Exchange: Satamma Puja at Jalari Peta
Originally published in The India Magazine, Vol 16 (February), pp.43-49, 1996.
The hands of the goddess Satamma circulate the elements: vitality, fertility, rebirth. Like the Jalaris, the people of the sea—her own people—Satamma lives by will, by passion like hard wind. She asks what she gives: vigor for vigor, life for life. To conquer death, death must be given freely.
A woman, aging, infirm, and her son: together they approach the goddess, who can, if she chooses, move earth and air, move bones and muscles, move blood, move knives.
The woman and her son begin in their home, a single room by the ocean, in Jalari Peta, a small fishing village near Visakhapatnam, offering fruit and butter and prayers. The priest is a fisherman who has much experience with Satamma. He knows how to implore her, how to command her—and how to let her move him.
The entire village comes to bring gifts. Outside the house, young men and women lie in the street and the woman, supported by hands and shouts, walks over their bodies. The procession moves slowly towards a field by the beach. The priest stops often, alternating between speaking with Satamma and speaking her words, his body twisting and contracting, his hand to his ear, his hand to his mouth, his words rapid, sometimes melodic, sometimes bawdy.
The procession moves and stops. His eyes penetrate: everything about him squeezes.
In the field, a crowd of men (the infirm woman herself is not present) gathers around three goats, which have been sedated. The priest embraces them, kisses them, recites for them. And then with a calm born of intense excitation he slits their throats. Blood enters the field. The bellies are opened and the entrails removed. The crowd is tense. Arguments break out. Rapidly and erratically the animals are skinned and quartered. There is jubilation. There are new lesions rushing forward with living and taking.