Jaipur; Happy Holi!

Today was the festival of Holi - the day Sheryl has been looking forward to for months. Holi is a celebration of spring, and it’s marked by an explosion of colour, especially here in Rajasthan. We don’t have an analogue of Holi at home in Canada, but we should. Our winter is a lot more brutal, punishing and soul-destroying than winter in most of India, and after six months of grey deadness I think we could use something of its joyous, extravagant celebration of colour and life.

Powdered colours are for sale on vendors’ carts everywhere in the city, in a rainbow of glowingly bright hues. Most popular is pink, but red, yellow and blue are everywhere too. My own favourites are the vibrant indigos and purples (it’s claimed that the colours are made with all-natural ingredients, but nothing this toxically vivid exists in nature outside of tropical fish or endangered rainforest frogs - I’d bet on a seriously industrial hazardous chemical component, myself). On the morning of Holi everyone roams around their neighbourhoods or streets going from house to house visiting people. They greet each other with “Happy Holi” and a smear of bright colour on each others’ faces.

Holi is mostly a morning festival, but it can go on all day. None of the autorickshaw drivers would be on the road after eight o’clock, we were told, both because they’d want to celebrate the festival themselves and because they’d be afraid of their open vehicles getting colour-bombed. So we were up stupidly early to catch a rickshaw to Kuldeep’s house in the suburb of Jhotwara. I wasn’t sure when we’d be coming back so I paid attention to the route in case we had to walk, but it was a twenty-minute ride and walking would have taken forever so I gave up. The driver had to ask the route to the street we needed, and even when he found it we had to call Kuldeep to come and direct us to his house in the maze of backstreets. He took ten minutes, so we had some chai and killed time. I tried to pay for the three of us, but the chai-wallah looked at me like I was an alien, so either chai is free in Jhotwara or the rickshaw driver had already paid. We’d attracted a crowd of curious kids by the time Kuldeep showed up, but none of them spoke English. Actually none of them spoke a single word in any language, they just stood and stared at us solemnly.

At Kuldeep’s place we met the kids and Yannick again, and Kuldeep’s wife Pushpa who was very nice but too busy to talk. Gunu was desperate to start Holi and was hopping anxiously from foot to foot, but Pinky was being a bit of a princess. She wasn’t interested in getting any colour on her and so she vanished early in the day and we didn’t see much of her until Holi was over. Kuldeep has a nice little house with a front gate that opens onto a little courtyard. There are a sitting room, bedroom, kitchen and washroom off the courtyard and stairs up to the roof. The place bore the unmistakable signs of young kids - basic furnishings and threadbare décor - but looked well-loved and cheerful.

After an hour it was out into the street to make Gunu happy and play Holi. All the neighbourhood kids had been coming by for awhile and he was getting very anxious to go out. We trooped out and were ambushed by six or ten of them all squeaking Happy Holi! Most of them were gentle but some were very excited and we soon had colour up our noses, in our eyes - everywhere. I think I must have swallowed half a bag myself. The kids were going crazy and throwing colour around, and the street and walls were splashed with streaks and splotches of powder. We were both covered from head to foot inside five minutes. I’d have been worried about my camera, but I’d learned my lesson in the deserts of Namibia - Sheryl, Yannick and I had all spent half an hour Holi-proofing our cameras by wrapping them with plastic bags and tape to keep the fine powdered colour out.

Whether it’s Christmas, Halloween or Holi, there’s always one of the neighbourhood parents who’s right into it, and that’s where we headed. A nice young couple (younger than us, which keeps catching me off guard) with a six- or seven-year-old boy. Kuldeep couldn’t’ remember their names, so I can only refer to them as “Karthik’s parents”. They were both already covered with colour and their courtyard was full of kids dancing around like maniacs to bouncy music. Of course Sheryl and I had to dance too and they loved that. That was when I realized that I’ve been in India long enough to start recognizing some of the pop music. The kids pounced on the bags of colour we’d brought and ransacked them - six bags and they were nearly gone by the time we’d gone one block! They were throwing powder in the air and all over each other. Karthik’s parents’ two dogs were covered in pink thanks to his mother - the older dog thought it was fun but the tiny puppy wasn’t quite sure what was happening to him.

