Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holy Holi!

The rainbow motorcycle gangs sped through Delhi's streets with a strange mixture of tough guy malice in their eyes and bright Easter egg pigmentation on their faces.

There were three, sometimes four, to a motorcycle, packed too tightly against each other, each of them looking for victims with a fierce devotion understandable in a 14-year-old trickster on Halloween, but downright puzzling in these 25-year-old Indian professionals covered in bright colors.

This was Holi, India's festival of colors, a day on which millions of people purchase packets of bright chemical powders and industrial strength dyes, which they then proceed to toss, rub, smear and shoot onto their friends, family, and, most importantly, complete strangers.

The significance of the holiday is still something of a mystery to me, even after diligent Wikipedia study. As best I can tell, a demon king was made immortal by some other make-believe deity, grew arrogant, declared war on heaven and earth, and demanded that all worship no other god but him. The nerve.

The demon king's son defied his father and continued to pray to Vishnu. Dad tried to kill his son. Several times. He kept failing. There may have been some magic involved in his son's odds-defying escapes. So demon dad ordered his boy to sit in a pyre on the lap of his sister Holika, who had a magic shawl that could not be burned. The fire started. The shawl jumped providentially from Holika's shoulders to her brother's. He survived, she burned to death. Holika's death by fire is celebrated as Holi.

What? I know.

Generally, we found there to be two sorts of Holi practitioners. Members of the first group were kind and friendly. They would approach, smiling, their white teeth the only unblemished part of a face that was a maroon-pink smear. Tipping their head as a means of asking permission, this Holi celebrator would then gently rub a colorful powder on my forehead, ask me to do the same, and then embrace me while saying "Happy Holi."

And then there were the rainbow warriors, who seemed to view the holiday as an excuse to indulge in vacant machismo, an invitation to throw anything and everything at anyone and everyone.

We encountered our cruelest example of such a dope when, already splotched with pink and green, Aliyah and I were in a bicycle rickshaw on our way to lunch. Our colorful faces and clothes had drawn honks and smiles from many passing cars, and one family in a sedan had even slowed to throw a water balloon at us (it landed unbroken in my lap, so Aliyah threw it back at them). All was in good fun.

And then we rounded a corner, only to see a beat-up gold car coming at us too fast, and head-on. There was only one person in the car, and as he pulled even with us, he leaned out his window, narrowed his eyes, snarled like an angry dog, and threw an egg at us as hard as he could.

"Yuck," Aliyah said.

"I hope we don't get salmonella," I said, picking bits of gooey eggshell off each of us.

Even our rickshaw driver felt bad for us, and recognized the violent hurling of a hard projectile full of colorless (and possibly-diseased) goo as antithetical to the spirit of the holiday. He handed me an oily rag to clean with.

But in the end, the friendly smearers certainly outnumbered the rainbow motorcycle gangs and egg-chucking thugs. After all, violence is no way to celebrate a holiday that commemorates with festive colors the burning of an innocent woman.

You can check out the photos here.


DrScaryBeard said...

Damn, just a week too early.

Leslie said...

Well, at least green and pink become you.

amybeth said...

Oh, how the strangest things make me miss India....