NB: This post is written in a stream-of-consciousness, no-punctuation style (borrowed from a New York music blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews and a friend's travel/yoga blog, the road less traveled) as I felt this style fit the material. Your feedback is welcome.
i'm walking home from varkala cliff at about 9pm one sunday in august, dodging puddles in the road from the monsoon rains, when shibu calls. "hi, good?" he asks. "yeah good, what's up?" i reply. shibu says "yeah tonight my home one puja, you remember i am before telling? tonight happen, full night puja, you come?"
i pause for a moment to think. now that i am single and my dog has died, i should get out and do things like this and extend the limits of my comfort zone. i tell him, "yes sure, i am now coming, 20 minutes"
a couple of weeks before he'd told me about a dark hindu puja that he had arranged to happen at his home to give him and his family good luck, because they have a lot of money problems. he didn't say much at the time but he wrinkled up his face with vigour and said "this very bad, very very bad things!" with intensity. i tried to ask why he was doing it if it was bad but he just kept saying he hoped it would help his money problems. shibu and his family live below the poverty line despite the fact that he manages a guest house on varkala cliff, a wealthy tourist area. by the way a puja is a hindu ceremony but shibu is muslim. also, it cost 25,000 rupees, which for him is two months' salary and could pay for his family to eat well for a year
i speed by rickshaw to shibu's tiny shack on the outskirts of varkala, where shibu meets me outside with a nervous grin. shibu's shack is built out of unadorned bricks & mortar and comprises a living room, two bedrooms and a staircase up to the roof. the living room has four chairs, one in good condition and the others in various states of disrepair. like most kerala homes there is a display case on one wall filled with plastic ornaments made in china, and a tv and dvd player on the dining table that don't work. attached to the living room is a cluttered dirt-floor kitchen covered by a coconut-leaf roof. as usual i am welcomed with chai and smiles
shibu introduces me to ashok the priest and thulasi his assistant. both are in their thirties like shibu, ashok overweight and friendly, thulasi skinny and quiet. ashok strikes me as a very regular guy, a proper aam aadmi who just does pujas on the side, like how schoolteachers and interior decorators in new zealand can be marriage celebrants at the weekend. ashok is preparing an intricate rangoli out of coloured powders in shibu's sparsely decorated bedroom. the rangoli includes a reverse swastika and the sanskrit symbol for om. thulasi, shibu and i set up rows of incense in front of the shack while shibu's goat bunts me on the shins over and over with her head
shibu's mother is the only other member of the family who is staying awake for the puja. his mother brings tea for us while i play shibu and thulasi my current ringtone, 'neverland' by swedish electro-rock duo the knife, which to my surprise they both love. thulasi immediately asks for my phone number and then proceeds to call my phone at various times throughout the night whenever he feels like hearing 'neverland'
we add the last piece of the shrine, fire in an upturned pot lid. ashok is ready to start so he strips to a lungi and wraps an orange cloth tightly around his head. i ask shibu if it's ok to take photos and he says "no problem". thulasi, beginning to open up to me a little after we shared music, urges me to take photos. at this point i really regret only having a mobile phone camera
ashok stands upright before the makeshift shrine and presses his palms tightly together in front of him. he chants effortlessly and melodiously. shibu, thulasi and i look in from the doorway, barely two feet from him. ashok slowly loses all his composure, staggering around the tiny room and throwing his hands out wide. the chant is replaced by a demonic guttural voice speaking words that sound like no language i've ever heard. the god has entered his body
the god begins to back towards the doorway in which we are standing, so we get out of the way. thulasi quickly barks some instructions to shibu, who dashes outside with the pot lid fire. i stand against the wall of the living room as the god shuffles backwards through the living room and outside. the goat darts out of his way and some nearby dogs start barking and howling
i go outside with shibu's mother and we watch as the god takes an impromptu torch from thulasi and lights it in the pot lid fire. the god starts raising his demonic voice and shouting at shibu to dig at a particular spot over by the front corner of the property. shibu digs and brings up a small metal casket. they bring it back over by the fire and open it. inside is money, a round ceramic ornament and the skull of a cat
the god instructs shibu to smash the skull of the cat, which the god then examines. he then inspects the money - about Rs 2000 - and stuffs it into his lungi. finally he instructs shibu to smash the ceramic ornament, which reveals some dirty jewellery. the god takes this too. i ask shibu's mother if the casket had been buried before and she says "ah, before" with a nod
the god says something else and thulasi runs inside and fetches a bottle of rum. he takes it to the god who takes three good swigs and then tells shibu and thulasi to drink too. they do so. as the god staggers back into the house and back to the shrine in the bedroom, thulasi thrusts the bottle into my hand with a smile and i drink, then we go inside
the god now sits before the shrine, with shibu and his mother at his left and thulasi at his right. for maybe an hour they sit there as the god speaks (in a softer but still demonic voice) and asks shibu questions. shibu gives considered responses and nods frequently. thulasi looks on gravely, occasionally glancing at me and nodding. this feels like the most important part of the puja, where the god will tell shibu everything's going to be okay and maybe tell him what to do and how to make more money
finally shibu's mother retreats out of the room and goes to wake the rest of the family. then thulasi stands up, and finally shibu, and they leave the room. the god stands up slowly, with heavy, creaking joints, and i realise that the god is gone and ashok has returned. ashok stands before the shrine and presses his palms together once again, then he sits on the edge of the bed and wipes his brow. he notices me and smiles widely
it's around 4am, and suddenly the house is full of people. all this time there had been six people sleeping in the next room. one of shibu's sisters goes to the kitchen to make tea and fish curry. shibu's nephew appears in the doorway to the bedroom where the shrine and is stunned to find me, a white man. he can't stop smiling. shibu's niece goes to help her mother in the kitchen. shibu's brother-in-law comes and sits in the living room awaiting tea and fish curry. shibu's disabler brother, paralysed from the waist down since being given the wrong injection at a routine immunisation appointment aged six, crawls into the living room, dragging himself along with his hands
the last person to exit the bedroom is shibu's wife. she walks wearily into the living room and goes to the kitchen as well. she looks as though she's aged ten years in the three months since i last saw her
there is still plenty of rum left so thulasi encourages me to have more. for every swig i take, he takes two swigs. this is when he starts calling my phone very often. i stand beside him and take our photo with my phone, and his faint smile is pure and makes his eyes shine
ashok cleans up the shrine which he spent hours putting together. the rangoli powders are swept into a plastic bag along with flowers and ash. the pot lid fire has long since burned out. only traces of the puja remain in blurred coloured outlines on the floor. looking at his warm bloodshot eyes, i find it hard to believe that this is the same person who was speaking in tongues just a short while ago
shibu invites me to come outside and have a cigarette with him. "good?" he asks. i'm not sure what to say. i don't really think it's appropriate to tell him that while the puja definitely had a certain energy about it, i think he could've gotten a lot more out of that 25,000 rupees, so i simply say "very interesting". he smiles and looks down at the ground. he knows exactly what i'm thinking, it's probably written all over my face, so we don't say anything else and smoke the rest of our cigarettes while trying to avoid the goat
A photo slideshow with music of Shibu's Dark Puja can be found here.