It went on like that through the day. Kuldeep took us from house to house through the neighbourhood. We’d play Holi with the kids, exchange a decorous dab of colour with the wives and mothers and get extravagantly smeared by the husbands. We’d dance a little if there was music, and take the tea or water and snacks that were offered. We must have visited ten or fifteen houses. Everyone was very welcoming and enthusiastic - I felt like a visiting celebrity. it’s all a bit of a blur of colour and smiling faces now. It was very hard to understand which people were immediate family, which were extended blood-relatives and which were part of the extended family but not related by blood, like the innumerable uncles and aunties (Sheryl and I were ourselves Auntie and Uncle by the end of the day). The Indian concept of family is very diffuse and nebulous and its boundaries are difficult to determine. Kuldeep started out trying to explain the various relationships to me but gave up quickly. My head started to spin when he told me one man was his wife’s father’s wife’s cousin-brother.

The women of the houses mostly hid inside for Holi. Only the young mothers and old grandmothers played. We always got invited inside - ostensibly to see the houses but really so that Sheryl could meet the women. Very few people in the neighbourhood had any English but there were lots of smiles and welcoming gestures. We got taken specifically to meet the other visiting celebrity, a cousin who was studying languages and European history at university. Her English was perfect, and I have to admit to a certain mean satisfaction at meeting someone whose French is even worse than mine.

Sheryl was concerned about all the water we were being offered. We’ve been cautioned many times by well-meaning people to drink only bottled water. I’ve been drinking tap water myself on and off since we’ve been here and I haven’t had any problems, but Sheryl’s stomach is more delicate. It wasn’t possible to refuse, though - it would have been abominably rude. The same applies to all the rice we were being served - Sheryl is allergic to rice (I know, I know) but we couldn’t be rude enough to turn it down. We decided just to accept it and deal with any consequences as they came (as it turns out, the consequences were terrible, but that’s a story for a different day).

At one point in the day, rounding a street corner, we came upon a group of twenty or thirty men sitting on mats on the street. Every one of them was covered head to foot in red Holi colour. They were having a raucously good time and demanded that we join them. Kuldeep was nervous and tried to keep Sheryl back, explaining to us that it was a men-only gathering. The men themselves wouldn’t hear of it, though, and demanded that Sheryl, Yannick and I sit in the middle of the mats with them. They stuffed a whole laddoo in each of our mouths. I was having a bit of trouble getting the sweet, golf-ball-sized thing down in one go - and then they stuffed in another! I nearly died, I swear. All the men thought it was the funniest thing ever (at this point it shouldn’t come as a surprise to any reader when we discovered later that they were all drunk and high on bhang - pot).

They’d been taking turns singing when we got there, and now they demanded that it was our turn. I know a few songs by heart, but they’re all long and slow, and anyway I was damned if I was going to sing alone. I quickly racked my brains for something all three of us would know. We finally gave them a couple of minutes of Alouette, with Yannick taking the second part and Sheryl on backup vocals. It seemed to go over well. I don’t know what I’d have done if they’d wanted an encore, but luckily for me it was their turn again after that and we had a few rounds of quavery Rajasthani folk songs - rude ones, judging from the toothy grins and elbow-nudges Sheryl got. After that the group broke up. There was an exchange of Holi colours and then we were dragged to the house of one of the ringleaders, and out came the rum. I wanted to have a clear head for the day, and so Sheryl and I didn’t need Kuldeep’s warning to be cautious and took it well-watered. The offer of bhang was quietly raised and quietly declined, just before Kuldeep squashed the idea anyway. We still had to fight a desperate battle against having our glasses continually refilled, though. We hung around for awhile talking, Gunu getting increasingly bored and restless, and finally made our escape after half an hour or so. Nice guys, but they were a little messed up.

