Dead dog beach
By Jeff Dell
On my last working evening in Calcutta my colleague and I went to a 'real' restaurant, pretty much at her request, I have to say. 'Real' in the sense of Formica tables and proper waiters in uniforms and swinging kitchen doors and north Indian food - recognizable Indian restaurant thingies. 'Real' North Indian grub too, not the South Indian Dosas in the downtown cafes that were my natural and her more reluctant habitat. Well.... It could have been the meat, it might have been the rums and cokes, it was possibly some other meal at some other place; whatever it was, it distended my growling stomach into a gaseous ball of shit at about two the following morning and I went for it through the eye of a needle for the next twelve hours, with a spot of vomiting for good measure. This was unfortunate, and not just because I missed the final day's summing up and conclusion drawing from our mission, but because I was also due to take an overnight sleeper to Puri on the Puri Express from Calcutta at 9.30 that evening.
There's nothing much 'express' about the train from Calcutta to Puri. It covers five hundred kilometers in eleven hours, which according to my calculator is around forty-five kilometers an hour. I took Air Conditioned Class 1 and had an upper berth, the main benefit of this being that you can crash out whenever you want. The two lower berths double as the seats and their back rests for all the passengers in the compartment and thus offered less independence. With my guts in turmoil and my head in a spin I wanted to crash out and listen to the football results. I was carrying the trusty old Roberts as always, and anticipated a good result at Bradford after the win against Sunderland. Ig's report had fired me up and I saw no reason why a good run shouldn't have us up there with the contenders again. I also wanted more information on Glenda's downfall and who might by silly enough to take over. In the event, it proved to be impossible to get a reception from London and I crashed out not knowing the score.
I checked into a dodgy hotel at 200 Rupees per night, which is about $4. For this price you get lots of mosquitoes and little justification for complaint, but I was knackered, the guts were still in rebellion and I checked in for two nights. I spent the first few hours crashed out listening to the Beeb, and finally caught the results. Manchester United 8! Christ! And so finally I got to hear about the Orns and, that done, filed it under 'd' for disappointment and moved on. I was last in Puri in 1976 and my memory of it was dim. I remembered it as the place I caught Hepatitis, as the home of the Jagannath temple (from whence the word 'Juggernaut') and for the fishing village on the Eastern beach and the accompanying traveler's lodges and restaurants that service the needs of Westerners.
In the afternoon I took a rickshaw to the Western beach for a general looksee, and thus struck up a friendship with Rama the rickshaw wallah who was to be my transport and guide for the next three days. The Western beach, in contrast to the East, is highly developed for the Bengali holiday trade and never, it appeared, were the twain to meet. Santana and Pink Floyd are replaced here by Hindi Film songs, dope with devotees and hippies with families. It was while looking around the market by the Western beach that I came across the cremation grounds.
Not as dramatic as the steps of Varanasi, Puri's Hindu cremation ground nonetheless serves its purpose, as I was to observe for an hour or so. Rama showed me the spot where his own father was cremated a year earlier. One cremation was going on when I arrived and another one was due to take place, at least if the dead man with the painted red face had no other business being there. I was disconcerted by the corpse, clearly the next in line, laying in the sun uncovered, emaciated, limbs akimbo. It seemed an undignified end to whatever sort of life he'd led - a 'poor man' explained Rama whose body had possibly been found by the police and brought here. The cremation ground - picture half the size of a football pitch - was covered in ashes as you can imagine, and cows. A Brahman bull - a pint sized ruffian with broad shoulders - was trying to shag a calf of indeterminate sex and beggars sifted through the ashes for God alone knows what. And dogs, surly, mangy, menacing skulking dogs.
It doesn't take much wood to burn a body, and a pyre need be no bigger than an average back garden bonfire if you're thinking of having a go. You should get some decent supporting logs as the base and lay the body on them. Then add some more on the body itself to stabilise the corpse, and above, add more wood wig-wam style. Add a touch of ghee, light the blue touch paper and hey presto, away ya go-go. If you've only got the 300 to 400 Rupees that it costs to buy just enough wood, you'll need someone on hand to do a bit of prodding to make sure that all the body goes up. I could see two thin legs hanging out of my side of the pyre but Rama assured me that these would be dealt with at a later stage of the cremation. Much depends on the state of the corpse too. An emaciated body won't take that long - maybe three hours said Rama - but a fleshy number will take more wood and more time.
All things considered, I'd decided to stick to vegetarian food, though the thought of fish proved too tempting and I cracked the first evening. Raju is a fisherman from Madhya Pradesh who fishes the Orissan coast at Puri for five months of the year; we met on the beach and I was invited for a 'family dinner' at his home. This was no hail fellow well met type of stuff, this was a business arrangement, and we agreed that I would pay 50 Rupees for dinner with his family at seven that evening. We would have, he said, fresh sardines masala with chappatis. In the meantime I checked out the beach.
Normally I like beaches almost as much as I hate dogs. I have an irrational thing about dogs, I can't really see the point of them, I've never wanted one and I don't like them around me. I especially don't like them dead around me, and if they have be dead around me, I particularly don't want them being dead all around me. And dead too, with turtles and fishes of all descriptions. And if dogs insist on being dead on beaches and in the sea and further insist on being surrounded by other dead things I don't see why they have to arrange it that they are also surrounded by human shit. And if dogs do arrange things thus, why do they have to have kids playing in it all? And if that wasn't enough, why did the stinking dead dogs have to arrange it that when I turned up at Raju's house that evening at seven he should not only not be expecting me, but he should be as drunk as a fart with a bunch of mates not expecting me?
