Puri, in Orissa on the east coast of India, is one of India's four dhams, places thought to be marked by the presence of the gods. Historically a spiritual retreat and a place of pilgrimage, it is now also a modern-day seaside resort and tourist draw.
Puri beach on a Sunday evening in November. To my right the sun is sinking rapidly, and to my left a gibbous moon is already halfway up the sky. In front of me great surf-topped waves rear and expend themselves upon the shore, and on the beach a clamorous throng of people are at work and play.
Men undressing for a dip, youths at sport with beach balls, mothers leading children by the hand into the water, a gaggle of squealing and giggling girls, and some doleful elderly couples who look as if they have been sent on vacation by force. Intermixed with these vacationers are photographers of dubious merit hanging around like touts; purveyors of cotton candy and bobbing balloons and jhal muri sellers with their tins strapped around their waist do their rounds; and sellers of singaras and roshogollas carrying their wares on a wooden pole across their shoulders, stooped and sombre like yoked bullocks. And animals: bucking ponies with tinkling bells around their necks, a bad-tempered camel loping across the sand with its nose in the air, and bony mongrels scavenging for scraps in the sand and occasionally lifting up a hind leg to water it.
And behind me, at the balcony of almost every room of the seven-storeyed pink-and-yellow Puri Hotel and of several other hotels on either side of it, are dozens of chatting, eating, smoking or silent vacationers, determined to exploit the view from their rooms.
Almost no one who comes to Puri leaves without visiting the temple of Lord Jagannath, the town's throbbing centre and the motor of its economy as much as its spiritual life. I have arrived at the time of the panchuka, the auspicious last five days of the month of Kartik, and the temple and its environs teem and ripple with thousands upon thousands of people. Large tents outside the temple are the sites of sermons, discussions and devotional singing; the sounds of pounding drums, clashing cymbals, and voices on loudspeakers rend the air. It takes me ten minutes to leave my shoes at a stand, and another five to wash my feet before I enter.
Almost a thousand years old, and segregated from the rest of the city by a fortress-like wall, the temple complex is a world unto itself. It contains not just the main shrine housing the trinity of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra but also dozens of subsidiary temples; a vast kitchen that makes many different types of preparations, all steam-cooked in earthen pots over firewood, and which can feed as many as a lakh of people a day; and a market, Ananda Bazar, where this mahaprasad is sold.
As with a great city, so with the temple: one's first encounter with it is disorienting. Milling devotees, grasping priests, ululating women, wizened old people with skin like parchment sitting placidly on the great marble slabs, muscular servitors bearing fragrant baskets of prasad to the market, chattering monkeys performing acrobatics from the scaffolding on one side of the temple, the smell of flowers, ghee and incense - the senses are assailed from all sides. And then there are the gods themselves. As I enter the main temple and move in the near darkness, pushed forward involuntarily by the crowd throbbing with religious ecstasy, towards the three deities installed in the inner sanctum, I feel hypnotised by the great staring eyes of these strangest of gods, and forget even to raise my hands. The experience ends abruptly: any person lingering in front of the deities is herded towards the exit by an irate policeman, and one moves out of this mysterious twilight world into the bright sunlight in a few seconds. I go out and come around a second time, and pay my respects properly.
The first floor of a dilapidated building opposite the temple is home to a most gloomy and tenebrous old library - one can barely make out the books lying aged and tattered in the old wooden cupboards - called the Raghunandan Public Library. Only two people are seated at the tables inside: a youth reading Competition Success magazine, and a middle-aged man who is presumably the custodian: portly, bespectacled, and even more sullen than the camel on the beach. His myopic eyes stare out at some indefinable point in the middle distance; one imagines that many years spent in this hushed, airless gloom has gradually led to the dwindling of his powers of sight. When I ask him a question or two about books on the history of Puri he continues to look out blankly in front of him, venturing after a few seconds a reply in a voice so low that the sound melts away before the ear can pick it up. With some difficulty I gather that the library is soon about to close for the day; there is nothing he can possibly do for me.
I drop my interest in the books and, following a tip from a fellow traveller to Puri, get down to business: could I please go up through the library to the top floor to take a look at the temple from there? He freezes again for a while, then gets up and fetches a large register which he opens in front of me. In it I see a roster of names, none of them sounding Indian, and the amount each one of these people has donated, usually not less than a hundred rupees. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple; this is how most foreigners take a look at it. I enter my name and write '20' next to it."Make it fifty," he says, his voice suddenly clear as a bell. "Twenty," I insist.
