Sensibility in Nonsense

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.)

Gulal. The garland in the centre is made of solidified sugar syrup. Children wear it and keep eating one bead at a time.

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.”

The people living in the slums close by. There is enough water this year to indulge.

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.

Perhaps he is in some better world, dreaming of places long forgotten. Bhaang or alcohol, whatever his tool, he wouldn't be bothered, I suspect.
The very cooperative policemen. Their day to play Holi (Holi is played, by the way. Not celebrated) is the day after we play.

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?

On our way to wish my aunt, we encountered this bucket-happy boy. All the windows were closed, thankfully. He looks happy with his shot, don't you think?
This is how I began the day. The branch in my hand is from a tree called palash. The flowers were used to make colour. In these times of instant gratification (and chemicals) all that home-made colour bunkum is traditional bullock cart.
These kids from our neighbourhood came to show their hand-held sprays called pichkaris. Ours used to be made of brass or bamboo and looked like giant icing guns. Theirs look like guns, too.
Two gulal and colour vendors with their shoppers. The one at the back is my favourite -- with his no-nonsense expression, and the skeleton-men earrings in his ears.
Invasion. My cousins were sure they'd catch me soon enough.
Cousins. Holi players.
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27 thoughts on “Sensibility in Nonsense”

    1. Good to see you after a long time, Dev. Hope you had a colourful and lively Holi as well! Effectively, it is Holi until Rang Panchami, so Happy Holi to you!

    1. Wouldn’t it be marvellous, Thomas, if we could see beyond boundaries and adapt and adopt sustainable solutions for humanity? Such a wonderful idea! I do believe Holi could make things a little lighter and colourful for all of us.

      Happy Holi to you!

  1. Oh, do I wish I had been there! What a marvelous celebration of pure joy – a day of painting people- and everyone belongs in the frame! And no one is left out of the painting. Thank you, so much, Priya. I had hoped you would spend a post telling us about this festival. And the photos of the day – that’s almost too much wonderful.

    1. I am glad you think it is ‘almost’ too much wonderful! I kicked myself for posting my own pictures. But then, those were among the best, too. *ahems*

      I wish you’d make a trip to my country someday. I could show you everything all at once. πŸ™‚

  2. Lovely post, Priya. It’s curious but I saw an artist’s blog earlier today and she was painting something about Holi and I wondered at the time what it was. I assumed a festival of some kind.

    It sounds a bit like a more exuberant (and colourful) version of April Fools day… though I’m glad that I no longer live in London as a favourite thing there was schoolkids throwing flour at one. Colour would me nice. Colour would be welcome. (Not sure about water, I’m like a cat and prefer not to get wet!)

    So… (looking at Wiki)… it symbolises passion? Presumably the passion of spring, too…

    Spring festivals celebrate the birth of something new, new seasons, new growth, new life. What better way to bring it in than with colour?

    1. I am not sure whether passion is left out of any festival. I reckon they were started only because someone felt passionate about something. Holi does have an association with spring, but the Indian spring festival, Basant Panchami, is long gone. And the spring time here is almost gone, too. We are, effectively, under the clutches of Summer.

      Colour, whether dry or in water, is an awesome feeling, especially if you are wearing it all over you. So, even if the cat in you balks at the water, there are many options to enjoy Holi!

      Holi Hai!

  3. You described the festival so well and your photos are so good – I love the ones of you splattered with paint – I feel as if I were there with you. What a perfectly lovely way to celebrate the arrival of spring.

    What did you do to get clean? I’d imagine that getting into the bath would leave paint all over it

    Loved Vinod Aunty’s story

    1. Isn’t it a nice feeling? I am sure you’d love it if you were actually here with us.

      The reason we apply copious amounts of oil before the entire process begins is to ensure the colour doesn’t stay. Using loofah with soap and shampoo is generally good enough. Most houses in India do not have bath tubs, so there is no possibility of ruining that. The coloured bath water gets drained out. Unless uncouth boys leave it splashed around the walls and basins.
      Another effective way to remove stains from the skin is to apply a pack made of black gram flour, turmeric and oil and rub it on especially insistent marks.
      As I type this comment and look at myself on the mirror at my right, I see traces of pink colour on my scalp. It’s a no-loofah, no-pack zone. But the Pink will go. By and by.

