I’m reading the paper when I came upon an ad wishing everybody a “Happy Holi” day. Since I assumed that there were no major festivals during my two months in India, I am quite surprised. My first thought is: How can I see some of this festival?
I ask the receptionist. She has no suggestions. I ask the man at the travel desk. He has no idea. At the restaurant, I ask a waiter. He merely shakes his head implying “I’ve no idea.” I ask the restaurant “captain.” He says: “It will be too dangerous. Some of the young men drink too much.” Undeterred, I finally ask Suresh, the restaurant manager. To my surprise, I hear him say: “Of course!” He is eager to see Holi in Aurangabad since he has only been here a few months.
At 11:00 AM, the next morning Suresh, his main subordinate, a security guard, and I take off. I hold my camera. I bring a plastic bag to protect it. I’m wearing the oldest of the four shirts and the only pair of shorts that I have.
I know that Holi is the “festival of colors.” It is a spring festival that may have initially centuries ago celebrated fertility. If that is the case, somehow it evolved from being a celebration of sexuality to a celebration of equality. In Holi people throw bright colored powder or colored water on everyone and anyone. In doing this, they break all the normal social boundaries. Since it is a Hindu celebration, Indians celebrate it all over India. In my eyes, Holi must be the biggest paintball game in history.
I ask Suresh about his experiences of Holi. He responds: “In Delhi, I began to play Holi when I was probably five or six. At first, it was just with family members. As I grew older, my parents let me join with all our neighbors. It was always fun.”
We move toward the old city. Since the celebrants probably began around 7 or 8 AM, everybody is already covered in paint. I suspect at one point the colors were distinct. Now the colors run together forming a purple or reddish blue. It is hard to detect the yellows and oranges and greens.
I see kids probably only five or six covered in paint. I see several small groups of girls and young women. I don’t know if they have thrown the color paint at each other or they received it from the more numerous young boys and men. These boys and men travel in packs from five to fifteen. Their body language says: “You better watch out. We mean business.”
We eventually find the street where the main procession is taking place. Small tractors pull wagons filled with barrels of water and young boys with the Holi equivalent to giant super-soakers. They don’t hesitate to paint the houses they pass even at 30 feet. Even though there is a police presence, we decide to stay a safe distance from the procession.
I take pictures left and right. I wave and everybody smiles and laughs. It is obvious that everybody is enjoying themselves.
I ask Suresh: “Is there anything else to Holi besides the powdering?” Suresh points to some young kids. Sitting on a ledge, this small group of five-year old kids are already chowing down. “They are already finished. They are eating some special food their mothers probably prepared.” As we turn onto a side street, we see ahead of us about fifty young people dancing to music that is blaring from some unseen speaker. Suresh is quite clear: “We better not get any closer to them!” Eating and dancing are the two ““after-powder” events.
Did I get soaked? Only when I got back to the hotel. The staff there gently streaked vibrant powders on my forehead, cheeks, and beard. How did we not get “powdered” on the streets? We weren’t dumb. Suresh, the restaurant manager, drove us around the Aurangabad streets. I don’t know Hindi, but I could tell that the first thing he said to hotel staff upon our return had to be something like this: “I want my car cleaned by the time I go home.” So much for complete egalitarianism.
Footnote: The Hindustan Times reported this news about Holi the next day. “While Mumbaiites were busy splashing and smearing colours on one another, the city’s major civic and government run hospitals on Monday reported an increase in the number of Holi-related injuries, compared to the figures last year. None of the injuries, however, were serious…An assistant medical officer at the hospital added that at least four cases of dog bites were reported. ‘Some people tried to apply colour on dogs and were bitten.’ (Hindustan Times, March 14th edition)” I guess not everybody got into the spirit of Holi.