This month I'm teaching in my living room for three hours each day a dozen journalism students from across the country, and we're talking a lot about writing dramatic stories but not overplaying them.
Here's an example: In India last July, when I was interviewing Professor Ravi Tiwari, head of the Department of Religions at Gurukul Theological College, he took off his glasses and stared into space for a while. "Yes," he said in response to my question, "there probably is some human sacrifice still at Kali temples." The thunk, thunk of the old ceiling fan in his living room was the only audible noise as he said slowly, "Be careful. Hinduism is so broad that bestial and noble things can both be found within it."
It was hard to resist exploring the line that had stuck in my head ever since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom first hit the movie theaters. "Prepare to meet Kali," Indiana (Harrison Ford) says to the Hindu goddess's chief priest, who soon will die. Now, I could meet Kali, in temples dedicated to her.
I first visited the Prasadam Karumam Aman temple in south India. Its devotees proudly showed me the silver cobra they worship alongside Kali. A priestess there proudly said, "When people are possessed by [the goddess's] spirit, we chew on bones from dead bodies." I had heard of rat temples in the north where people get down next to rats for a common feast, but chewing bones taken from graves could maybe top that.
Still, this wasn't pulling out hearts from living victims, a talent Indiana Jones's adversary had possessed, so it was time to go to the big Kali temple in Chennai, known as Kali Bara. Just inside the temple five men around a 3-foot-square fire pit threw vegetable offerings into the pit as a priest chanted into a microphone between swigs from a bottle of orange soda. Flies were everywhere, and I thought the Lord of the Flies couldn't be far behind.
At noon I snagged the chance to see Kali in person, as a priest stood me in front of the temple's Holy of Holies for a look at its prize idol. The curtain opened and there was Kali, four-foot tall with a vicious grin, draped with flowers and surrounded by offerings of coconut milk. A well-fed priest waved incense, sounded three blasts on a conch shell, and prostrated himself in front of the statue.
Meanwhile, 50 devotees (40 of them women), some with saffron-painted faces, murmured ecstatically. One explained that Kali is a furious fighter of those who oppose her, and sometimes gets so out of control that she kills everyone in her path -- and yet, the food she receives at the temple will calm her down, so that she will fulfill what you ask her if you have true faith in her.
S. Bhattuchaji, who manages the temple, gave me the daily feeding schedule of Kali (whom he called "Mother," and in so doing sounded like Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock's 196o movie Psycho): "At 5:45 a.m. we wake Mother, wash her face, and give her a little food. At 8 we give her fruit and at 11:45 a full meal, including rice and fried vegetables, milk, honey, coconut, and curd mixed up together. You see what a good mood she is in now. She will rest, and at 4 we will wake Mother and give her a glass of coconut water along with fruit and sweets. At 6:45 we will bring more food to Mother, ring the bell, and have a big ceremony, and at 8 p.m. Mother will go to sleep."
I responded that this was a nice schedule, but -- thinking of human sacrifice -- asked whether Mr. Bhattuchaji offered her something more? Yes, he replied proudly, and I thought the inmost secrets were coming: "Eight years ago attendance was down, so I asked Mother, do you want to lose your following? Let me show you what Mother demanded -- come this way."
Nervously I followed, waiting for piles of dead bones to appear. We turned a corner: "Look," he said, "we're developing new social programs. We now offer free classes for women in making clothes ... . And here's our room with six computers, where we offer a computer class. This is our version of, what do you call it in your country, compassionate conservatism?"
I half-expected Mr. Bhattuchaji to say, "April Fool's." But he did not, and the joke was on me: Go to the other side of the world only to see an echo of home initiatives. Reality trumped my dramatic imagination, as it should for journalists generally.