I’m starting to think that maybe this wasn’t as good an idea as I thought it would be.
We’ve been packed tight inside this crowd for an hour now, bumping into everyone around us, swaying like a wave, andmoving, always moving. My hands have stiffened into claws from gripping the camera so tightly, and my arms are starting to shake from holding it protectively aloft for so long.
Behind me, a hand makes a quick, exploratory dive into my back pocket, looking for cash. I’d spin to face the would-be thief, but experience has taught me that by the time I turned, I would be met only with a sea of blank faces.
I’m regretting bringing my passport and wallet along. I’ve kept them with me every step of my journey so far - for safety, I thought - and they sit in their regular spots, wedged deep in my front pockets. But I know that should any enterprising pickpocket make a grab for one, I’d never get my hands down in time to stop them. I should ask my guide, King, to hold on to them for me, but then I’d have to admit that I’d felt hands reaching into my other pockets, and I’m sure that King will force us to leave once he hears that. I jab the items deeper into my pockets and hope that this doesn’t become a story about “that time Ben lost all his identification and had to live on the streets in India for three months, then came home to discover a crippling amount of credit card debt.”
It took a little begging, but I had managed to convince our leader, Peter, to let me go out into tonight’s festival. Tomorrow at sunset, the festivities will peak when "the red enemy", Mahishasura, is ignited in a burst of cheap fireworks, and then the night descends into drunken revelry for hours afterwards. We’ll be confined to quarters for most the day for safety, but tonight is judged to be just harmless enough for me to go out, as long as I take along someone for protection. And so bobbing cheerfully beside me is King, Peter’s children’s pastor.
King is perhaps not the sort of person one would normally bring as muscle to an event like this. He’s a short Indian man, bespectacled and pudgy, with a ring of curly black hair surrounding a large bald spot that he sometimes obscures with a shiny striped fedora. He is always smiling and almost always flanked by his young son Benjamin, a whirlwind of constant motion who only occasionally slows down enough for you to realize he’s an exact model of King, made in miniature.
I’m growing to like King more and more the longer I spend time with him. There is a simplicity to him in the best sense of the word. Every morning he sticks a pin in his shirt – he switches back and forth between “God Loves You” and “Jesus Saves You” – then sticks a matching pin on his son’s shirt. I get the sense that should I return in ten years time to this city, there would be King and his son, still together, still grinning, pins glinting on their chest. When I express my admiration for the pins, he makes sure to bring one for me every morning for the rest of the trip.
We are packed twenty abreast, streaming steadily-if-slowly down one side a broad city street. I’m a famously bad judge of numbers, but there are clearly tens of thousands of people around us, a mass of crowded humanity spreading in every direction. We pass by pandals (makeshift temples to the god Durga, usually just a simple stage in a tent with a large plastic model of the eight-armed god on it) on our right and left, with me snapping pictures of the bloodthirsty gods as best I can before the crowd drags us along with them. Fortunately King, for all his smiling, has no qualms with shaking arms and shouting angrily to clear spots for me atop traffic barriers and wrought-iron fences.
The revelers move aside without complaint. It seems the sight of a white person with a large camera is auspicious enough that people feel genuinely excited just to be a part of the moment. Because viewing of the altars is limited by the mass of people, cameras scattered along the street feed giant projection screens showing the gods and wide shots of crowds. Yet, whenever I walk by, someone on the camera platform with spot me and start shouting excitedly, and the cameraman will curl his camera around to zoom in tight on the pale figure being dragged by. On every screen we pass, I see my giant face projected, glistening from the heat. Each time, I smile awkwardly and wave to the throng, and all througout the crowd, people point at the screen in surprise. "Hey," they all seem to be saying. "A white person!" They don't seem offended, or impressed, just surprised, as if one of the figures in the crowd had turned out to be an ostrich.