Somewhat grudgingly an ancient key is fetched to open the rusty lock of a door, and up we go one level, where we find another door. This too is unlocked; my friend steps back and ushers me up another flight of stairs; leaving him behind, I ascend onto a shaded terrace. Here I find a beautiful view not just of the eastern side of the temple but also, away to my right, the sandy Bada Danda, the great central road of Puri. If ever one was to shoot a film in Puri, this is the view one would want for an establishing shot: the road full of pilgrims and seekers, cycle rickshaws and vendors, priests and beggars, and lined on either side by high dharamshalas. If I take in this view for no more than a minute, it is because I am struck suddenly by the fear of the custodian, who retreated rather suspiciously at the last set of doors, locking me in and going off home. I imagine myself perched here for the rest of the day, my shouts drowned out by the din of the jostling masses below. I scurry down the stairs and find to my relief the doors still open. Descending another level I find the custodian, his face inscrutable as ever, shutting and barring the beautiful green and pink stained-glass windows looking out onto the street. "Aapne dekha?" he asks.
Laxmi Talkies, the oldest of Puri's five decrepit cinemas, was set up in 1934. Located on a cramped little lane, it has temples to either side of it, making for a rather strange atmosphere: a pleasure-house surrounded by piety. The film currently playing is Sasu Ghara Chali Jibi (literally, I Will Go Off To My In-laws, a translation that makes the film look like a comedy). I buy a balcony ticket for ten rupees, walk up the dingy ill-lit staircase stained by chewing tobacco- and paan-spit, and settle down at the back of the cinema. More than a decade has passed since I last saw an Oriya film.
To my surprise, the opening credits show that it is a Rajshri production - I didn't know the Barjatyas were into producing Oriya films. About a quarter of an hour into the film, I realise that we are watching an Oriya adaptation of Hum Aapke Hain Koun, the Salman Khan-Madhuri Dixit blockbuster from 1994. All the staples of a Rajshri film are present: the characters utter hoary pieties about the sanctity of family values and traditions; everyone seems obsessed with the idea of marriage; and several dream sequences provide convenient opportunities for song and dance. There is even a Laxmikant Berde lookalike for some juvenile comedy, and the soundtrack is liberally laced with tunes borrowed from other Rajshri hits, such as Maine Pyar Kiya. The heroine, Anu Choudhury, is surprisingly attractive and good at her job, but the hero, Siddhant Mohapatra, looks too old for the role, and in my memory at least he will never be able to live down his appearance in one song in a transparent white muslin shirt with puffs at the shoulders.
During the brief periods in the film without background music I hear a loud whirring - the sound of the film projector upstairs. During the interval I climb up another dark flight of stairs and come upon Rashmi Ranjan Das, the projectionist, at work in his little garret. His ancient 35mm Westrex projection system, clamped down into the floor, exudes an elephant-like strength and solidity. Das himself is agitated: his assistant has just tangled up a spool of film while reloading it into its can after use. "A nice bit of work you've left me here!" he snaps. Looking at the coils of exposed film lying on the table in the near darkness, I can just about discern the shapes of human figures on their surface - still photographs lined by a sound track which, rushed through the Westrex at twenty-four frames a second, bloom into the very image of reality.
Swargadwar ("Gateway to Heaven"), the area at the south end of the road running alongside Puri beach, is called so because of the holy cremation ghat it houses, but the mood in the streets around it is anything but funereal, especially in the evenings. Brightly lit shops ("We accept all Visa and Mastercards") sell Orissa handloom sarees, jewellery, and replicas of the Jagannath Temple and the Sun Temple of Konark; beachside stalls and Bengali restaurants cater to the tourist traffic; and newspaper vendors cycle up and down the streets calling out "Ananda Bazar Patrika! Bartaman!"
The ghat itself is a little square of darkness and silence in the centre of this worldly bustle; here the only lights are not those of bulbs and lanterns but of the slow-burning funeral pyres. Groups of men stand around the pyres, and cows nestle in the sand, drawing warmth from it on this cold winter evening. Hindu funeral rites are more distressing than those of many other religions; one watches as a familiar form is set ablaze and turns into a heap of bones and ashes before one's eyes; no one who has witnessed one cremation can ever view life in quite the same way again. Walking down the cement paths lining the sandpits I come across a grisly scene: a pair of small, thin legs sticking out a lighted pyre. A child! perhaps seven or eight years old, sent early on its way. As I look at the crackling flames and the two forlorn legs refusing to burn, the order of existence seems terribly unjust and arbitrary.
I ask one of the men standing by the pyre how the death happened. "Of natural causes," he says in a low voice, and points to another man. "She was his grandmother - very old, in her eighties." The meaning of the scene suddenly changes, and the spectacle seems more bearable; I breathe a little easier. I begin to walk again; the faces all around me are blank, expressionless. Above our heads thick smoke drifts into the sky, carrying off, if one so believes, spirits released from their earthly shells.
