Paul Theroux on Kali and Calcutta

In A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, Paul Theroux describes an animal sacrifice at the Kali temple in Kalighat. A goat, garlanded with flowers, is led bleating into a walled enclosure to the beat of drums. Once inside, the terrified creature is thrust between two upright stakes and caressed by a barefoot priest, who then hacks off its head to screeches of delight from the crowd.

The narrator, Jerry Delfont, an American travel writer invited to give talks in Calcutta (Kolkata) by the US consulate, is horrified by the spectacle. He is then led inside the temple, which is also frightening:

We shuffled past an inside window where the image of the goddess Kali, gleaming black and brightly marked, stared with orange lozenge eyes from a stack of blossoms and offerings. I was briefly frightened, jostled by the mob in this stifling place of incense and flowers and dishes of money and frantic pilgrims, who were twitching with gestures of devotion and gasping, seeming to eat the air, all of them staring wildly at the furious image.

Theroux is clearly writing as an outsider, who doesn’t share the religious sentiments of the Hindus. The scene is nightmarish. Even Hindus may recoil from the animal sacrifice. And was it necessary to give such a lurid description of the image of the goddess?

One can understand a writer wants to be vivid. And the scene at the Kali temple is integral to the story. Delfont realizes the American woman, who has befriended him in Calcutta, is a devotee of Kali. It is she who bought the goat for sacrifice. He describes her look of rapture as the priest smears a drop of the goat’s blood on her forehead — after which she mouths a prayer to the goddess with a passionate intensity.

Delfont is drawn to Mrs Unger — for that is her name — a beautiful widow who does business and social work in India. He can’t say no when she asks him to investigate a strange mystery.

A boy has been found dead in a hotel room where her son Charlie’s Indian friend, Rajat, had been staying. Rajat had fled when he saw the body, fearing the police might suspect him. Mrs Unger asks Delfont to find out what happened to the boy.

As he investigates, he sees the corruption and poverty in India. Mrs Unger takes him on a trip to Assam, where she buys out girls who had been sold into prostitution and brings them to her rehabilitation home in Calcutta. At the same time, she has a relationship with him, initiating him into tantric sex.

His investigations, however, lead him into another mystery — about Mrs Unger herself. What is she hiding from him?

A Dead Hand is a mystery with literary tricks. Theroux himself makes a fleeting appearance. Passing through Calcutta, he meets Delfont who, jealous of his success as a writer, describes him as condescending and insincere. It’s a clever device which lets Theroux write about himself as seen through another writer’s eyes.

There are predictable digs at Indian English and Indian accents. It wouldn’t be Theroux if he didn’t poke fun at others.

This is not Ian Rankin. It’s Theroux through and through.

The story ends with Delfont walking in the rain to the banks of the Ganges, where he tosses a letter into the waters. Characteristically, Theroux sees not a great river but the waste it carries.

I paused in the downpour and flung the envelope into the river, setting it adrift in the greasy current with the flotsam of old fruit, rotting coconuts, curls of plastic and, sliding like scum from the ghats upriver, the buoyant ashes of human remains.

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