Death in the Afternoon

By Namit Arora | Jul 2000 | Comments

(This essay was published in Words and Pictures Magazine, Issue 3, Fall 2005.)

SanfirminoA hot Sunday afternoon in Mexico City. The largest bullring in the world is packed with feisty locals. Restless, they whistle and hoot before the main event when emotions run high and which, oddly for Mexico, begins on time. A quick ceremonial parade by the human performers, and the first marked bull is unleashed into the ring. Today, three matadors will tackle six bulls, and for the first time ever, a female matador (from Spain) will perform in Mexico.

In the first act, three assistants to the matador, the banderilleros, in gaudy costumes reminiscent of sixteenth century Spanish courtiers, enter the ring and start waving purple capes. By provoking the bull into empty chases, their job is to tire out the proud animal, weighing nearly half a ton. From the flanks, a matador takes note of the bull’s temperament.

Bullfight14Minutes later, two men arrive on two heavily padded horses—the picadores, armed with long sharp spears. The bull sees red, so to speak, and charges a horse. The man atop, seizing his moment, repeatedly stabs the bull just above the spinal cord, causing a vigorous spurt of thick, dark blood. The crowd roars, among them genteel men and women with children, overcome now with enormous anticipation. The bull, wounded and fierce, turns to the other horse and rams into its well-padded ribs in an attempt to topple the rider, which leads to another wild uproar. This time the bull is out of luck and merely sheds more blood. The picadores, basking in warm applause, retire to the pavilion.

Bullfight96Next, a banderillero, holding three banderillas (adorned sticks with spiked ends), faces the charging bull. At least theoretically, the bull can gore his provocateur at any time. The tension dissolves as the man leaps away at the last minute, but not before inserting one banderilla into the bull’s neck. He repeats this twice before exiting the ring. The hubbub in the stadium rises until a bugle blows, and the Matador de Toros strides in for the solo act.

Bullfight2It is the Spanish woman, wearing the traditional traje de luces (suit of lights). She does not disappoint, playing the crowd and fooling the animal. In subjugating brute power with human skill, she, too, will be judged for her ‘style and artistic statement’. She moves with calm and confidence, teasing and dodging with flourish. The crowd screams, ‘Ole! Ole!’ getting louder with each daring maneuver of her crimson muleta. This continues for a few minutes until she flashes a long, steel sword—the espada—sending shivers of excitement through the stands.

Bullfight5The trick is to aim it and time it precisely. She leaps away from the charging bull’s path, and with one swift move, plunges the entire sword between the bull’s shoulder blades. A perfect kill; nothing less, it seems, would be appreciated by this audience. The bull writhes helplessly, hobbling along like a drunk for a minute or so, ornate hilt sticking out above, and then collapses, as if his knees were suddenly too weak to bear his weight.

Bullfight106A banderillero rushes forth, takes aim, and thrusts a sharp knife into the bull’s neck—the final blow, final as death is—the victory is complete. The crowd goes wild as the bull lies still under the hot sun. The matador bows, stylishly swings her Basque cap, the bugles blow, jubilant white handkerchiefs dot the stands. According to a panel of distinguished judges, she is deemed to have displayed exceptional élan, so she wins an earlobe of the fallen animal as her trophy, to keep. The picadores return to drag the corpse out of the ring. Food and drink vendors appear in the stands. The din of conversation rises, the band bursts into a cheery tune.

(All images come from here. What might a human feel if subjected to such treatment? Here is a glimpse: one, two).


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