After winter eases and spring comes, excitement builds in North India. The excitement becomes especially palpable after Shivratri, the celebration to honor Lord Shiva during the month of Phalgun (Februrary-March). I noticed the change in mood when I first lived in India as an undergraduate student. People were happy, expectant, and more than a little mischievous. One day after Shivratri I was ambushed while riding my bike to Banaras Hindu University. Kids jumped out from an alleyway and riddled me with liquid fire from squirt guns--the guns weren’t filled with water, they were loaded with paint. Soon my long white kurta was streaked red, blue, and green. When I arrived home to my Hindu family, my elder brother Ajay laughed and said I’d have to wear the kurta for the next couple weeks. As time went on, the neighborhood kids escalated their operational tempo by making stamps out of potatoes and marking my kurta with strange symbols: “420” and the word “chor” written in Devanagri. I soon found out that “420” was a section in the Indian penal code for fraud—that also explained the word “chor,” meaning “thief” in Hindi. As my younger brother Sanjay commented, I had become a “walking cartoon.” But I was getting ready—it was almost time to play “Holi.”
The Hindu festival Holi begins this year on March 19. It celebrates many things: the coming of spring, the play (lila) of Lord Krishna with the gopis and his beloved Radha , and the triumph of Prahlada over the evil Holika. But at its essence, Holi is the “feast of love.”
On the eve of Holi a bonfire was constructed in our neighborhood. Pita-ji, the father of my Hindu family, sat me down and explained what was about to transpire. “Tomorrow, normal rules do not apply,” Pita-ji explained, “you can even swear at me-- do whatever you want.” It was difficult for me to take this permission seriously, even though I had already experienced some rambunctious Holi play. But after the bonfire was lit, I ran round it, shouting the choicest forms of insult in Hindi and Bhojpuri. I was told that we were getting out all the frustrations of the preceding year—about that there can be no doubt, but propriety now prevents me from recording some of the phrases that were repeated that night.
In the morning, I was awoken by the sound of drums from the main road. My brothers and I began our preparations with appropriate foresight. We spread coconut oil on ourselves and I put on several layers of clothes. Immediately when we went out of the house, I was smeared in oil-based silver paint—those neighborhood kids again. But the coconut oil would mean that the paint wouldn’t stick to my skin. At the intersection, groups of men were dancing to Bollywood film music broadcast by a loudspeaker safely set away from the fray. When some of them saw me, I was tackled and lost several layers of clothes in the ensuing skirmish. But that was all part of the fun—and I gave as good as I got. My brothers and I wandered through the streets—embracing everyone we met in colorful hugs to the shout “it’s Holi.”
As much as Pita-ji had encouraged me to treat him in a playfully disrespectful way, I found I couldn’t go that far. But Sanjay and I did try to dump a bucket of paint on him from the roof—we missed. The Holi play ended at noon. After my brothers and I found our way home, we got our soap and towels and went down the Ganges to bathe. That evening, we visited our acquaintances throughout Banaras. We ate sweets, embraced our friends, and touched our foreheads to our elders’ feet as a sign of esteem. The ribald revelry of the morning had given way to the affectionate respect of the evening.
What happens during Holi stays there. It would be poor form, and bad luck, to hold onto resentments—after all, Holi is about letting go of anger and beginning the year anew. During the morning of Holi, social boundaries had been broken down. During the evening, those same boundaries were reformed through acts of reciprocal love. The play of Holi varies throughout North India—in some places it is quite wild, in others it is more restrained. But its message about the transcendent power of love remains. As I found the year I first played Holi, the bright colors obliterate visible differences of race, ethnicity, and status. And it is by looking beyond those superficial distinctions that we can see the deeper reality revealed in the human heart.