Still, the surprise of my appearance has its advantages. The owner of the city’s largest pandal is so moved by my presence outside his altar that he waves King to bring me over and gives me access onto the altar itself. “I will never forget you, sir, never,” he says, as if the appearance of a sweaty, nervous man in a sweat-stained white tee-shirt was a delight worthy of telling to his grandchildren about. I try to remove my shoes, since it is clear from the pile of sandals that entering a pandal still cobbled would be a mark of disrespect, but the man waves me off. Evidently, the rules of respect to be given to these gods don't seem to apply to me at all.
As we leave the pandal and continue down the road, the constant banging of bodies seems to wear me down all at once. My legs are beginning to quiver when suddenly, the road ends. A barrier blocks our path, and the crowd swings away and curls back down the road’s opposite side. As we begin our return, I realize that I had been waiting this whole trip to arrive somewhere, but we had already arrived at it. We had walked by the pandals at one side of the road, and now we were about to walk by the pandals on the other. I had already seen all there was to see.
“That’s it?” I gasp, staring at King.
“That’s it,” he replies, his eyes, always so bright and cheerful, are suddenly regarding me with seriousness.
“All these people came... for this?”
“They come to honor the god Durga. Well, the women do. The festival is for women.”
“Then whey do the men come?”
“To be a part of everything.”
To be a part of what? I consider, for the first time, the tone of the people around us. There is no laughing, no merrymaking, just the steady blowing of paper horns purchased from street vendors. Nor is there any sense of pilgrimage, or holiness. The people don’t even speak, they just press onward in a steady, endless march. It is religion at its most mechanistic. It is a joyless affair.
I had assumed that the people were out to come and see the spectacle, but now I realize that the people are the spectacle. No wonder the screens are mostly just showing shots of the thousands streaming past. They have nothing else to show, just an endless line of people walking by a plastic god. It is sound and fury and it signifies nothing at all.
King glances back at me as we push through the crowd and reads the expression on face in a blink. He leans his head over to shout in my ear. “Pray for Patna, Ben,” he says as we work our way down the street. “God is moving in this city.” His faith sounds unshakeable, even here, surrounded by masses faithfully worshiping a god wholly unlike his own.
Still, as we walk down the street, I see King’s eyes glisten as hordes more people flow by us towards the pandals. “There is such emptiness,” he says, not really to me. “These people need Jesus.” He is quiet suddenly, completely so, and we continue our walk back to the hotel in dead silence, only occasionally stopping to snap pictures. It’s hard for me summon the enthusiasm for them I had of the start of our trip. The thrill has gone out of it.
Finally King can stand it no longer. He stops dead in the middle of the intersection and cries out to the crowds around him.
“Hey!” he yells. “Hallelujah!”
He cranes his head back and shouts to the sky. “Praise Jesus!”
I glance around nervously, but the people stream by us without noticing, jostling us about in the middle of the street. King pays them no mind. “Hey!” he shouts again. “Hallelujah!”
I can't help myself. I join him.
“Hallelujah!” I shout. King grins at me and keeps shouting.
“Praise you Jesus!”
“Jesus is Lord!”
“Thank you Jesus!”
King’s eyes are alight again, shining large and white in the halogen glow of the festival lights. I am laughing, uncontrollably laughing, from the joy of it.
We are mad men, crazy ones. We stand together, two sticks wedged in the middle of flowing river, calling to the waves.
“Praise you Jesus!”
“God bless you!”
“Thank you Lord!”
The people continue to pass by without a second glance as we stand there shouting, acting as if they cannot hear us. We are like ghosts calling fruitlessly to the living, yet we feel like the living calling to the ghosts. Tomorrow night Durga will kill her enemy and festival goers will set his corpse ablaze. But the gods are already dead, and they hear us not.
King drops me off at the hotel, and just before he turns to return home to his quiet wife and the whirling dervish that is his child, he looks at me, and smiles, as wide and as a bright as the moon. His faces still radiates joy from our impromptu performance in the streets. The shy, reserved aide-de-camp who showed me around the city is replaced for a moment by a fiery prophet, and I can see the flames dancing behind his eyes.
“God is moving in this city,” he tells me again, and his voice vibrates with the feeling of it.
“I know it,” I tell him. And this time I do. I feel it rumbling inside of me, that his shouting will not go unanswered for long.
God is coming to Patna.