The fastest way to find a cockfight in Ubud is to find yourself a man with a cock. (The double entendre, as Clifford Geertz put it in his seminal piece on the Balinese cockfight, is entirely deliberate: ‘For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting [in the ring]. Actually, it is men.’)
Such men are everywhere, squatting on street corners and loitering in garages, grooming their birds, whispering sweet nothings to them, bouncing them up and down on their feet to strengthen their legs for each upcoming bout. I found an old man with a particularly aggressive-looking bird, asked when and where the shit was going down, and was given a time, an address and a sly wink. It was happening three days hence.
I had a few reasons for seeking out such an event. The first was philosophical. I have been writing about bullfights for almost five years now—occasionally in these very pages—and have been accused countless times of being indifferent to the suffering of animals. I was keen to test the accusation. Would I be able to justify the ugliness of the cockfight without recourse to the aesthetic arguments I have used to excuse the cruelty of the corrida?
The second was somewhat less intellectual and rather more embarrassing. When I was 15 years old, my family visited Bali for the first time and took a day trip up to Ubud. By chance, the six of us found ourselves at a roadside shindig characterised by the shouts of a hundred swarthy gamblers and the too-thick smoke of a hundred impromptu barbecues. I fainted pretty much immediately—it didn’t even take the sight of blood—and for stupid, primitive reasons of pride was determined not to do so again.
Perhaps most importantly, however, I was itching to get off the tourist strip. With its high-end arts-and-crafts boutiques and Australian-priced cocktails, Ubud had changed a lot since my fainting spell more than a decade earlier. Kuta has always seemed pre-packaged. But now Ubud was beginning to seem so, too.
The proceedings were already underway by the time my cab driver and I arrived. The Balinese crowded around a small, square ring, constructed haphazardly on a vacant lot, gesticulating wildly to place their bets in a manner impossible for a foreigner to parse. A smaller, quieter group sat off to the side, huddled around an equally impenetrable card game, money changing hands with silent understanding and brief, staccato nods.
There were two cocks in the ring, one large and brilliant white, the other darker, slightly scrappier. The cab driver asked if I wanted to place a bet and I shook my head. I thought the white bird had the edge and said so, but didn’t know the going rate, or how to indicate my preference. For his part, the cab driver seemed out of place, too, neither interested in the fight nor particularly comfortable with it. His pressed white shirt stood out in stark relief against the smooth skin of the topless punters and he wandered over to watch the card game instead. At least the card sharks were wearing clothes.
As the final bets were placed and the frantic hand-waving began to die down, the men in the ring began to ruffle the feathers on their charges’ necks and thrust them at one another, working them up. A brief whirlwind of feather, a single flash of blade, and the whole thing was over, the scrappy chook strutting about as though he owned the place and the white one lying motionless in the middle of the ring. A single, almost imperceptible streak of blood trickled quietly down his side.
While cockfighting is illegal throughout Indonesia, Bali remains a semi-exception. The island’s dominant Hinduism is partly to thank (or to answer) for this—fights are grudgingly permitted to take place before religious ceremonies, the spilling of blood appeasing evil spirits and all that—but physical distance from the central government doubtless has its advantages as well. What Jakarta doesn’t know about non-religious cockfights and the vices that inevitably attend them won’t hurt it.
This certainly wasn’t a religiously sanctioned event and could have been shut down at any moment. There was a certain edginess in the air. At the same time, it wouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to learn that police were among those present. A crackdown would have doubtless echoed Claude Rains’ closure of Rick’s in Casablanca: ‘I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!’ ‘Your winnings, sir.’ ‘Oh, thank you, thank you very much. Everybody out at once!’
Death was present in its endless multiplicity. While the white bird was dispatched within seconds, without contest, others parried, dealt damage, made palpable hits, holding their own for minutes at a time before the opposing blade found purchase in their breasts. Clean deaths, bloodless to the naked eye, were followed by mottling, splattering murder, the red dirt drying black in the heat. Two birds even killed each other, recalling Manolete’s death on the horns as he placed his killing sword one last time. As the newspaper headlines declared the next morning, ‘He died killing and he killed dying.’
Death wasn’t always interested, however, and occasionally had to be coaxed into service. When two cocks tired after several minutes jousting, each lunge at the other coming to naught, they were summarily riled and thrown at each other again, but the result was much the same. The birds retired to opposite corners of the ring, aware of each other but too exhausted to go on. This, of course, wouldn’t do: as ‘symbolic expressions or magnifications of their [owners’ selves],’ as Geertz put it, ‘the narcissistic male ego writ out in Aesopian terms’, the birds had to continue their fight to the death. One of the cocks—avian or man—had to be seen to be victorious. The birds were placed inside a large wicker basket of the kind their owners carry them about in and prodded into violence until one lay bleeding beneath the delirious form of the other.
As if to punish the wounded bird’s owner for his presumption, death decided to take its time. The cock was attempting to get up, each failed effort confusing the hell out of it while also giving it the impetus to keep trying. Despite these evident signs of life, the fight was called in the other bird’s favour and the cripple was lifted, flapping wildly as it ascended, and discarded somewhere behind the ring. I made my way through the throng of spectators to the makeshift butchery towards the back, smiling at the Balinese as I did so, who stared back at me like the oddity I was.
The bird was thrown with little fanfare onto a slab and, to my surprise, rather than being put immediately out of its misery, was instead dissected while still alive, its legs and wings being removed with a cleaver before finally, mercifully, its head came off, too.
It was uglier than any bullfight I’d ever been to, not least because there was no risk whatsoever to the people involved in the event’s—or the birds’—execution. But even then I couldn’t help but feel that something redeemed the fight of its cruelty. Perhaps it was the self-evident love for the birds their owners showed despite themselves, preening and pampering and showing pride in their appearance. (Geertz would doubtless diagnose this as self-love.) Or perhaps it was the manner in which the animals went out, raging against the dying of the light, expressing something vital in their natures rather than having it subsumed by the fear of the slaughterhouse. For all its cruelty, for all its violence, this was not a factory farm of hormone-addled laying hens, nor a conveyor belt into the industrial mulcher where newborn male chicks go to become nuggets. There was, running beneath the thing, somewhere, a thin quartz vein of ameliorating respect.
This respect wasn’t enough to hold the cab driver’s attention and it soon became obvious that he was ready to leave. ‘You don’t like cockfights?’ I asked him as we walked back to the vehicle. He shook his head. ‘Can I ask why not?’
‘Too loud,’ he said. ‘Too much gambling.’ He paused for a moment. ‘And I’m sad for the chickens.’
I nodded as though I were sad for them, too. His answer had me questioning myself again. Whatever happened to that light-headed 15-year-old that he became the aficionado-apologist I consider myself today and the bloodthirsty sadist others accuse me of being?
We drove back into town past the famous monkey forest—another place I freaked out in my adolescence—and then on past the imported juice and smoothie places and the mass-produced wood-carving outlets. A thousand white faces stared back at me as I glared out the window at them: the shame of recognition, a reminder that one’s South-East Asian adventure lacks all but the slightest slither of originality.
I got out by the garage near my hostel and paid the cab driver what he was owed. I threw in a little extra, too, blood money, perhaps, for his compromised values. The old man was sitting where I’d found him three days earlier, enjoying a cigarette in the afternoon sun. I nodded at him and he nodded back. His feathered friend was nowhere to be seen.