THE KILLOUGH CHRONICLES | THE INDIA FILES

by James Killough

Dear Easter Bunny,

You’ve always been my favorite of the fictional characters I was asked to believe in without question from childhood.  As an adult, I admire how humbly and stoically you have endured under the shadow of that fat bitch Santa Claus over the centuries.  You are a testament to how cute ultimately triumphs over gluttony with the right amount of tenacity.

I had the strangest dream this morning.  Betty White was married to my father or some other amorphous patriarchal member of my family, and we belonged to some hyper-conservative, super-slick country club.  Betty got very drunk and loud, so I admonished her for making a fool of the family in front of the rest of the club and threw her glass of champagne in the pool.  I woke up full of remorse for how I’d treated her, for being so bourgeois in my dreams when I am so not in waking life.  I felt like writing her an apology note and sending it to her agent.  The truth is I rather like drunk, loud, bat-shit-crazy old women, like Royce and Marilyn. Royce’s favorite exclamation is from whence comes the title of this post:

They say that every character in your dreams is really a variation on you.  Obviously I need to get in touch with my inner Betty White and ask her forgiveness instead of sending an apology note.

My evil twin Andrew Sullivan published a muddled Good Friday sermon of sorts on his blog, in which he tries to justify being a practicing Catholic with being a “thinking person.”  He falls back on a translation of the Greek logos: “In the beginning was reason. And reason was with God. And reason was God.”  He states that reason is his deity, which only makes the whole article contradictory from an atheist’s standpoint; reason demands empirical fact, God is not empirical fact, never will be; therefore, reason is not with God.  Reason is in fact the enemy of spirituality, as every religious leader from Zoroaster to Zarathustra will tell you, as he asks you to abandon all common sense and follow him like a lemming into senselessness.

Further along in his sermon, Sullivan struggles to make himself right, not with reason, but with clever-sounding reasoning:

“I refuse to believe in something that has been disproven, however socially useful or salutary or admirable its social or personal effects may be.”

So here we have it, philosopher Betrand Russell’s old Celestial Teapot, in all of its chipped glory: we are asked to disprove the statement that there is a giant teapot orbiting the sun, which we can never actually see because it’s hidden from observation.  But we are assured it exists.  And if we can’t disprove it, it still must exist.  Sharper minds than mine, namely Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who actually care about this debate more passionately than I do because when something is too silly it bores me, are better able to articulate the senselessness of trying to rationalize the unreasonable.  I just don’t understand why people need to cling to the supernatural and lay down their lives for it when there is so much magic that surrounds us in the natural world.  But if someone needs to find comfort and solace from this harsh existence under a duvet of delusion, then I’m certainly not one to insist he go cold.

Growing up a sensitive pansy in Rome, the seat of Sullivan’s beloved religion, I was subjected to a relentlessly gory sadomasochist orgy of brutalized, tortured and deified saints and martyrs.  They were everywhere, from the catacombs beneath the city to the frescoes on the vaults of churches.  This sanguinary fetishism is revoltingly institutionalized in the Christian ceremony itself; drinking blood and eating flesh, even symbolically in wine and wafers, is disgusting.  And this, of course, reminds me of the time I lunch with a cannibal.

One of the more traumatic visuals from my childhood, Saint Bartholomew being flayed alive. Barf.

Back in the early 90s, before India evolved into who she is today, I did an art project with photographer Marcus Leatherdale, which took us around India for three months in a rickety diesel van.  The concept was a portrait of a nation through the faces of her people.  We would set up a backdrop, I would go out and wrangle locals, Marcus would photograph them.

We started in Delhi and drove counterclockwise around the subcontinent.  By the time we had looped back to Benares/Varanasi towards the end of the three-month odyssey, we had done over a hundred and twenty set-ups.  My lungs seemed made of dust and diesel fumes at that point, and now I had to inhale the soot and smoke from the funeral pyres of the oldest living city in the world.  Varanasi is where all good Hindus go to die in an effort to break the cycle of reincarnation, another bit of sci-fi too outlandish to even comment on, probably the biggest cracked celestial teapot of them all.  Ask the Dalai Lama, all fourteen of him.

The city is like nothing else on earth, something even Heironymus Bosch couldn’t have imagined.  I think I described the burning ghats as being “like an out-of-control barbeque” in an essay published in the New York Times travel section back in the mid-90s.  I don’t remember precisely; that line might have been redacted.  I don’t have a copy of the article and it doesn’t seem to be archived on the nytimes.com website, mercifully; I was so unhappy with the way they edited it I never wrote for them again.

The modus operandi was Marcus and his assistant would set up the backdrop somewhere secluded and I would go out with a local guide provided us by the Government of India at each location.  In Varanasi, I marched our designated guide down to the main burning ghat on the banks of the Ganges, despite his reluctance to go to that particular place; from his point of view, whichever way I, the weirdo firang, intended to promote tourism to Varanasi, it shouldn’t have anything to do with their sacred outdoor crematoria.

A view of one of the burning ghats of Varanasi/Benares with the temple mentioned in this story in the background, the cave-like area is to the left.

At that point in this project, I was beyond bossy white sahib.  I was at my most “vile and imperious,” as an ex of mine once lovingly described how I get when I reach the end of my tether.  Or, as Rain Li once put it, “you treat me like I’m a dog,” which I think makes complete sense if you happen to be at the end of my tether.

