I am standing on the third-floor balcony of my Indian friend Anupriya’s house, looking down on a relatively quiet neighborhood in Faridabad — a suburb of Delhi. Here and there old men are wandering up and down the road in a desultory fashion. Their clothes are wet and they are covered from head to toe with pink and yellow powder. Across the street, a dozen or so grown women are throwing buckets of colored water at one another.
Holi 2013 has begun.
I have moved to the rooftop and am now throwing water balloons at random people in the street. I am accompanied by a Frenchman named Thomas. Thomas is dressed completely in white and is wearing orange ski goggles.
I’m not familiar with Holi decorum and don’t know if throwing water balloons at strangers like this is normal.
I just hit a small child on the neighboring rooftop with a water balloon.
It feels like what we are doing is not normal.
The people we hit with water balloons react in various ways. Some smile, some dodge them, some look confused.
Each time I throw a balloon I feel the urge to hide.
Thomas cheers each time he hits his target and shouts ‘Happy Holi!’ He also sometimes shouts “Happy Halloween!” I’m not sure why.
Anupriya just found us on the roof. She called Thomas and me “over-excited foreigners.”
Anupriya just wiped pink powder over my face. I responded by dumping a little sack of green powder in her hair.
We’ve moved down into the streets. I am using the faucet behind a garden wall to fill up water balloons and then lobbing them blindly over the wall. Sometimes they hit cars, sometimes people.
Thomas is chasing down strangers and spraying them with his water gun.
There is currently a severe drought in Maharashtra.
Anupriya and her brother Deepanker are spraying each other and us with water guns, but they are not attacking strangers like Thomas and I are. They may actually want us to stop but are too polite to say anything.
We’ve hopped in a car and are zooming across town. Everyone in the streets is soaking wet and covered in powder.
I just threw a water balloon out the window at someone walking down the road.
I just threw a water balloon out the window at a group of men gathered around a motorcycle.
We’ve arrived at a park with 200 or so people in it — a neighborhood Holi celebration. Everyone is wet and covered with colored powder: men, women, boys, girls, babies, grandmothers, grandfathers — everyone. Most people have so much mixed liquid and color on them that they’ve become this uniform purplish color.
The entire crowd is dancing. Everyone seems joyous. There is a table on the side of the field distributing bhang lassis.
Note: Bhang is a specially prepared psychotropic mixture of leaves and buds from the female cannabis plant. It is widely consumed on Holi.
In an attempt to keep the stitched-up gash on the top of my head from being infected by the water flying everywhere, I am wearing a shower cap under my bandana. This makes me feel a little ridiculous.
I feel the need to explain to everyone why I’m wearing this shower cap as I don’t want them to think I’m some squeamish foreigner trying to keep his hair from getting wet.
I’m trying to imagine such a colorful and joyous celebration taking place in the United States. Possible, but not with this multi-generational element. Who can imagine drinking a bhang lassi with your grandmother and then dancing with her after you smear green powder all over her face?
I was just introduced to Anupriya’s grandfather. He greeted me “Happy Holi” and then wiped yellow powder across my forehead. When I did the same to him it felt like I had done something wrong. I wiped it in his hair and over his ear. A good deal of it fell down into the glass of whatever he was drinking.
Every time I wipe powder on someone I feel weird.
Thomas is running around squirting people with his water gun again. He is possibly the only person in Delhi wearing goggles. His white shirt and pants are now pink and soaking wet and clinging to his body.
Thomas just squirted a dog.
Anupriya just gave me a bhang lassi. I drank it in three gulps.
Someone walked up to me and shook my hand and handed me a Budweiser.
We’ve moved over to Anupriya’s cousin’s house near the park. The apparent decorum when visiting a relative’s home on Holi:
1) Greet everyone “Happy Holi.”
2) Gently wipe colored powder on them.
2) Wait for a lady to appear with a platter of sweets.
4) Take a sweet, smile, thank her.
3) Attack everyone.
Deepanker just smashed an egg against my chest. This inspired shouts of “Oh no! The eggs have begun!”
Driving around town. Every now and again a water balloon smashes over the windshield.
Lots of cows and stray dogs on the side of the road. A number of them have been hit with Holi powder.
Back at Anupriya’s house. The family-oriented part of Holi is now apparently over. I am drinking Captain Morgan and Coke and preparing for the Rang Festival, a Holi-themed electronic and trance music festival that began a few hours ago and goes until 11pm. Anupriya tells me that this festival is one way young, modern Indians in Delhi celebrate Holi nowadays. She says it’s something new, something that began only a few years ago, something emblematic of the rapid changes India is currently experiencing.
We are packed six people inside a tiny sedan and are flying across the Delhi highways at over 100 km/hour, swerving around cars. Deepanker is driving. He may be a little drunk. I am also slightly drunk and maybe feeling a mild buzz from the bhang lassi. I seem totally okay with Deepanker’s reckless driving, as though it somehow just fit the atmosphere. Cows are wandering along the side of the highway.
