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SEX & DEATH IN JANGIPUR

‘Take me to the Pink Temple,’ I said, ‘that one over there.’

Without purpose, plan  or design, Dogster arrived in Jangipur – a city he’d never heard of until this particular moment, a city of no particular note, no great attraction; a splodge of a place half-way up West Bengal, spread out either side of the Hoogli, both sides connected by a large concrete bridge. While the Caledonians dozed on the sun-deck, Dogster went ashore. It was either that or a tantrum. They wisely chose to sacrifice their trainee guide.

Young Mr. Udit blinked in that keen Indian way.

‘Yes, yes, yes, sir,’ he said very rapidly.

Udit was  full of enthusiasm; intense, highly-educated and anxious to please. I was his first solo encounter with ‘a foreigner’ in an illustrious career in tourism that extended back all of six days. He was like an excited puppy – but I tamed him very fast. It was a baptism of fire.

The Pink Temple was just back down the river, camouflaged by trees. I had no idea what it was but it was big, pointy and pink – that was good enough for me. With young Udit keeping watch for destructive forces, I ploughed along a line of shops cunningly built under a gigantic overpass that led to the bridge. He could do nothing but follow. Occasionally I’d duck behind an awning, hide behind a corner and disappear from Udit’s view – just to see the look of bewildered horror on his face when he realised he’d lost his tourist. Seconds before he started to cry I’d step out, as if nothing had happened and continue on my way.

Poor Udit – he was a good lad. He didn’t deserve Dogster.

All of Indian retail life was here, the usual hoi-polloi of plastic ornaments, bundles of thongs, clothes for little children, brooms, coloured flowers, plastic buckets and tea shops – and, to my astonished eye, a row of stalls selling the most ferocious porn I had seen outside Amsterdam.

Was I in India? Here the film stars don’t even kiss each other on screen. Now, in broad daylight I’m faced with a splay of legs akimbo, a wiggle of willies dangling down against the wall. I had the feeling my guide may have seen such things before. He had once spent two years at sea.

‘Udit!’ I said, ‘what is this, Udit?

I just wanted to see the expression on his face.

He peered in to the wall of willies, the heaving breasts and pouting lips.

‘Pornography, Mr. Dogster,’ he said brightly.

‘What is that for?’ I asked with a perfectly blank look.

In Udit’s world it was quite possible for an elderly foreigner to know nothing about such things.

‘Hand practice, Mr. Dogster.’

Bless him. I had trouble keeping that straight face.

‘There’s a cinema today,’ Udit added proudly, then consulted in rapid Hindi with the trishaw driver, ‘just over there.’

He pointed with one thumb at a canvas covered opening between two stalls. I made him take me over. A man sat at a desk selling tickets from a roll, behind him another reprobate stood waiting with a torch. Both were very friendly, in a lurid kind of way. I shook their hands and winked.

‘Men are men,’ I shrugged, ‘all over the world…’

Stuck to a flap on one wall was a hand-written sign and a picture of a lady with breasts. That was apparently enough to draw a late-morning crowd in Jangipur. This was a fly-by-nighter, kamikaze porn dive, a theatre rented for a day, gone tomorrow – all they needed was a ticket, a torch, some porn and a sign.

Tickets were ten rupees. On an impulse I slapped down my cash on the desk, took my sunglasses off with a flourish and headed inside.  I’d forgotten all about poor Udit. I stopped in my tracks and turned around.

‘You coming?’

Udit trembled on the brink. I don’t think escorting his clients – in fact his only client, ever – into pornographic movie theatres was on his job description. I left him dangling there for a juicy moment, stranded between a rock and hard place – then did what I was always going to do and decided for him.

‘You stay here and watch for policemen, Udit.’

He seemed relieved.

‘You are an innocent young man,’ I laughed over my shoulder, ‘I’m not going to corrupt you.’

With that I turned and followed a man with a torch into the dark.

*

The back door to the porn theatre was covered in sheets of dark plastic. I entered through a fold and suddenly plunged into darkness. A torch flickered on and pointed to an empty seat in the back row. I slipped in unnoticed; nobody was watching my grand entrance. Their eyes were glued to the screen.

