Saturday, March 22, 2008

Happy Holi!

Take Christmas, New Year, and a fistful of the best birthdays you’ve ever had, and put them all in a balloon. Fill the balloon with red paint, then pop it over someone you love. They’ll know it’s because you love them, so they’ll laugh. And that’s Holi, essentially - the Festival of Spring, of Romance, of Fun. You can’t hope to put your nose out of your own front door, on this day, and not be swept along with the revellers.
Bizarrely, Holi takes its name from the villainess of the piece. Holika was the sister of the demon-king, Hiranyakashipu. To cut a long story short, he got a bit above himself, and wanted everyone to worship him instead of the gods, but his son, Prahlad, refused. His Auntie Holika had the gift of being able to go through fire without burning, so the king asked her to kill her rebellious nephew, by taking him through fire. The plot was foiled by Lord Vishnu, who had Holika consumed by the flames, preserving the life of Prahlad, his faithful follower.
On the eve of the festival itself, bonfires are lit, to commemorate the defeat of Holika, celebrating the victory of good over evil. People take the embers home to kindle domestic fires, and spread good fortune and prosperity. On Friday, we see bonfires, festooned in ribbons and bows, waiting for night to fall.
Krishna, word has it, was very dark-skinned, but his mate, Radha, was much fairer. When Krishna complained to his mum, Yashoda, she said, “Paint her, then!” – Or words to that effect, in more elegant Hindi. So he daubed colour on her cheeks, to redress the tonal balance. From such small beginnings, an entire technicolour epidemic springs – Dhuledi, the Festival of Colours.
By the roadside, the vendors squat, doling out bags of powder from a rainbow of paintpots. The lock-up shops are selling pump-action water-pistols faster than they can unpack the boxes. Even sedate Powai is febrile with anticipation. We’re quite excited, and we’ve no idea what’s going on.
We get more of an idea, when we’re jolted from our still jet-lagged bed this morning, by hundreds of decibels of joy. Craning from every window, we can’t locate the source. Like fools, we SHOWER first, then go down to investigate. And there it is, in our own backyard – or rather, front parking-lot. It’s mayhem, with a hosepipe in his hand. You can either dance, or join in the water-fight. Only small babies, old ladies, and very old gentlemen, are excused. One of the maintenance men stands on the porch roof with an industrial hose. He’s very catholic in his spraying.
How long do you think it takes Roland to join the fray? I’ll tell you. He takes four, maybe five photos, then he gets splatted by the local small fry. Ask any of our own home-grown water-fighters, and they will tell you, he doesn’t do defeated, in these circumstances. So, it is seconds before he commandeers a bucket, and is drenching tiny Holi-persons. Yes, I know he’s a lot bigger than they are. Tell Roland.
Meanwhile, I’m spectating, trying not to look as if Roland’s anything to do with me. Bit tricky, with giveaway matching pasty faces. I’m invited to dance, but I need to fathom the punch-bowl first, and a) it’s eleven in the morning, and b) there isn’t one. A mother brings a very small baby to me, to paint orange stripes on my cheeks, and wish me a happy Holi. It’s very moving.
A man in a newly tie-and-dyed kurta comes to ask, "You want to dance? I get my wife to invite you." How organised is this society? I can't ask you to dance, but I know someone who can...
Eventually, I succumb, without benefit of punch-bowl. The maintenance-man-on-the-roof-with-all-the-power has got it in for me, and I am wet to the bone, within seconds. After that, you can’t get any wetter, can you? I tell the lady I'm dancing next to, that I had a shower this morning, and she says, "Holi day, nobody showers!" I consider myself told.
Holi’s the time for brotherhood and unity. Drenched in colour, people lose individual identity, so caste ceases to matter. We talk to more people in twenty minutes, than we have in two months.
There’s a respite, for cleaning and drying, then a shared feast. Our tickets – in Roland’s pocket throughout the water-cannoning – are shreds of pink pulp, but the concierge laughs, and waves us in. Welcome to India, and Happy Holi!