As metaphors of death continue to be bandied about to describe Europe's current economic crisis - 'a malignant cancer' and 'a plague' being two of the most effective ones to send out the message of an imminent Apocalypse - I went to see the real thing last Sunday: a bull fight at the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas in Madrid.
Spain, Europe's fifth largest economy, is on the brink of a meltdown with a 20% unemployment figure adding to the panic. But on a hot and sunny 7 pm in the capital, the 250-odd year-old form of celebrating death and life was on full display at the giant Las Ventas arena as if things like the economy, jobs, the future of households were matters that bothered only those pansy Anglo-Saxons. Sitting on my demarcated stone seat in the more expensive shade and looking down the steep and fully packed rows in the pinkish amphitheatre that somehow resembled a giant, scooped-out wedding cake, I witnessed something that as an outsider I would not understand but could only experience like a Texan trying to fathom Test cricket.
The idea of attending the first day of Madrid's boisterous bullfighting season came from IIM Bangalore professor and former dean Trilochan Sastry, a wry vegetarian whom one would have thought to have been inclined towards supply chain management rather than be curious about a European blood sport. But there we were, seated among locals and American tourists doing their mandatory Hemingway tour, trying to make sense of a national stereotype - resented by many Spaniards for being barbaric, old-fashioned and, as a young Catalan told me in Madrid-distrusting Barcelona, boring the way many of us get bristly about arranged marriage and caste.
What I witnessed at the Las Ventas wasn't a fight. No human is capable of taking on a specially bred toros bravo (brave bull), an unpredictable creature charging with explosive speed, weighing half a tonne and reared specifically to be aggressive and gore bipeds in colourful costumes. It was a performance where there is no scoreline but subjective rules pertaining to beautiful moves and the strength of character. Essentially, the toreros (bull fighters) display their skills of enraging bulls, dodging them in the most aesthetic ways possible and then killing them strictly in accordance to the rulebook.
Which is why in Spain this spectacle is called corrida de toros - the running of bulls - a highly ritualised form of man-beast contest tweaked from the older, chaotic rural bull festivals and running of (and with) bulls through narrow lanes celebrated every year in the town of Pamplona (not to be confused with the less dangerous tomato festival in Buñol, Bollypuréed in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara).
You don't have to be a Maneka Gandhi to realise that the corrida is a brutal spectacle of an animal being put to death. But this tango of man and beast, with the possibility of the torero's death always hovering (and there have been cases of bulls killing men in front of humans), undoubtedly has a hypnotic, high-stakes quality to it. For us, with no idea of the nuances and rules, the crowd and its reactions provided clues about what made for a good manouevre and charge by a torero and bull and what made for ordinary ones. Watching two corridas over an hour hardly made us understand why the crowd roared with 'Olé!'s at different points in the afternoon. But even to our alien eyes, we sensed that it was like a theatrical performance with acts that varied in style, tempo and content leading to the ultimate climax of the anti-hero's death.
While the Spanish display of machismo was very much in evidence among the toreros (as well as among the men in the stands seated among plenty of women), it was not this Hemingway aspect of the corrida that left me transfixed. Instead, it was Spanish playwright-writer Federico Garcia Lorca's version of the word 'duende' - loosely translated to inner passion, or being in touch with a higher spirit - that I saw taking flesh in the form of a giant black, solid silhouette raging, sparring, tiring, dancing and dying with a man making movements as stylised as a bharatanatyam dancer. As the Scottish writer AL Kennedy writes in her brilliant On Bullfighting, Lorca's duende is "a transcendent, but melancholy, moment conjured up by work with roots in a painful inspiration, a loss, a sacrifice" with its hooves rooted firmly in the physical and spiritual.
Last Sunday, there was no doubt in my mind that what I saw, sitting among people - some suited, some in half-unbuttoned shirts and blouses, many young, many not-so-young - was a grotesque form of performance art. But the corrida was fascinating, dazzling in parts and potentially as addictive as faith. While the rest of the world talks in the narrowest terms of austerity or growth, at the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas in Madrid, you can see the bigger picture: of life that overwhelms death.