Today I was—fleetingly, almost—part of a gang: and I loved it. As we pelted whooping through the narrow shit-caked streets, faces daubed and guns cocked, I thought, Crikey Moses! being an antisocial menace is fun!
Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated increasingly madly across North India, most famously a couple of hours southeast of here in the sacred towns of Mathura and Vrindavan where Krishna was born and grew up. Its enormous popularity today across the country probably owes much to Bollywood: the White-clad Superstars Gambol Flirtatiously Through Puffs of Colour scene is now mandatory, much like inexplicable shots of Paris and London and driving a white convertible. A sixtysomething Bengali maintains that it wasn’t a particularly big deal when she was growing up in the east, but notes that’s since changed dramatically; South India resolutely ignores it, but given the creep of Bollywood I doubt it can hold out. Like Diwali, it’s just too danged photogenic to resist.
In the abstract, Holi looks a lot like the Roman Saturnalia and Feasts of Fools celebrated across mediaeval Europe: to ring in the new year, social norms are briefly overturned—or at least relaxed—and the old year is consumed in a brief carnivalesque period of fire, anarchy, and debauchery. People light bonfires and paint each other with less regard for seniority, caste, and gender than normal (although young men still sometimes bent to touch their seniors’ feet, and occasional men were very wary about powdering me). Women get to beat men with sticks, though in practice this seemed to be a marginal phenomenon. And of course many quaff booze and bhang—an almond or pistachio milkshake laced with cannabis, or served in laddu-sweet form or samosas—and sway blank-eyed through the streets.
The stakes were high—we were off to play with half the Indian rugby team, who are all from the same village and troublingly almost all share the same surname—so yesterday my perpetually beaming French housemate and I headed out to load up with weapons for our Holi war: SuperSoaker rip-offs, cans of coloured foam, packets of gulal powder, tins of water-soluble pigment, Barbie® water balloons. I carefully moisturised (‘Colour only sticks forever on dry skin’, I was sagely warned), filled with a disproportionate excitement probably best reflected by the fact I waited impatiently on the stairs for 45 minutes so that I could shoot my flatmate when he came through the door (and then misfired, a fatal error punished by copious squirting).
Holi hai! The celebrations start early, around 10am. The few autorickshaws plying their trade charge an extortionate Holi premium, but our driver then obligingly veered us towards passing pedestrians and cyclists so we could SuperSoak them. I felt quite the hooligan. This backfired somewhat when we got out too early and swaggered along the street, excited children approaching to smear us as we sprayed the odd motorbike piled high with young men. One such motorbike screeched into a U-turn and we were well and truly vengeance-inked. By the time we arrived in the village—as the old unplanned quasi-rural settlements that the modern city has guzzled are still known—I was already a mess.
The day passed in a colourful blur, possibly because someone sprayed me in the eye. (I have since committed the grave error of searching ‘Holi India’ on Google Scholar, imagining a pleasant slice of anthropological whimsy. Some choice results in fact include Ghosh et al., ‘The “Holi” dermatoses: annual spate of skin diseases following the spring festival in India’; Velpandian et al., ‘Ocular hazards of the colors used during the festival-of-colors (Holi) in India—malachite green toxicity’, Journal of Hazardous Materials; and my own uplifting personal favourite, Chauhan et al., ‘Bilateral periorbital necrotizing fasciitis following exposure to Holi colors: a case report’. Where’s Hugh Laurie when you need him?) After fly-strewn snacks and vast tots of whiskey with some respectable Uncleji figures, there was a brutal initiation ceremony in the team’s clubhouse, as I hear gangstas are wont to do. ‘Playing Holi’ itself is fun as long as you’re on the winning team, like all other sports. When one person turns on you, though, others follow, aiming savagely for eyes and maximum saturation.
Bonds sufficiently forged, we took off over the wasteland—where delinquent puppies and giant pigs root and people bathe in a filthy plastic-filled pond—into the village proper. With terrifying ululations and the roar of a dragged motorbike, the pack started to hunt. Women and children pelted us with water grenades from above, vanishing out of reach of retaliation; it was exactly like taking on the Taliban. Roaming through the narrow streets and climbing a tower block to snipe below, we sprayed anyone who wasn’t wearing a priceless Alexander McQueen concept/looked like they wouldn’t actively burst into tears. Amazingly, most of them just stood and took it with a resigned expression, before smearing us with more powder. The exception was a particularly feisty group of Aunties, who covered their faces with saris to protect against the gunfire and launched themselves upon the yelping boys, beating thighs and buttocks until their thick rods snapped. The entire village was left dripping with fuchsia and vermilion and lime.
A bit of Bollywood grooving and a surreal visit to woo a local politician for rugby money later (soiled bemused English girl = excellent bargaining token), and with the young men getting ever more ominously boisterous, I retired. An unforgettable day—not least because I’m (a) still purple and (b) lying here worrying that my flesh is going to gangrenously start eating itself while I sleep.