Robert Hirschfield finds: “In disordered Calcutta, I feel a vulnerability that could lead me anywhere. Every morning, it leads me to the Kali Temple.”

SOMETIMES, in the day’s white heat, you see them lined up a block long outside the Kali Temple.

They are faithful and meek before the Black Goddess, before the terrible Kali Ma of skulls.

I see Her by the scarlet shrine tree down the street, an unforgiving ebony statuette. She squishes the devotional impulse in me. Or what’s left of it. I am not, I admit, the devotional type. Not since being mugged in my youth by the God of Israel.

But being flung across oceans jeopardizes our fixed points. A Jewish agnostic from Detroit will rest his head against the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and find he has let his beard grow down past his heart, and is beginning to chant Kabbalistic formulas like the Holy Ari of Safed.

In disordered Calcutta, I feel a vulnerability that could lead me anywhere. Every morning, it leads me to the Kali Temple. I run the gauntlet of trinkets and pundits and pilgrims with blood red flowers, and the curious row of men with bindis and dhotis looking out into the deep distance like whaler wives while hundreds pass right before their eyes.

If I let myself be carried along by them, what then?

If I let myself be carried along by them, what then? What would await me at the end? A shiny new layer of spiritual skin? (What of the old layer? What is its color, texture? I keep trying to find out.) Kali Ma, Goddess of Attitude?

I long to be part of the spirit swell of Hindus. I imagine them entering an ancient river through a mysterious door. My mother’s shul didn’t do it for me. Even though our God was kind of like Kali’s paternal buddy, skulls and all.

It may turn out I have an allergy to Gods, but I definitely have a devotion to mysterious doors.

Community Connection

For more on India, please reference Matador’s Focus Guide to India.