There are fighting bulls in Goa, a small state on the west coast of India. They are the cause of enough noise, frantic sprinting, and even bloodshed to recall the bull runs of Pamplona earlier in the century.
But this is Goa at the end of the century. And the bullfight here is one in which the bulls fight one another. When there is bloodshed, it is not caused by an elegant matador, sequinned and rakish, but by a pair of horns filed and sharpened down to a lance point.
There are no fences or barricades here. Bullfights are usually held in an old rice field just outside a village, and the crowd — whose complex Sunday lunches quickly become a liability when it’s time to get out of the way of an unreasonable animal — provides the enclosure. They do reluctantly put up the odd rickety bamboo fence to provide token protection for a visiting VIP, but everyone in the crowd knows that a few sticks of bamboo will do absolutely nothing to halt half a ton of charging bull.
Fighting bulls bear interesting names in Goa, and bout cards make slightly bizarre reading. Alibaba vs. Second Krishna. Brazil vs. Mad Max. Sea Harrier vs. Kingofsouth.
The animals are bred and trained to fight, and later retire as studs. Although trainers traditionally do not breathe a word about their ward’s regimen and habits, the essence of bringing up a fighting bull is a carefully monitored diet, supplemented by enough vitamins and minerals to supply a small school. Late at night, in the tavernas around the village square, when feni — that clear and dangerous liquor distilled from the cashew apple — has loosened an incautious tongue or two, exotica like sardines and molasses are mentioned, as are puréed jackfruit and dried figs. But nothing’s certain: what’s said during these long and bibulous village nights, especially in deepest south Goa, vanishes like strange dreams, especially on the morning of a fight.
In Konkani, the local tongue, the fight is called dhirio. There is, of course, heavy betting, which is why the fights are advertised on the sports pages of the local daily papers. The bookies are influential enough to arrange matters so that the opening bout of the season is almost always attended by the nearest convenient dignitary. This past season, both the chief minister of Goa and the Portuguese consul general obliged. The bulls, I am told, did not charge them.
The morning of a fight, pickup vans are driven around the local villages, with banners fluttering, music blaring, and incomprehensible announcements booming out through election-rally-sized speakers. The pickup van is likely to be carrying one of the prize contestants, red-sashed and outraged at being made a spectacle of. It adds to the bull’s already bad temper, and gets the betting going.
Large sums are involved: in some cases, allowing for long enough odds, 20,000 rupees (about $500) has been won on a single fight. This is a scale of betting that has naturally led to allegations of fixed fights and even the occasional nobbling of a prize bull. After a particularly questionable defeat, when post-mortems are being conducted in the bars, tempers run foul. Late into such nights, there is sometimes blood spilled that is no longer a bull’s.
Before a fight, a trainer gets his animal down on its knees for as long as possible, keeping up a stream of chatter and patting it all the while. This apparently primes the bull, who is led out to the field and then strenuously encouraged to kneel again. Some bulls, who seem to respond to their trainers’ words the way a hunting dog does, will comply. Others won’t. It is only the very confident trainers who squat right there beside their charges, now haranguing them, building up the bulls’ tempers and doing this, incredibly, with a hand clamped around the bulls’ gonads. There is no dearth of opinion on this extraordinary tactic: some old-timers insist it tells the bull who the boss is and gives the trainer a degree of control he cannot otherwise hope to achieve. Others say the hand is there to provide a final infuriating squeeze, just as the other bull gets within snorting range.
At a recent fight in the village of Caranzalem, a strapping bull named Super Fighter decided he didn’t like dhirios, crowds, and other bulls, and took off from the field, chased by a certain Johnny Baba, whom he was scheduled to fight. Instead of heading for the open road, though, Super Fighter barreled down a village path, which in Goa is full of twists and turns, overhanging thatch, and fish drying out in the sun. Fearful of the potential collateral damage, the organizers and trainers of both animals sped off in pursuit. As the fearful ruckus receded, a German camera crew that had arrived to film the affair looked around, puzzled: Was this at all about bullfighting?
The crowd knew better. Two minutes later Super Fighter reappeared and some perversion led him to charge back through the throng and into the rice field where the match was to be held. Johnny Baba was right behind him.
Super Fighter spun round to charge a very surprised Johnny Baba, who didn’t stop to argue but instead shot away through the crowd and up one of the bunds that bordered the field. Johnny Baba toppled at least seven men in his mad rush, and on the way took a sideswipe at the German crew’s video stand, sending a tripod and camera flying. Once he reached the road, Johnny Baba quickly galloped off toward the city of Panjim. Following close behind him, Super Fighter turned his head to keep track of his enemy but neglected to turn his body and crashed into the row of scooters parked along the road. He knocked them flat and then blundered away toward the city.
The crowd loved it and howled with laughter — at the bulls but also at the Germans, who had hastily piled into their van in the hope of getting at least some footage of a maddened Goan bull.
Sometimes you are in the presence of a truly incorrigible mature bull, and the atmosphere quickly becomes tense. The betting slips are laid down, and the soda bottles are forgotten. Here and there, a few quick slugs of feni go down. Stepping deliberately through the crowd, the confident old fighting bulls don’t really need to be led. Tense and trembling with anticipation, they nevertheless contain their anger for the field, their fast-talking trainers hurrying alongside toward the middle. As the bull sizes up its opponent, the crowd settles down into a contented murmuring, knowing a real contest is at hand.
These are bulls who are sure of their staying power and their ability to strike, who know how to hook viciously around and through the tough folds of skin on their opponent’s necks, who know how to make the blood flow and weaken their foe, and who then plant their massive hooves into the red Goan soil and slash at the belly. These are the calculating warriors — fewer and fewer are bred and fight nowadays — and it still sends shivers down the spines of the old-timers when they hear of the steady-eyed fighting bulls of Goa.
Reproduced by permission of The Atlantic Monthly Company
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.