The sandy arena below us was bathed in the light of hundreds of ritual candles, and the array of fearsome weaponry along one wall cast menacing, flickery shadows up at the audience. The lithe performers filed in, made a short devotion to the weapons, the gods and their master, and began the show.
Kalari. No, it’s not a coincidence that it sounds like a combination of ‘Kerala’ and ‘Karate’, though ‘Kung Fu’ would be closer. Either way, it’s definitely the South Indian combination of gymnastics, martial arts and all-round badassery, and we were being treated to a demonstration in the cultural centre of Kumily. These guys had some serious moves, and while the martial arts were clearly 100% choreographed, they weren’t holding back, sparks flying from their blades, lances and flails and illuminating the dark arena like lightning. The demonstration lasted an hour, but felt more like ten minutes.
Finally, all the performers trooped back out, took a bow and gave a wave. The lights flickered back on overhead. “Now,” called the master, “Someone come down.” His arm extended towards me and his eyes met mine. With a a sudden pang – part excitement, part anxiety – I rose to my feet, filed down my row of seats to the top of the stairs, removed my shoes and descended to the floor before I could come up with an answer to ‘what’s about to happen here?’ The last piece had been a pretty cool ring-of-fire circus leap – was this some sort of audience participation gig to finish things off?
The master shook my hand with a big friendly grin, completely at odds with the slashing ninja beast who had just entertained us. Our conversation was one I’d had a thousand times in the previous few months.
“Your good name, sir?”
“Ben, and yours?”
“I am Surya. You are from?”
All pretty standard, and enough to put me back at ease despite the very palpable sensation of every audience member’s gaze fixed on me, the blindingly pale westerner with the crazy hair. But I was wholly unprepared for what was next.
Surya took my arm, turned me towards the wall bristling with offensive metalwork, and said coolly into my ear:
“Choose your weapon.”
The air around me climbed ten degrees, and the ambient noise disappeared. I was in complete silence as my legs, against all notions of common sense and self-preservation, carried me towards the row of spears, swords, shields, flails, pikes, and a whole other bunch of things I didn’t recognise. So this was it. The final act. Choose your weapon.
The thoughts came thick and fast. What afforded me the best chance of survival? Sword and shield? Could I back out now? Maybe just break and run for the stairs? Too late, my hands, clearly in league with those turncoat legs, were reaching for a shortsword and a round metal shield, which a sniggering Kalari flunkie strapped onto my left arm.
Shaking like a leaf, I turned back to the master, resigned to my fate. British man hacked to death in ritual ceremony.Smiling more broadly than ever, Surya put an arm across my shoulder, and turning me towards Rani and Siri up in the gods, said, “Now, photo!” I didn’t know whether to cry, laugh, or just hug him. In the end I just held a pose for a moment or two, surrendered my weapons and withdrew as quickly as I could.