Uncle can you take me home?
I must have been 6, I think. We lived in Colaba, in the South of Mumbai. About 30 years ago, give or take.
Often I’d hear or see the Boogoo-Boogoo man.
He would have long dirty hair down to his waist and a thick beard. He’d be wearing a long colourful skirt and bells/ghungroos around his feet. And he’d be carrying a whip. A HUGE, menacing looking whip, even longer than his body.
It wasn’t the fact that his face would be covered in some sort of war-paint or that he’d have a manic expression as he walked around. It was the sound of the drum the woman played. A quiet woman, wearing an old saree, in stark contrast to the rather flamboyant and dangerous looking man.
And as they walked together she would play a drum. One hand would strike the drum repeatedly as the other rubbed a stick on the other end, creating a sound like a boogoo-boogoo-boogoo-boogoo.
It wasn’t a beat, just a strange hypnotic sound played in rhythm creating a sort of trance-like atmosphere. The flamboyant, menacing man would dance to this rhythm in a strange repetitive manner, causing the bells on his feet to add to the strange percussion. He’d be twirling in his war-paint and flaring skirt, stomping his feet to make those bell-noises as she’d play the boogoo drum…
And then it would happen. He’d do a full twist with his tanned sinewy body, raise his arm and..
He’d whip himself so hard that it would make your eyes water. I’m talking about a whip about 2 metres long. You’d hear the sound of the whip 2 blocks away. And he’d continue his strange rhythmic dancing trance, moving his feet around as the lady looked at him impassively.
No it wasn’t a show, they weren’t static. They’d keep walking and in between whipping himself and the frenzied dancing often accompanied by whooping and weird sounds, he would stretch out his hand begging for money. I didn’t realize what he was doing then, I was only six, see? Each time I saw him I’d stare, wide-eyed and terrified, I didn’t understand, I just wanted it to stop.
I used to think it was always the same guy. I was too young then. They looked the same to me, wild-eyed and long-haired. The drum had a peculiar sound and it was always one man and a woman. As I grew I realized there were many of these men that did the same thing. Strange ways to make a living I guess.
I cannot remember completely what it was that frightened me. Often I’d even have nightmares of the wild man whipping me as I stood close by. And that sound would send a chill through my little heart. Luckily I always had my mum or dad around to make me feel safe.
It doesn’t hurt him, the whip just makes this sound said my Dad. I didn’t believe him, I had eyes, didn’t I?
And there I was one day, all of 6. Went down to the shop to buy something and was walking home and at the entrance to my lane I heard it and saw it together.
I remember being frozen stiff. I couldn’t bear to walk past them and go home. I couldn’t think straight. I could simply not walk past them and go home. After waiting a short while I mustered up all my courage and went up to a complete stranger.
Uncle can you take me home?
No, I know where I live. I’m afraid of… him.
The Boogoo-Boogoo man. I pointed.
He smiled, held my hand and walked me home. As I walked I peeped out of the corner of my eye at the wild man whipping himself. He was asking for money. And the woman had a veil over her head and a drum over her shoulders and she was effortlessly building the rhythm. I thanked the man and ran straight into my mum’s arms.
India is a strange land, full of strange customs. Much as I like to understand them all, I’ve never understood this tribe of people that walk the streets whipping themselves to this strange sound. It was a common occurrence then in Mumbai and as I grew older, I realized that the frequency of this event reduced.
Sometimes I’d hear the sound and feel the chill in my heart. And I’d see the plain looking veiled woman in a saree playing her boogoo rhythm. But she’d be walking with a bull with painted horns. No man whipping himself there. Just a woman and a bull. Asking for money. What were you supposed to pay her for… uhm?
And then I never saw them again. For some reason, this strange custom/ method of begging/ whatever in God’s name it was, stopped. In fact I put the whole thing out of my mind completely.
Until this morning.
Jenny come here, come to the window now!
I live on the 9th floor of an apartment building with a birds eye view of things in general. There I was, on Christmas Day, drinking my coffee when I heard it. Could it be?
Really? I run to the window and peep out. I see her, plain old saree, veil over her head, drum hanging loosely like an extension of her body, one arm striking the drum and the other making the boogoo.
I continue to stare, fascinated and…
…And then I see him. In a blood red skirt down to the floor. Bare-chested. Thick hair oiled back and tied into a large bun over his head. Scraggly beard. Dark yellow facepaint. He yells something incomprehensible, sounding like a banshee. His body is orange-brown from the sun. He stomps his feet in some sort of a dance.
He flexes and turned.
His whip is over 2 metres long and he dances to the rhythm.
Jenny come here NOW!
As my wife runs to the window I explain what the boogoo man does.
Really? But WHY?
I hesitate. Usually I play my part as an Indian cultural guide well, however I have no clue why they do that. Warding off evil spirits? Some tribal custom? I realize that I have never asked myself or anyone else that question. I think of the simplest answer.
For money? she asks incredulously.
As I open my mouth to reply, I pause. I see two children. The little girl is plainly dressed and walks close to the lady with the boogoo drum. She’s walking and playing with what appears to be an old doll of sorts. It’s a family outing.
The little boy, however is wearing facepaint and a long green skirt down to his knees. No shirt. Tanned little body. He carries a whip that is longer than his body and he drags it along the floor as he walks behind his father.
The boy looks like he is learning. He stands close, looking intently at his father who screams hysterically in a frenzy — whipping himself hard, over and over again before he unexpectedly moves very quickly towards two unsuspecting ladies with outstretched hands.
They shriek and walk quickly away from him, cringing.
The little boy takes all of that in, twirling his whip around as he watches the scene in its entirety. He looks like he’s ready to learn the ropes. So to speak.
In fact, the boy looks like he is all of 6 years old.
Before I wrote this little memoir, I tried to research into this culture and understand where it comes from. I was unsuccessful. If a reader is able to offer me some insight or light into this strange culture, I would appreciate you leaving me a comment.
Thank you for reading this story.