Holi Smokes

If religious festivals were primaries in an American election campaign, then the US media might fairly term March 21st 2008 “Leviathan Friday”, the day being of sacred significance to four of the world’s major religions.  While those of us in the West recognise the death and subsequent resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ by consuming a heady blend of cocoa mass, sugar and milk solids machine-moulded into an assortment of oversized ova for some reason, World Series Weekend also sees the Muslim festival of Eid-e-Milad (the birth and death anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed), Navroz (the first day of the Zoroastrian calendar) and Holi (the Hindu festival of colour).  Here in India the four are celebrated side by side, though it’s Holi that emerges as the frontrunner: the candidate chosen to lose to the Republican festival.

Holi, like most Hindu celebrations, is big on noise, colour and reckless abandon.  Having witnessed scores of Delhiites puncturing the night sky and each other with homemade fireworks during Diwali – think Pamplona with explosive bulls – it was with a curious mix of raw excitement and gnawing disquiet that I awaited the occasion, like a beaver preparing to fell the birch that will either complete her new Venetian-style decking with ornamental surround or crush her dam and all her kittens (a baby beaver is called a kitten I think).  The main day of festivities is Dhulhendi, when scores of people gather in the streets and, fuelled by bhang (a marijuana derivative which is smoked, eaten, drunk, or all of the above), proceed to anoint each other with brightly coloured pastes and powders.  Like the Diwali firecrackers, which are seemingly assembled from pieces of guttering and various motor spares, the Holi dyes pack an industrial punch: green contains copper sulphate and can cause eye allergies and temporary blindness; blue contains Prussian blue, which leads to contact dermatitis; and red contains mercury sulphate, which is highly toxic and can cause skin cancer.  Thanks Wikipedia.

The revelry is not confined to chemical warfare.  During Holi much of the usual social order is turned on its head, with traditional caste and gender roles being suspended, even perverted.  Thus we have the poor lampooning the rich, children their elders, women men, cats dogs, and so on.  The status of the tourist within such a framework is ambiguous; suffice to say that no-one is above this playful retribution.

So that’s Holi.  An interesting contrast to the exercises in guilty gluttony that we in the UK call Christmas and Easter.  Perhaps next year, as an attempt at cultural synchreticism, I’ll melt down a couple of cream eggs, throw them at my dog and call my grandmother a bitch.  That usually does the trick…