Across the road from Swargadwar can be found a quite different sort of crackling and roasting - fish and chicken being fried at Santosh's fast food stall and the stalls of several others like him. Santosh is 28, and he works the stall in conjunction with his father. Their day begins early with a visit to Ghoda Bazaar, the fish market near the railway station, where they buy prawns, crabs, and bhetki quite cheaply; these are then taken home and spiced or prepared in other ways for the final dip in hot oil at the stall in the evening. Santosh is a cheerful sort; he calls out in Bengali to the passing tourists, "Hello, sir! What's the matter this evening? Won't you be stopping for a bite?" Those who stop to eat are shepherded by his assistant to a row of plastic chairs behind the stall, where they wait while Santosh serves up their order. A batter-fried bhetki sells for ten rupees; a crab for seven; a chicken leg for fifteen; and little prawn baras for a rupee each. These are served with chopped onion ("Careful!" exclaims Santosh to his helper, "Onions are twenty rupees a kilo!") and dashes of red and green sauce that go under the brand name of Poonam's, which he buys at sixteen rupees a litre. Profit margins are small; the business depends on volumes. Tomorrow Santosh is off with his father to Cuttack for the Balijatra, the annual festival in celebration of Orissa's maritime past, where they have rented a stall and will make only vegetarian food - chowmein, pakoras. I sample a bhetki - fair - and then a crab, whose sweet meat is more to my liking.
The next morning I rise at five and take a rickshaw to Ghoda Bazaar to look at the fish market. All is quiet; near the station I cross a family of four being taken, luggage and all, on a rickshaw, almost in slow motion. In my mind I have an image of the big, bustling fish market opposite Novelty Cinema near Grant Road station in Bombay, but the reality is quite different. At about half-past six a few surly, bedraggled fisherfolk turn up on a narrow street with baskets of fish they lay out on pieces of tarpaulin. There are prawns and crabs, bhetki and rohu; heaps of small, almost translucent fish, and some large silver fish predictably called chandi. I can't buy any: the only one I know who will cook them for me is Santosh, and he is off today to the Balijatra.
On my last evening in Puri I decide to visit some of the dozen or so dharamshalas, massive granitic structures mostly between three and seven decades old, that line the Bada Danda; indeed, the wide straight swathe of the Bada Danda and the symmetrical, orderly facades of the dharamshalas are the only clean lines in a scene otherwise flooded with disorder.
The Debidutt Dooduawala dharamshala, the most majestic and imposing of the lot, was built in 1929 by the aforenamed man's son, Rai Bahadur Hazarimull Dooduawala. It has 65 rooms over three stories for the use of pilgrims on a first-come-first served basis, with a maximum stay of three nights. "The only exception we make is for the old widows who come to observe the vrat of the month of Kartik. We allow them to stay the whole month," says Madhusudan Kuntia, the manager, in his poky little office just off the entrance into the building. "Four to six people can stay in a room. Small rooms cost 25 rupees a night, large rooms 40 rupees. Tell me, where can you find rooms at such prices these days?" On Mr.Kuntia's desk is an electricity bill for a little over four thousand rupees, and a giant red book almost the size of a canvas, the biggest bound volume I have ever seen. It is his ledger; he opens it and shows me his list of entries of which party has come, how many rooms they have taken, how many men, how many ladies, how many children. It is like the great book of life; one imagines that somewhere there exists a book very much like this containing the names of every person who has done time in this world, which families they were born into, how many years they lived, the main good and bad deeds they did, and so on.
With Mr.Kuntia's permission I take a walk through the building, which is like taking a tour of the home of a joint family so vast that some of the members hardly know each other, though they live together in trust and fellowship. It is built in a traditional Indian style, three stories of rooms forming a square around a large central courtyard or aangan. Stacks of luggage spill out from the rooms onto the corridors; people are gathered on the edges of the courtyard and the steps of the staircases; here a widow in white is lighting a diya; there two children are holding a bottle under the common tank of drinking water. On the first floor I find four widows seated in a line against the wall of the corridor, their eyes carrying the vacancy of expectation and passivity characteristic of many old people. Today is Kartik Purnima, the last day of the month of Kartik; tomorrow they will leave the dharamshala and return to their homes in different villages. Perhaps next year they will be seen again in Puri.
By the time I leave the mansion darkness is falling; as I emerge onto the raised platform on which the building is set I see, rising slowly above the dharamshalas on the opposite side of the road, a bright full moon. Santosh must be setting up his stall in Cuttack; Rashmi Ranjan Das starting up the evening show at Laxmi Talkies; evening rituals must be beginning at the Jagannath temple and dozens of other temples; the figures on Puri beach must be turning into silhouettes, and smoke must be rising above Swargadwar. Life must be moving on.