Raju was pissed, his mates were pissed, kids were crying, dogs were everywhere, there was one solitary thirty watt bulb in the house, and there was no food. "I hope you are understanding", said Raju, and I was. I was understanding that this was a mistake, an error of judgement on my part and I was understanding that I needed to beat a hasty retreat without causing too much offence. Raju's wife leant against the frame of her kitchen door with an expression that said 'wanker', and she was right. She brought me a plate of cold fried sardines and apologised in an unapologetic manner for what was going to be the non-appearance of chappatis. To cap 'dinner with the family' Raju and his mates helped themselves to the sardines, and I used this as an opportunity to say a quick goodbye and slip out of the door and into the unlit and dog-infested alleyways that led eventually to dead dog beach.
That evening I ate banana curd and drank sweet Indian tea in a traveler's snack bar on the beach with a puppy retching and vomiting somewhere by my legs under the table. A Japanese guy I'd seen earlier in the town was there in body only and two fat German fifty somethings with shaven heads, tattooed arms and mean expressions cased the place. Time for bed.
I'd pretty much given up on the travelers' end of town by this time and the next day, my first full day in Puri, I headed out to the Jagannath Temple. Puri is one of India's four dhams, or Hindu pilgrimage sites, and the Jagannath Temple lies at its core. Non Hindus aren't allowed into the Temple but you can get a half-decent view of things from the roof of a library building, conveniently placed opposite the Temple's main gate. The library didn't seem to have had any new additions since the mid-forties at the latest. Still, it did stock 'The little gentleman from Okehampstead' by E. Phillips Oppenheim and I also found Keith's 1912 'Responsible Government in the Dominions', which, for the crack, I took out and skimmed. In the two preceding days there had been 33 and 30 library users, but from what I could see over the course of a hour or so, most came to read the daily newspapers.
The temple of Jagannath, immodestly known as the Lord of the Universe and an incarnation of Vishnu, attracts Hindu pilgrims from all over India, and on the day of my visit at least, a few from Moscow. Not that their Krishna credentials gave them access; on the contrary, they had to make do with peeping from the roof of the library. 'That's sad', I thought, and it is really, isn't it, having gone to all that bother and all. On the library roof, overlooking the temple's main entrance, looking down on the market place and checking out the cluster of lepers on the corner, my mind inevitably turned to Glenda. Of course Hindus, like Glenn Hoddle, believe in reincarnation, though unlike Glenda (may the Lord have mercy on our goal) they're not muddled born again Christians. If Glenn had contented himself with the uncontroversial tenets of Christianity, like, er, immaculate conceptions and, er, the resurrection of the dead, he'd have surely been on safer ground.
The Bhagavad Gita says that even if our suffering in this life can be attributed to mistakes in previous lives, it is more or less impossible to know what those mistakes were, or when we made them, and the relationship between our previous lives and our present situations is not at all clear. Now I don't buy this stuff personally - and it's my right to say so even if it's not necessarily my duty - but we might as well remember that roughly half the world does, among them some perfectly decent Britons. And maybe - just maybe - some day one of them will be in a position to become the England coach. At which time we'd better have given more thought not just to what freedom of speech allows, but also to what living in a multi-faith country involves.
I was wondering what the Indian press would have made of the cafuffle surrounding the alternatively abled Glenda's remarks but unless I'd missed it, there appeared to be none. Understandably, greater concern was being expressed about the burning to death in Orissa of a Australian missionary and his two sons by a group of religious bigots, and what this may be construed as saying about India itself. The morning papers showed the charred interlocked remains of the father and his two boys, embracing one last time in fear and, I imagine, in love. I'd been reading about communalism in India for some time and like most people was aware of an increase in the number of attacks on the Christian community, a relatively new phenomenon, even within a country not unfamiliar with communal tensions.
There had been several attacks in Orissa and the newspapers were carrying their stories. The Utkal Age headlined 'Attack on Christians in Keonjhar', the New Indian Express, 'Cops still clueless in nun rape case', and another Utkal Age read '2 young Christians killed in Phulbani.' Perhaps it was because foreigners had been murdered, perhaps because the attacks on Christians were receiving unusual interests from abroad - whatever, India took a look in the mirror and shuddered. February 8th's India Today agonised and editorialised, and found that the murders of Graham Staines and his boys 'made a great country look small. And ugly.' And it did. Which is a shame, since of all the adjectives that one can think of to describe India, neither 'small' nor 'ugly' figures prominently.
That evening I ate on the Western side of the beach with the Bengali holidaymakers. I had a fried fish at 6 Rupees and a delicious Chow Mien for 11. Two glasses of sweet tea, sundown on the beach, another chat with Rama about the cremation of his father and how the small of his back had been the most difficult part to burn, a slow walk around the lungis and saris, and back to the hotel for sports round up on the Beeb.
And so, back to Calcutta and the flight to Bangladesh, to BSaD, the write up on the Bradford game and the preview of the home match against Huddersfield. I may be tempting fate here, but I give it 2-1 to Watford. In fact, if we don't win, I'll be a monkey's uncle - but in another life, not now.