Posted March 13, 2012 by in Adventures in Backpackistan!

Holi Moly! Do or Dye!

Suresh Mehta screamed as his tiny feet pounded over hot sand, sprinting across the beach to the protection of his older sister. I thundered after him with my fist raised, eyes twinkling with vengeance, my entire body splattered with purple and yellow dye.

It was like Bollywood Braveheart. I screamed like Mel Gibson.

Suresh looked back in desperation as I closed in on him, flailing my arm in a pitch. A burst of neon green dust erupted from my hand. Suresh scrunched his eyes and giggled as my gulal powder struck his cheek with a soft poof, and his orange and purple-smeared face disappeared behind a vibrant cloud of lime.

SMASH! I recoiled as a water balloon exploded across my back, drenching me in bubblegum-pink dye. Suresh’s sister roared with laughter. Before I could retaliate, I was struck again, as Suresh reached up with fistfuls of gulal, streaking tiny, ruby handprints across my face. I laughed as he scampered off again, before the chase resumed.

I didn’t know either of these children, which on any other day of the year would be sufficient cause to call the cops, or at least Chris Hanson. But this was Holi—India’s manic, technicolored festival of Vishnu and the coming of spring, when the subcontinent transforms into a delirious battlefield of projectile colors. It’s a day when conservative India lets down its turban and parties in the streets; social castes become equal, taboos are lifted, and cops turn a blind eye as the nation drowns itself in thandai (a potent, milky drink made with almonds, saffron, fennel seeds, cardamom, rose petals, and lots of bhang—cannabis).

In the north, around Mathura, the holiday cheer even manifests itself in Lath Maar Holi—where all the women in town get together to sing songs, before taking to the streets, chasing down all the men and beating the crap out of them with sticks. The origins of this custom, like all things Indian, is aggressively confusing to Westerners—so I’m not even going to try to touch it. Perhaps it’s all the bhang, or just India’s penchant for domestic violence, I don’t know. If it offers any further insight, when these same Mathurans run out of colored powders, they have been known to happily weaponize mud, drain water, and cow shit.

I timed my flight from Rangoon to Mumbai so that my arrival would coincide with Holi. The plane was packed with Burmese and Indians, as well as the predictable handful of nerdy white guys with dreadlocks, wearing goofy robes, meaningless prayer beads, tilaks on their foreheads, and the occasional Anime backpack. It was blatant that this was their first time to India, judging from the solemnity with which they ‘Namaste’d’ the flight attendants, and the exuberance with which they chattered about ‘Eastern Thought’—exuberance which could have only manifested after years of lighting incense and listening to Enya in their parents’ basements.

They had come to see a very specific India; to see women in saris and mustachioed men in turbans playing the sitar—a nation entrenched in its ancient customs and profound religious devotion. They had come to see a day when the traditions of old India come alive, and the culture reverberates in a haze of color and spirituality. And then somehow, through some hodgepodge of religiousness and mysticism, they had come to find themselves, which you can only do after traveling thousands of miles across the globe.

“Go to Juhu,” exclaimed Terence, nodding his skinny, Indian face, framed by greasy, ‘70s rock-star hair. “Go to Juhu or Goregaon, and you’ll find the best Holi in all of Mumbai.” I had casually asked him for tips when he sat next to me in the cyber-café, and this is what he told me—after going into great detail about his hometown near Chennai, then a ham-fisted sales pitch for a guided tour of the Dharavi slums, then producing a massive picture of his entire extended family which he happened to be carrying in his backpack, and pointing out each family member by name. “I’m a fucking legend,” he added at one point, in his melodic Indian accent.

So when the morning of Holi arrived, I heeded Terence’s advice, and, along with a troupe of backpackers from the Salvation Army Hostel, took a train out to Juhu Beach…

When trying to describe my first Holi, the phrase ‘baptism by fire,’ immediately comes to mind. We stepped out of the train station, and fell face first into a whimsical warzone of colors; it was the battle of Normandy, as depicted by Dr. Seuss. I saw an old woman standing on a cinderblock, screaming like Rambo as she mowed down her grandkids with green dye fired from a Super-Soaker. Nearby, two drunken friends covered in red and blue gulal laughed and wrestled over a large bucket of water, before one of them hoisted it over the other’s head, and his colors bled together into an emasculating purple-pink. At that same time, a smiling old man, splattered with silver powder that sparkled in the sun, lit the fuse of a long chain of firecrackers and lobbed them into a crowd of jumping and screaming kids, where they popped and exploded in bursts of vibrant, colored smoke.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were the only white foreigners in sight, and that we stood out like sore thumbs. As we ambled our way down the beach, people stopped and stared, their painted faces gawking in amused confusion. It was as if toddlers had wandered into the strip club. We smiled weakly.

Then came a voice. “HAPPY HOLI!” And a water balloon came whizzing out of the sky. It smashed into one of the German girls, Hannah, showering everyone around her in Prussian blue dye.

Then came another balloon, which Jeff, an American, miraculously caught, before whipping it right back at the cackling kids.

And so the battle began…

Within an hour or so, we became minor celebrities on Juhu Beach. And while our white skin made us a novelty—garnering many “Happy Holis” and friendly smears of gulal—it also made us big, glaring targets. Hours passed as we laughed and screamed, ducking and dodging while the air thickened with plumes of emerald and indigo powder, all set to the soundtrack of crashing waves and the giddy rhythms of Bollywood, thundering from blown-out boomboxes on samosa and bhajia stalls. Around lunchtime, we stopped to sit down and rest, which attracted such an enormous crowd that the police had to step in and break up the party. We were then whisked off to a music festival, where electronic DJs pounded Indian-styled basslines for the dancing, multicolored revelers. And when the cops broke up that party, everyone stumbled back to the beach, where the afternoon vanished in a rainbow onslaught of flying gulal and water balloons—a fuzzy haze of colors, screams, hugs from strangers, thandai, and cheap, cheap whiskey…

When I returned to the hostel that night, I noticed one of the white guys from my flight. He was sitting alone at a table, deep in thought, still wearing his goofy robe and prayer beads. He was smeared from head to toe in colored powders, and he stared at me with two tiny, red slits for eyes, which were bloodshot and puffed shut from too much thandai. Clearly his quest for self-discovery could wait a day.

And probably for the better.

If I’ve learned anything from India, it’s that coming here to find something specific—perhaps to find the India of your imagination, or even ‘yourself’—is a hopelessly futile pursuit. India is a land of a million shifting facets, a place that always finds a way of betraying your every expectation, usually for the better. Sure, you might find old women in saris, but they’ll likely be maniacally laughing as they gun down strangers with a Super Soaker. And you may find a mustachioed man playing sitar, but it might just be layered over a banging dubstep track. And perhaps you’ll wake up one morning in Jaipur, and discover that you finally know exactly who you are. And when this day comes, and all the wonder and mystery of life is stripped bare, I pity you…

I imagine you’ll find yourself very bored.


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