The showers of blood had long since dried on my head and my lens filters were speckled red like a painter's favorite pair of pants by the time Tusi took me by the arm and led me from the crowd. His first question was, as I had expected, "Where are you from?" His second was the equally predictable, "Who do you work for?" Rather than try to explain the intricacies of being a freelance photographer, I smiled, mumbled something about magazines and newspapers and began to turn to get back to work. I would have succeeded too had it not been for his third question. With his voice raised enough to be assertive but not quite demanding, Tusi inquired as to whether I understood the meaning of Ashura and the events occurring around us. Even as my brain told me to play deaf and walk away, I stopped and turned back to face him.
A man strikes his back with sharpened blades attached to chains.
I had arrived early at the ceremony site. I had watched up close and personal as young boys and grown men clad in black pounded their chests with clenched fists as they chanted in unison, "Hussein, Hussein." I had observed as they removed their shirts in central Bangalore's Johnson Market, only minutes away from the high-end shops of MG Road. And, I had photographed as they began to cut their heads and bodies with various sharpened blades of all shapes and sizes. Knives and razors shimmered in the afternoon sun. Some of them attached to chains brought back childhood memories of freshly caught fish dangling from a line. The crowded street was slick with blood and water and the warm air smelled like a musty butcher's shop.
Blood-soaked man faints and is carried out of the procession to be given medical attention.
I told Tusi that Ashura is held to mark the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein and that those men who participate in the ceremony are demonstrating that they would have willingly died by his side, had they only been able. It was clear, however, that Tusi was not looking for me to give a half-assed history lesson but instead he was hoping for me to share my own personal opinion and judgment about what I had witnessed, something I was neither willing nor able to do. We stood, and the chanting continued. Local Hindu men and women stood by and watched blood-soaked men faint and be carried out of the procession where they were given medical attention. I gave Tusi the only answer I could. The truth was, I explained, that it was not my place to even begin to judge anything as monumental as someone's faith or religious practices as long as they didn't infringe on another person's liberty or lifestyle.
Men cut their heads and bodies with sharpened blades of all shapes and sizes during Ashura.
Tusi bobbed his head from side to side, which in India can mean almost anything but his smile and extended hand showed his satisfaction. He asked for my business card and said that he would like to stay in touch, that he rarely traveled and would like to see more of the world through e-mailing me. He walked away as suddenly as he had arrived and I turned to see that the procession had also dispersed, leaving me alone with a handful of bloody stragglers.
With thoughts of a hot shower or two and anti-bacterial soap on my mind, I hailed a rickshaw and hopped in, for once not haggling over the fare. Weaving through Bangalore's traffic, I ignored the driver's repeated glances at me in the rear-view mirrors. I knew very well how grotesque I looked, my sunburned head and shirt polka-dotted with blood, but he could stare all he wanted; it was a matter of faith.