I was in my guesthouse’s communal toilet smoking my pipe when I first heard the drumbeats.
I was getting stoned and had the vague plan of going for a bicycle ride afterward, a leisurely roll around the streets of Fort Kochi, perhaps down to the fishermen’s wharf, where I could drink coconuts and people-watch under the banyan trees. That was my plan, anyway. But when I heard the drums something inside me woke up, the approaching drum brigade had set me alight.
I rushed downstairs to grab my bicycle. I pedaled past people emerging from their homes, past hurrying women in saris, towards the source of the commotion. When I reached the main street, I halted.
A fat shirtless man with a sun umbrella and an enormous mustache, a veritable king, was marching towards me up the road. Directly behind him were five rotund men painted head-to-foot like psychotropic tigers, all dancing and mashing and stomping along, followed by an assortment of drummers, stilted men and dancing Keralites.
I rolled my bike to the side of the road to watch.
It was pulikali — “tiger play,” a traditional procession through the streets of Fort Kochi to mark the beginning of the annual Onam festival — the largest and most important festival in the Kerala state. Such parades served to drum up Keralites for the days of merriment to follow, but nobody I’d spoken with knew when or where one might begin.
Across the road, shopkeepers were crawling out from under their tables and children were appearing from alleyways to join the celebration. A man driving a motorcycle with a child on the gas tank and two more behind him pulled over to watch. Across the street an old woman hobbled out onto her balcony. Two men with children on their shoulders rose up from behind a nearby fence. Some bastard kid lit a string of fireworks.
Fort Kochi was suddenly awaking to the spirit of Onam!
High as a condor, I watched the king stroll by with his gang of blue, yellow and black tigers, tigers who were naked except for their body paint and boxer shorts, tigers with their tongues hanging out of their masks, arms pumping, knees lifted high, giant painted bellies plumped out.
It was clear that although the king was at the head of the parade, these tigers were undoubtedly its leaders. It was also clear that these tigers seemed, at least during the parade, to be released from all societal rules. They slapped and shook their bellies at bystanders, enacted elaborate drum-guided scenes of hunting and being hunted, and chased away those who ventured too close by means of an aggressive threat in which they hopped forward thrusting their bellies out.
I pause for a moment to consider what role the hash might have played in my interpretation of the scene.
After the tigers came a troupe of shirtless drummers in swaying white skirts, followed by a man dressed in a costume that consisted of an enormous floating head. The floating head had wrangled in a dozen or so confused-looking white people, who marched along, smiling.
After that came a graceful brigade of women in gold and pearl Onam saris. Bringing up the rear were the stilted giants, who upon closer inspection turned out not to be stilted giants at all, but rather tall plaster effigies held aloft on the shoulders of men hidden under the skirts. These men had no eye holes to see through, so they more or less stumbled along blindly, following the music. Much to the amusement of their attendant, he allowed them to wander off and bump into things before pointing them in the right direction, snickering.
Then, just as suddenly as the impromptu parade had begun, it was gone.
I watched the little circus make its way down the road, halting traffic as it went, drawing citizens out of their homes, and then it rounded the corner and the music began to fade away.
What a parade, I thought. What a joy. It made me long for my childhood, for all the small-town parades I had marched in as a teenager: the floats, the brass bands, the waving women in Cadillacs.
I decided to follow them.
Four strong pedals of my bicycle and I was floating along in the shadow of the stumbling effigies. Our guiding spirits, the tigers, suddenly defied the king and went stomping down a tree-lined residential street. The king had no choice but to twirl his scepter and follow, summoning the entire procession behind him.
The quiet little neighborhood suddenly filled with music and dancing. The tigers stomped into yards, challenged vehicles. When we came to the end of the neighborhood they stomped out into a busy intersection and began dancing again, halting the traffic for about ten minutes, teasing the honking cars. Then they continued dancing on down the street towards the Arabian Sea.
Our numbers expanded as we went.
From time to time, the floating head ran up and hugged strangers.
After about a mile, however, the drummers’ energy began to flag. The floating head stopped hugging people so much and took his giant head off for a breather. The legs beneath the giant effigies began to swerve with fatigue.
The lions, however, didn’t seem to tire at all. It was as if they had a boundless reservoir of energy. Stomping, jackhammering, dancing with random strangers – they seemed sworn to an oath that forbid them from ever falling out of character.
By the time we reached the sea, the rest of the paraders had picked up pace again. Hundreds surrounded us in the street. Two more drum brigades came marching in from nearby alleys. The crowds whooped and hollered as the tigers performed their final climactic dance.
And then it was over. The drummers dispersed, the effigies were lowered off the men’s shoulders, the children were drawn away into new distractions, the tigers took their masks off and began smoking bidis. It was over. My childhood was over.
I looked around and realized I had no idea where I was.
The strolling families, the boardwalk, the enormous Chinese finishing nets: I had never seen any of this before. Caught up in the parade, I had given no thought to where we were going or how I would find my way back to the guesthouse once I got there.
I lit a cigarette and looked around at the citizens of Fort Kochi.
They looked different somehow. There was a new hop in their step, and ceremony in their eyes. The air was perfumed with holiday magic.
The parade had worked.
Onam had arrived to Fort Kochi.