  4. Thank you, Priya, for presenting yet another delicious facet of life in India. It’s a pleasure to learn about this tradition, especially given our culture’s penchant for expensive and often useless gifts. Friends, family, laughter, and color — what else could we need to celebrate, or play?

    1. That’s what makes Holi so special, Charles. It’s just the naturally pleasing things that comprise the ‘play’ – friends, family, laughter and colour.

  5. Lovely post, Priya. I haven’t played much Holi– our family was the timid kind– but from the times I played after I grew up, your descriptions are spot on.

    The pics are gorgeous, and you’re right, out of all the pictures, the ones in which you feature are the best!

    1. Thank you, Damyanti.
      Did you spend much time in India? I understand you are in Singapore now. Aren’t you?
      Almost all of us have the reluctant and hesitant ones in our families. My Holis have been of various kinds, too. Most of them involved gulal, gujhia, dahi bada and Holi tolis to people’s places, whereas the paani ki Holis have been few and far between. Both these kinds have their charm, wouldn’t you say?
      Ah, the pictures. Well yes, they do justice to the mood!

  6. I spent a few decades in India, yes. I’m sure they play a very discreet, toned-down version of Holi in some Indian homes in Singapore as well. But I have always loved being the audience rather than the participant πŸ™‚

  7. Priya, I first heard of this holiday last year and I must confess that I was puzzled by it. Your description, though, made me smile from start to finish. I think of India and her people as colorful, and no wonder: the beautiful colorful fabrics, the deliciously spicy food palate, the lyrically colorful language, the colorful artwork and Holi to celebrate all of it. It sounds like an incredibly joyous, carefree, return to childhood fun….for a whole country for a whole day! I think this festival must add years to people’s lives. (You know, it is said that laughter is good for the health!)

    I particularly enjoyed the story of Vinod aunty and her bhaang-laced pakoras! I’ve heard of pot-laced brownies in America, but…pakoras, that’s even better! She must have been really flying high for the effect to last for a week of washing. I need some of that, maybe I’d get my house cleaned up. Tell me, do children also partake of bhaang? If people are very old or very ill, do they also take part in the color…maybe in smaller doses that are easier to clean up? It just all sounds very merry. Your photos are the perfect illustration.

    1. I wonder how I overlooked replying to this, Linda. Please accept my apology.

      There are many now who stay away from playing Holi — for the reasons of health (more allergies surfacing), avoiding the sometimes rowdy expression of happiness, lack of interest in it, and many other reasons. To each his/her own.

      Children are kept away from bhaang. Old and ill people do not play. My father-in-law underwent an eye surgery last year, and an uncle had a similar one this year. They were around the whole gang of holi-players, but no one put colour on them. I liked what my mother-in-law did to ensure that the ‘good wishes’ that come through the colour reached her husband — she put a hat of his on a table, and we and the visitors put a pinch of colour, gulaal, on it as a symbolic gesture.

      Vinod aunty is an awesome person. Perhaps that is why the bhaang didn’t want to leave in a hurry!

    1. Locking yourself up is a good idea! Especially if your are living in a hostel. The holi there is usually ‘free’.

      Thanks for visiting, Sibi. I hope to visit you soon, too.

  8. My post today includes Holi, and I linked to this post because it would help a non-Indian understand it much better than anything else on the internet.

    Just letting you know πŸ™‚

  9. Hi Priya,
    Surprisingly, I had come across your pic with palash branch in google images, as I am showing to one of my colleague about the palash flowers while asking the availability of these flowers in Delhi. Of course, a good article you wrote. Almost 30 years over, we used to make colors with these beautiful palash flowers for playing Vasantham on the 1st day of Hindu new year Ugadi festival in our AP. Thanks for sending me back to those memorable days.
    – Chari

    1. Hi Chari,

      There are still a handful of places, where the palash flowers are sold by weight in farmer’s markets across central and south India during this season. I hope to see these meaningful traditions survive the test of time, somehow!

      Happy to see you here. Have a great time today!

      Priya

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