Licence to Bull

(This is from the diary of my trip to Alanganallur Jallikattu more than two decades back)

We, my friend Kesavan and I, arrived at Alanganallur, which if I were writing a travel feature in a glossy magazine would describe as, ‘beautifully bucolic, filled with people full of old-world ethos and rustic charm’, but in every-day language it will translate to ‘dusty and chaotic, streaming with unruly and boisterous crowds’.

Alanganallur, a nondescript town, without the Jallikattu event would be like Rani Mukherjee without the makeup — no one will care to notice. But with it, will be important enough to feature in a Kamal Haasan film.

The idea to travel to Alanganallur to witness the Jallikattu was Kesavan’s, who fancied himself as a serious photographer because he once won a school photography contest for a snap that had the judge (of the contest) going in raptures ‘for brilliantly capturing the interplay of natural light on a wintery evening’, though the truth was Kesavan had forgotten to charge the batteries of the ‘flash’ and nothing was actually visible in the picture. Luckily for him, the judge either had X-ray vision or was a fan of Maniratnam films.

Anyway, once you become bitten by the camera bug, you begin to, Guna-like, talk to birds and animals, as they suddenly become to you interesting ‘subjects’. So, on a sunny Maatu Pongal day, I tagged along Kesavan to Alanganallur, with the idea being while he captured the sights of the famed bulls on his lens I hung around hoping to capture Kesavan’s antics for re-telling on boozy nights with other friends.

As we got down from the bus on the main road, there were loudspeakers blaring folksy film songs from every direction at decibels thick enough to stop any raging bull. But in the true spirit of village large-heartedness no one seemed to mind as the uncomplaining farmers punctiliously went about their work, which was basically to stand around and chat with whoever was nearby.

We briskly walked up to a teashop a few hundred metres away that cheerily welcomed us with a board that had itemized, in handwritten Tamil, all that a typical shop in a small village would sell: ‘tea – 90 p, coffee – 1 Re, Boost – Rs. 1.50, Horlicks Rs. 1.75, murukku — 25p’, and right at the bottom was — why not? — ‘camera roll Rs 95’. While I quizzically looked at the board, the teashop owner said, ‘tea-a vida film thaan inniki neraya vikkum. Ungala maadhiri veliyoor kaaranga adhaan kettu varanga (Camera rolls will sell more than tea today. Out of towners like you ask for it only).

Kesavan and I soon made our way to the arena that was fenced off with wooden scaffolds, and on the first looks of it, there were more men inside the pit than there were standing outside. It was as if Parliament was in session. But all the vantage spots were taken, by which I mean all the nearby trees were occupied.

Now, the various choices before Kesavan were: A) Set up the tripod and camera on the ground and go about clicking. The small wrinkle in this method is that he would have to return home without any pictures of the bulls as what was visible was the posteriors of those watching the show in front. B)  Set up the tripod and camera on the ground while he climbed atop one of the trees. The small wrinkle in this method too is that he would have to return home without any pictures of the bulls. But at least he could ‘see’ some bulls in action.

But Kesavan eventually settled for a third option, which was to discard the tripod, and just lift the camera above his head and randomly click in the hope that if not bulls then at least ‘the interplay of light’ gets captured.  And as ever he was lucky enough to get that.

I, for my part, went up a tree and caught the action. Jallikattu, I realised, is a traditional sport where brave boys and men tamed raging bulls, where tamed is a well-disguised euphemism for holding on to their hump and getting dragged around. Seriously, there was no taming or anything of that sort.

One thing that stood out was the names of the bulls. Apart from the usual Muthu, Marudhu, Kaalaiyan and Karuppan, on the day we were there, one bull was called Hitler. One was, rather unsurprisingly: Terror. But the most memorable one to me was: James Bond. I asked its owner why it was named so, and he replied that it was pretty smooth with the opposite sex, if you get my drift.

As the day wore on and the sun began to beat down hard, the violent and bloody side of Jallikattu, which everyone fears, came out: Bull-owners became more drunk and violent while the bulls hung around with belled bemusement.

The day ended uneventfully, except for the fact while on our return we were chased and almost run down by a raging, as it happens, street dog.

This week, as Jallikattu dominated our news, I called up Kesavan, who is working in an ad agency and settled in Kolkata, and talked about our trip long back. He perked up and told me that a few years ago he had a small exhibition of the photos of that Jallikattu. I asked him whether he remembered James Bond, the bull, and he deadpanned that the name of his photo exhibition was: ‘From Alanganallur With Love’.

I said I would have gone with: ‘K7 with 007’.