I walked into a soft curtain of musky testosterone; two hundred men sat in rows that disappeared into the darkness, lounging on each other, growling, soft murmurs of appreciation rippling through the crowd at the events on the screen. The video froze, juddered, fast-forwarded, stopped, flew backwards then started again. Shouts and jeers from the mob. A few more minutes of bouncing flesh then the whole stop-start process began all over.  I was far more fascinated by the audience than the screen.

I knew it was pink, I knew it was moving – but I couldn’t see quite what it was. Not anticipating a visit to the porn cinema that morning I didn’t have my glasses with me – eventually had to put my prescription sunnies back on to see just what was happening up there.  I looked completely stupid, like Stevie Wonder at the movies, but like I say, nobody was looking at me. It took a while to focus and realise what I was actually seeing. Then my jaw dropped. Whoa.

Now, I quite pride myself on my ability to roll with the punches, to sit and not judge, to be invisible in a foreign space – but the ferocious pornography of down-town Jangipur quite took my breath away. In fact, it was as genuine a moment of Indian travel as any other – as intense, it its own murky way, as foreign, as abnormal a moment as you could ever hope for, a perfect Dogster Moment – but for once I tumbled over my threshold, took one step too far into the darkness and saw a little more of India than I bargained for – which, of course, in India just means you see a little more of yourself than you bargained for. This was the growl of the monster, the great killer-bull inside us all.

This was not just porn. This was not just your usual bounce and fumble, moan and gasp – this was much, much worse than that. This was violent and bloody and degrading to the max – and then some more. This was either a snuff movie – or a very faithful recreation of one.  I’ve never seen a snuff movie so I really couldn’t be sure, but it was snuff enough for me. Those grunts and groans were screams. That blurry splodge on her body was blood.  This was the whole carnivorous horror; rough, extreme explicit pornography, sex, blood, violence, death – all wrapped up in one. Something very nasty was being set loose that morning in Jangipur and right then and there, I wanted out.

I eased up and out of my seat, squeezed in front of the hand-practicing youths along the row, pushed open the door, slid through the plastic curtain and into the daylight. Even the polluted streets of Jangipure looked sweet to me. I gulped in the murky air. Udit looked startled. I hadn’t been inside very long.

He smiled a manly smile. I didn’t tell him what I had just seen.

‘Very horrible,’ I said, ‘very horrible, indeed.’

I pulled a face.

‘Don’t ever go in there, Udit. You’ll go blind.’

The ferocity of his wiggling head, the wideness of his rolling eyes was a wonder to behold.

‘It’s time for the Pink Temple, my friend,’ I gasped. ‘Quick! I need salvation…’

*

Imagine a huge fluted ice-cream cone, paint it lolly pink and stick it upside down on an orange building – garnish with stripes of yellow and green. Cover the interior, floor to ceiling, with pink bathroom tiles and fill with women at prayer, a bobbing sea of multi-coloured saris – I’m sure Lord Shiva would be very happy with the result. This was the Pink Temple of Jangipur.

I hovered outside, watching respectfully from a distance. It was apparently Ladies Day at the temple and this old white man wasn’t going to blunder in. I sat on a ledge listening to the prayers, watching that undulating floor of women, drinking it up. Soon I was deep in conversation with an advocate. Such things occur all the time in India. He introduced me to a number of his friends, all sitting around outside the temple, chewing the fat. Everybody seemed very relaxed.

The women dispersed, the temple emptied out, my new friends wandered away. I sat for a while, went for a walk and came back, still not ready to leave. A priest began closing the green steel shutters around the entrance. He smiled. I saluted him, bowed slightly and moved off, down towards the water. There was a break in the clouds; a shaft of sunlight poured through and for just a moment the lolly-pink cone glowed electric against a pure blue sky. A goat crossed the road. Suddenly I was at the river bank.

