Holi is India’s answer to Carnival, if you can imagine Carnival including a nation-wide water- and colored-powder-fight. It’s bright and obnoxious and loud and fun: a hue and cry.
The “Festival of Colors” harkens Spring. It occurs on Phalgun Purnima, or the full moon at the end of the last winter month. In some parts of India (not mine; I lived in a pretty boring part of India, festival-wise) it’s preceded by fifteen days of worship and revelry, including a huge bonfire the night before.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, takes part. In the morning, you put on white clothes and go to the temple; the adventure is getting home. You spend the rest of the day drinking bhang (if I have to tell you what that is, you don’t need to know), throwing bright colored powder and water balloons and soaking family, friends and total strangers alike with water guns full of colored water.
On Holi, traditional behavior and boundaries break down. Class and caste are forgotten. Employees gang up on their bosses, students throw water balloons at teachers, kids waylay grandparents. Although technically a Hindu festival, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs flood the streets as well. If you’re out of the house—old, young, rich, poor—you’re fair game. Reluctant people are often pulled out of the door and mercilessly soaked by friends. You are going to party whether you like it or not!
On this day, India is ruled by Krishna, the mischievous lover. Social rules and reserve are washed away in a raucous flood of procreative play. Holi is a boisterous and beautiful sexual thrill, an ancient wet T-shirt festival. For little kids, clueless to connotations, it’s just play. For teenagers, half innocent and half knowing, it’s a day of permissiveness and unleashed energy. For adults, it’s a day of freedom, a chance to relax the tension of propriety and embrace the primal. Wives and husbands flirt like young lovers. People chase each other, catch each other, smear each other with color, soak each other with Spring. The thin cotton clothes of men and women alike become plastered to bodies painted sky blue and sea green and saffron and that crimson that looks redder and richer and brighter in India than anywhere else in the world. The country goes mad with color.
Gangs of kids and young men, faces smeared red, bodies painted like warriors, will roam around, defend a territory from other gangs, ambush strangers and roar with laughter. It does get violent in the city, and unsafe for women. Spring fertility rites and modern Indian cities are a dangerous combination. The heady and the horrific keep close company.
When I was little, Holi was a neighborhood thing, wild and exciting but pretty safe. It got rougher as I got older, so we used to go to a friend’s village up the mountains to celebrate. Adults and kids alike would chase each other around the huts and small houses, tear through the forest, powder clutched in one hand, squirt gun in the other, whooping and shrieking with dismay or triumph or both. Everybody got crazy, everybody had fun. It makes me smile to remember.
This is the one time of year that I ache for India. Festivals who were popular in their native land can get lonely when they live abroad. We make Hindu holidays our own, here on a Minnesota farm: celebrate Diwali by filling the house with the scent of chai and the light of candles; Shivaratri with reflection and conversation. But trying to celebrate Spring Rites in a Midwestern February…well, there are limits. The white clothes of Winter remain pristine, untouched. Only the sky, too distant to tint the snow, shines with color…but it is a blue brighter and cooler and sharper than any other sky over any other place on earth.
To know more than one place is to be stretched thin, ever longing for the home you’re not in. I keep having flings and then falling in love with other geography. Just when I think I’m settled and safe, I’m pulled out my door by the rough and colorful friends I’ve made of other places.
I’m staying in today, remembering old loves and feeling happily married. Urban and I will cook Indian food: Panir (famers cheese) with peas and mushrooms, peppers with cilantro and lemon, rajma (kidney beans in a tomato gravy) saffron rice; and listen to music: Nine Inch Nails, Modest Mouse, Pink, Santigold. Maybe even some MIA and Indian fusion, who knows? We’ll laugh and trip over the dogs and tease each other and argue about what to listen to and chase each other around the kitchen. We’ll make the day our own. We’ll color it, sweet and deep, and it will be like no other time or place on this earth.