway, past the metal detectors, and I don’t start shaking until we are in the lobby of the hotel.
Allison Williams has written about race, culture and comedy for NPR, CBC, The Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. Her fiction has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly and Deep South; essays in Kenyon Review, The Drum and Prairie Schooner. She is a two-time winner of The Moth StorySLAM, and the Social Media Editor for Brevity. Home base is currently Dubai, where “The Pork Shop” is a separate, dimly-lit room at the back of the supermarket. It’s like buying meat porn.