The naked body of an old man lay stretched out on the ground. He was about two metres away and very, very dead. The first things I noticed were the bright red soles of his feet. They had been recently painted. My eyes travelled upwards, past thin, bony legs to the pile of white cotton thrown carelessly over his vitals. I watched while his arms were placed across his chest, his hair smoothed back, his beard straightened. He appeared to be wearing green eye-shadow, liberally applied. In the background a thin young man wandered aimlessly about.

Udit went pale. The introduction of dead men with red feet was perhaps one step too far. He was stricken, rooted to the spot. His mouth opened and closed. His eyes never left the corpse. Poor Udit was twenty-six, he had seen his share of life – but, right at this moment, I realised he hadn’t yet seen his share of death. In a fatherly fashion I shoo-ooed him away to sit outside the temple and recover himself.

Sprawled under a tree were half-a-dozen men, friends of the advocate I had met before.

‘Sit, sit,’ they said and patted the stone bench.

I joined them. We watched the dead man on the ground in front of us. Those two red feet hadn’t moved. The dead man’s son changed into loose white clothes.

‘Will he shave his head?’ I asked my companions.

‘Not for thirteen days.’

Another man chimed in. ‘Low,’ he whispered, ‘low in caste. Very poor.’

The son was led around his father’s body three times then gently pushed away.

One turned to me.

‘Are you a Christian?’ he said lazily.

I took a breath, knowing that a simple question required a simple answer. I swung slowly round to face him, took my sunglasses off and looked him in the eye.

‘I think there is one God, my friend, and he has many different faces.’

He twitched his head and pointed at the corpse.

‘This was my friend,’ he said.

He wiggled his head. I wiggled mine. We smiled a little sad smile. There was no other flicker of emotion on his face, nor on the faces of the other old friends sitting with me watching. They might as well have all been having a chai outside the local tea-house.

‘That is you – and that is me,’ I said gravely, glancing over at the corpse. Four pairs of sad eyes looked in my direction.

‘We are all men – same blood, same body – we all die just the same.’

‘Mmmmm…’ said one.

‘Mmmmm…’ said another.

Everybody wiggled their head at me. I seem to have passed muster. We returned to our silent observation of the body. There’s always something to see with a corpse.

Off to my right, about four metres from where I was sitting, a group of young men had piled logs for the funeral pyre. It was about a metre high. They moved over to the old man, then, one on each limb, lifted him up without any ceremony at all, carried him across to the pyre and dumped him on the logs.

But this was a poor man for a lowly caste – his pile of logs was just half-size. They placed the top half of his body, his torso and head on the pyre. From his groin the rest of him hung out over the edge, two scrawny legs slightly splayed out, dangling limply. He looked rather like a dead brown frog. The white cotton had long since fallen off. His genitals hung there, useless and forgotten, mute testament to a life once lived. One man placed a small board over them as a last gesture – then stood back.

I don’t know who lit the pyre.  I’m just grabbing at shards of memory here – somehow, I didn’t think it was a Kodak moment. Everything was just getting imprinted on the memory board, hard-wired and locked in as it occurred. Let’s not pretend that this is something that happens to me every day. I watched as the flames spread up, tickling the old man’s backbone, burning his long grey hair. Wisps of white smoke turned black, then red – then burst into flame. Soon he was all wreathing smoke, snakes of fire.  I saw his scrotum catch alight.

‘Chai?’ said a voice beside me. It was the advocate.

‘What a good idea,’ I said and stood up.

Frankly, I was glad of the diversion.  I’ve perfected the art of extremity, the impassive face of a man who has seen much life, can glide and smile my way through filth and destruction as easily as through joy and laughter – but the events of my morning in Jangipur had quite wiped me out.

‘Very extreme,’ I said to nobody in particular, ‘very extreme.’

Everybody turned away without a second glance as their dead friend lay curling in the fire. As we walked toward the temple the wind changed and blew the smoke from his body behind us, kissing us all with a last gritty whiff of burnt pork.

I passed poor Udit on the way, sitting on his haunches, hunched over holding his nose, his pale face staring up at me. He’d had his first death on his first Ganges; it had been a long, tough Dogster day.

*

BACK TO THE BOAT

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