Holi (pronounced like holy) is a festival without any clear origins. Some like to call it the invocation of spring, some relate it to a mythological tale of a demonaic father thwarted by his devout son’s faith; still others believe it has something to do with the much-believed-in god Krishna’s complaints to his mother about his companion, Radha, being much fairer than him (causing the mother to colour Radha with numerous powdered colours to cover her fair skin). Whatever the origin, the festival of Holi is the one fun thing an average Indian looks forward to. And the law-keepers dread. Wait, I’ll explain both by and by.
I typed about a hundred words, trying to give you some details about the festival — the days it is divided into, the traditional rituals practiced, the detailed hows. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? So I deleted the Inconsequential Ones, for they were just mere words, trying to provide encyclopaedia-esque information which has no use for you, really. Let me tell you why I love Holi. (Forgive me if you would rather find out more. Please feel free to visit Wikipedia. It does quite some justice to the topic.)
So, the not-so-important reason for my love for Holi is because it is celebrated around this time. Since the Hindu calendar is different, the date is different every year. But it is always in spring. Just when the flowers have reached the peak of bloom, the winter chill has given way to the infamous heat, the breeze has a whiff of everything mature and abundant. It is a beautiful time. And what better season to choose to get up in the morning, oil your limbs and hair, wear old clothes, pick up powdered colours called gulal and abir (these days permanent colours dissoluble in water have become more popular among the excitable lot — they have no interesting name, the permanent colours), and start grabbing hold of people and colouring them? Just like that. Some run, some stand, some giggle and scream, some shout. Everyone, without fail, gets coloured. Yes, even those people who suffer from modern-age allergies or those who have to walk in to plush offices the next day with traces of colour on their faces and hands and arms, rendering them less multinational.The idea is to have fun with colours. And the motto is “Bura na mano, Holi hai.” The closest translation is “Relax, don’t fret. It’s Holi.”
We celebrated this Festival of Colours yesterday. The day begins with interesting deviations from routine. No bath. Well, some sticklers like me insist on taking one, but most know that the day will be full of water, so they just change into old clothes. Why old? Because you are going to be immersed in colour, red, pink, green, blue, black, silver, orange. In powder, in water — water, powder, powder, water. It is an endless chain of all the things your mother told you to stay away from. Get wet, make people plead you to spare them, throw bucketsful of water — coloured or otherwise, smear with gulal, aim water-filled balloons and send projectiles, run after the not-so-agile ones, corner the agile ones, pick up a device best called a hand-held spray and spray water. And laugh. At yourself, at the next person, at that grumpy aunt, or with that timid kid next door. If you visit most parts in India on this day, you will hear more laughter and feel more gaiety than you would in Nero’s court. And nothing’s burning this time, even though the streets do look like something could be amiss. Most shops are closed, stray, coloured people loiter around, young boys zoom past you on their bikes occasionally. But nothing of the usual, maddening crowd. Why? Because most people are in some house or some ground somewhere, singing to drum beats, eating the traditional sweet and savoury dishes, sharing old jokes and stories. And yes, colouring each other.
It is said to be a day when all animosities are forgotten. Just one day, but it is good enough, we like to think. The neighbour you’d like to throw your rotten fish at comes at your doorstep and hugs you, colours you to suit your preference. Just a small dot on the forehead? Or a few streaks on the cheeks? Or, if you are like me, trigger a deluge of colours. No mercy. It is Holi, after all. The rotten fish can wait until tomorrow.
Such fun. Unbridled and honest.
Humans, like they are meant to, make things a little less human, a little less honest and palatable. Especially when things are unbridled. Holi is no exception. The traditional concoction of bhaang (cannabis (which is legal, by the way)) is one of the causes of unbridled ecstasy. Modern times necessitate modern means to satiate the senses, so the local and imported alcohol adds to the range of tools for bacchanalian pleasures. Alcohol shops, if I tell you, are closed on the day of Holi, you will be relieved some. But the seekers of pleasures know better ways. Shopkeepers brace up for mouth-watering business the day before Holi. All their stocks get sold out, and are secreted by the Holi-makers in their homes, cars, wherever the bottles fit in. One day prior to The Day. Alcohol is said to make people lose sight of sense. Add bhaang to that. And look at the festival. Since it, the festival, is in many ways nonsensical, the combination of intoxicants and Holi is scary even for the devil-may-cares. The keepers of this society decided we needed policing on this day. So, the policemen are deployed at every major crossing. They are on duty throughout the day to ensure the people can be nonsensical without losing sensibility. Just as well. The rush of being coloured with all the colours of the rainbow, and more, is such a heady feeling even for the ones who don’t consume intoxicants, it can be disastrous for those around the ones who do.
But if you ask people to narrate stories of bhaang intoxication, most will tell you about the kinds that deserve being carried over generations. One such story, of which I am a proud witness, took place when I was probably six. The victim might have been in her thirties. Vinod aunty. The bhaang had been mixed with the pakoras (vegetable fritters). When its effect began, aunty began to see tremendous merit in climbing up the drain pipe on to the terrace. She was pretty sure she and my mother could reach the moon from there. My mother, who doesn’t quite care for pakoras, wasn’t too sure. Her brilliant idea thwarted, Vinod aunty moved towards the host’s bathroom. Brilliance has its way of returning. She realised she had to, simply had to, do all the laundry. Picking up linen from wherever she could, she reached the bathroom, and began washing the clothes. It may have been a little easy on her if there was a washing machine. We, the children, crowded around the bathroom and listened to her enlightening talks on Shakespeare, who, she told us, if born in the 20th century, couldn’t hold water to our Vinod aunty. She was taken home. Her house had more clothes, I am sure. She had three young children, one my age. The effect lasted a week; enough time to wash everything thrice over.
I began by telling you the not-so-important reason for loving Holi. The important reason still remains undiscussed. Or does it?