The burning ghats are literally infernal, Dantesque.  The pyres rage freshly lit or smolder nearly spent in neat rows beside the river, 24/7, with the undertaker doms moving about them alongside male mourners clad in white dhotis with shaved heads.  Rib cages, skulls, charred feet, sandalwood; it’s just too surreal to affect you much in the moment, as I would imagine a battlefield would be when you’re in the midst of it.  And it’s searingly hot in that pit even during the winter.

A monk we photographed in Benares, who is not the same as a saddhu; he probably has a title like "swami." Note the drying opium poppies in the background. Photo: M. Leatherdale.

Looking around for subjects to photograph, it was pretty clear I couldn’t haul off one of the mourners or even a dom undertaker, no matter how much imperious white sahib chutzpah I had.

However, near the ghat is a soot-covered, ancient temple.  And in a cave beneath that temple, I spotted a bunch of saddhus, wandering dreadlocked holy men who are often clad only in loincloths with vibuti ash covering them.  They are normally worshippers of Lord Shiva the Creator and Destroyer, and carry tridents and smoke hash all day long, a somewhat macho bunch of earthly saints, albeit clearly on the masochist end of the cross-cultural BDSM relationship between godheads and their adherents.

In that group in the cave beneath the sooty temple, a fierce-looking young saddhu was staring at me with those intense South Asian eyes as he crouched by the sacred duni fire that is ubiquitous in saddhu gatherings; it is always kept lit in case anyone needs an ember to light his chillum pipe.  He wasn’t the prettiest thing in this exotic aviary of a city, but by then I was melting from the pyres and wanted to get out of the pit as soon as possible.

“Go ask him if he’ll pose for us,” I vilely and imperiously commanded the government guide.

“But, sir, he’s an augar,” my quaking escort protested.

“No, he’s not.  He’s a saddhu.  I know what a saddhu is.”  I was a year away from hosting the Miss India Pageant, for Pete’s sake.  I knew my India.

“Yes.  He is saddhu.  But he is an augar saddhu.”

“I don’t care what kind he is.  Just go ask him if he’ll pose for us.  Rate is fifty rupees.”

Stuck between defying the white devil and confronting a brown one covered ash and high as a kite, the poor guide went, bowed respectfully to the gathered holy men and presented my request.  The young augar rose as proudly as Tarzan, grabbed his trident and followed us up the street to the makeshift studio we had set up in an old fort overlooking the river.

While he was being photographed, I asked the guide what made this particular saddhu so special.

“An augar eats human flesh from the pyres as prasad,” replied the guide.  Prasad is the Hindu equivalent of a communion wafer, food that is blessed, usually fruit or sweets, and then consumed.  Well.  At least this particular religious nut was honest about it and ate the real thing.  It turns out that augars, considered the most extreme of the saddhu brotherhoods, munch on human flesh as a way of transcending all taboos.  They also drink from a vessel made from a skull.

When it came time to settle up, the young augar wanted more than the fifty rupees, but a deal is a deal, so I stuck to it, trident or no trident.  He grumbled something that made the entire crew guffaw.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“I can’t translate this,” replied the guide.

“I insist.”

“He said he doesn’t want your money, he wants to fuck you up the ass.”  I suppose this was another taboo my augar was transcending.  Unfortunately, I don’t bottom, and all that ash gets in your mouth and…

A saddhu photographed by Marcus Leatherdale, which I did not art direct, and who is not the 'augar' in this story. This is just the regular kind with eccentric hair. Is it any wonder wigs come from India?

But, James, you say.  You didn’t have lunch with him.  Ah, yes, dear Bunny, you are quite observant.  This is because the young augar wasn’t the cannibal I had lunch with.  That was a Belgian documentarian I dined with in Madras before it became Chennai.  He was interested in moving into narrative film by directing a script of mine.  A colorful, Baron Munchausen-esque character, this director had walked across Borneo several times, and had consumed a fair amount of human flesh along the way, apparently.  He also wore a rather spectacular necklace he’d been given by some tribal in Afghanistan made of dogs’ teeth strung on red cord, which I coveted.  One of the teeth was chipped, and I remember staring at it all the way through lunch; there was no way he was directing my film, so might as well stare at a chipped dog’s tooth.  This is because not only was he as bat-shit crazy and self-aggrandizing as Royce, but not once did he mention my script, much less talk to me about how he would make the film.  I was just regaled with anecdotes about Bornean cannibals, which might have been shocking for some, but I’d already been propositioned by an augar in a loincloth.  Like most repasts in South India, our meal was mercifully vegetarian.

Indeed, it is the meals that surround these religious occasions, the prasad of it all, which are the best thing.  Tomorrow I am cooking lamb slathered in garlic and rosemary, which I gathered on my walk through the Hills two days ago; I’m too stingy to pay two dollars and fifty cents at Trader Joes for what I can pick by the side of the road outside Moby’s castle in Hollywoodland.

In closing, dearest Bunny, if you feel inclined to leave me a really huge chocolate egg by my bed tomorrow morning with an amazing gift inside like you did when I was a kid — I’ll never forget that one time I got a genuine silver crucifix — I promise I’ll believe in you forever and ever, Amen.