Gunu was happier after we left and the kids started coming out of the woodwork to follow us again. At times I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, leading a troupe of children down the street. Most of the day that was all we saw, the young kids. A couple of times we got caught up with crews of teenage guys. They were pretty aggressive, and I had the strong feeling that things would have gotten out of hand and they’d have liked to be rough, so I was happy that Kuldeep was along and that we could enjoy Holi instead of having an unpleasant experience.

Holi is mostly a morning festival, and so we were back at Kuldeep’s house by midday. I was wiped out. Yannick and I got stuck in the sitting room with a bunch of guys who spoke no English. I felt rude only talking with Yannick, but there’s only so much nodding and smiling I can do. Sheryl escaped to play with the kids and Pushpa. Finally everybody trooped off and we were free to go up to the roof and try to wash off the worst of the colour. This took awhile - I had colour in places I didn’t even know I had. The insides of our ears were crusted with layers of different colours. Our hands, our fingernails, and our teeth were stained. I breathed and swallowed more of that powder than I really like to think about. I’d been wearing a hat, but Sheryl’s hair and scalp were stained red and green. Soap and water could only do so much against the layers of colour, but we kept at it and were only faded pink and green after half an hour. Then Kuldeep called us down for another round of colour, and Pushpa - revealing a hitherto unsuspected devilish streak to equal her husband’s - threw water all over us from the roof. So it was back up to clean off again and throw colour on Pushpa. Kuldeep had been started off by her example and threw water everywhere, so our (only) clothes were soaked. We sat and shivered in the chilly wind on the roof while we waited for the sun to dry us. It felt so strange to be cold - the last time I felt cold was on top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, months ago.

Kuldeep hauled a big floor mat up to the roof and, exhausted, we all collapsed for a couple of hours. The whole time, my eyes were burning like fire, and painfully swollen. I’m not sure if it was the toxic colour powder, the harsh soap, or the strange skin rash I picked up in Kerala - possibly it was a hellish combination of all three. The burning pain warred with my tiredness, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. By the time the afternoon was dying into evening, the pain had settled down a little and the water streaming from my eyes had dried up.

Kuldeep suggested that we all go and see a Hindi movie that evening. It sounded like fun and Sheryl and I certainly had nothing better to do until the autorickshaws began to fill the streets again. Actually getting to the cinema was not straightforward. Normally, like most Indian families, Kuldeep, Pushpa, Pinky and Gunu would all pile onto Kuldeep’s little scooter (I’ve seen six people on one bike) but with five adults that wasn’t going to happen. We walked a kilometre to the bus stand, but ended up hitching a ride with a passing neighbour who owns a car. Gunu sat in the front seat with the neighbours and the other six of us crammed into the back seat - Sheryl on my lap, Pinky on Pushpa’s and Kuldeep on Yannick’s, the poor bastard. Another noisy kilometre or two walk from where we were dropped off, and we were at the cinema.

Feeling like we should do something to acknowledge everyone’s kindness, Sheryl and I foolishly offered to pay. 700 rupees is about CAD$17.50. At home you couldn’t get two tickets for that money, let alone seven, but it’s about double our usual daily spending here in India and way outside our budget. Ouch. It was the nicest cinema I’ve ever been in, though the security was onerous. Metal detectors, frisking and a bag-inspection, and they made us check our camera batteries before entry. Sheryl and I felt grotty and underdressed in our Holi-stained clothes and stained skins, especially in comparison to Yannick, Kuldeep and family, who had all been able to shower and change into clean clothes.

The movie itself was a dumb cops-and-robbers thing called Jai Veeru, which, given the day we’d had, was exactly the level of intellectual challenge we felt up to. Afterward, Pinky asked us sniffily if we’d understood the movie - we had to laugh and tell her that despite the lack of English dialogue, the comic-book plot had been quite clear, and even if we’d missed something, all the exploding stuff had been quite helpful in filling us in.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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