The girl sitting next to me says “Does nobody care about Deepanker’s crazy driving?”
Nobody answers her.
We just passed four grown men riding a single 125cc motorcycle.
Deepanker ran a red light.
Thomas: “Red lights aren’t really red lights in India, they’re more just like suggestions.”
Signs on the side of the highway read: “Lane Driving is Safe Driving.” Nobody is following this precept.
We just passed a wreck, a van that had crashed over and was tottering atop the two-foot median. Anupriya said that it was probably an accident caused by bhang. The other Indians nodded their heads in agreement.
Anupriya: “The only driving rule in India is to protect your own car.”
Me: “Do you have to pass a driving test to drive legally?”
Anupriya: “No. Most people just pay a bribe to get their license. That’s why the driving is so chaotic — nobody knows the traffic rules. People don’t know you’re supposed to keep to one lane or that you’re supposed to use an indicator, or that you’re supposed to pass on the right side.”
Me: “So no training? Anyone can just get behind the wheel?”
Anupriya: “Most people when they begin driving only know gas, brake, steering wheel. The rest they figure out on the road.”
Deepanker just got out of the car and forgot to set the parking brake. We rolled backwards almost back onto the highway.
We’ve arrived to the festival. It is taking place in the courtyard of some large hotel. The entrance consists of two tall, heavy metal gates that are occasionally creaked open to allow ten or so people through. A large crowd messily covered in paint has gathered around the gate, waiting to get in.
Every time the gate opens the crowd begins pushing, trying to get through while on the other side a group of men push back, pushing to get the gate closed again. This makes no sense. Why can’t they just form an orderly line? Why must it be so complicated? Why must everything involve pushing and shoving?
A Scottish man with a purple face just came up to me and told me that he is on Ketamine and then he walked away.
A Nordic-looking girl with blonde dreadlocks is going around putting tikas on people’s foreheads.
Most of this crowd is Indian and dressed as stylishly as a day like today can permit. All the Westerners are wearing rags and look like they’re on drugs.
We’ve finally squirmed through the gate.
Security involved two flimsy metal detectors that looked like they didn’t work. Mine beeped when I walked through but nobody cared. The only thing they checked me for were cigarettes.
Finally inside. There are a maybe two thousand people here but I cannot spot a single security guard. On stage are some famous European DJs. Deepanker keeps telling me their names but I keep forgetting them.
You can literally not walk anywhere without kicking a beer bottle. About five trash cans were set out for the entire festival. These began overflowing long ago and are now surrounded by aureoles of trash. People simply drop their empty beer bottles on the ground.
Everyone seems drunk or high, or drunk and high.
The bar consists of half parenthesis of tables surrounding some tubs filled with beer and various kinds of liquor.
Two Whiskey-Colas down the hatch.
Three Whiskey-Colas down the hatch.
I just bought a cookie filled with chunks of hash from one of the food stalls.
The crowd is basically bourgeois Indians age 17-35 with a smattering of foreigners. Everywhere water guns are being squirted randomly into the air. Clouds of powder flying. People dancing with themselves.
I just bought and ate a bhang kulfi.
I just bought and ate another bhang kulfi.
It feels the alcohol/bhang kulfi/hash cookie combination is beginning to work its magic.
I just bought and ate another bhang kulfi.
A group of eight or so huge, hulking men have taken their shirts off and are strutting around, bullying people. They are so massive and intimidating that nobody can really say anything to them.
The brutes keep going up to the bar and pushing around the bartenders, forcing them to give them drinks for free.
I bet you a hundred dollars these guys get into a fight by the end of the night.
A glass bottle just flew through the air and landed on the ground next to me.
The brutes are marching around, squirting people in the face with water guns.
A whole lot of people seem to be doing MDMA powder.
The police have arrived. “Watch,” some guy at the bar tells me. “The police come and threaten to shut things down, then someone pays them a bribe and they go away for awhile. Welcome to India.”
The police seem to have been bribed and have now left.
Someone appeared with a sack of purple food coloring and now everyone within a twenty-foot radius looks like an eggplant.
The bhang is beginning to put me in a headspace where nothing I do seems absurd. I’ve put on sunglasses to further anonymize myself. I am dancing in ways unfamiliar to my body.
The sunlight is falling over me like hot mango juice.
A lake of urine surrounds the port-o-potties.
I’ve discovered that there is another stage. It is enclosed with black fabric and filled with hashsmokers dancing to raggae. I went in, I came out.
As predicted, the brutes got into a fight and have been thrown out.
I just ran into the Scottish guy on Ketamine. He said something wild-eyed and incomprehensible and then ran off towards the front gate.
It is only 7:30 but the music has apparently stopped.
No way things are shutting down already…
How could they shut down a festival nearly four hours early? Why aren’t people angrier about this?
This thing really is shutting down… People are leaving… Anupriya says that this always happens, that Indian police always shut down drug-fueled parties like this at around sundown.
I have retired to the shadows to smoke with strangers.
I am sitting on the wet ground in front of the stage with Anupriya and her brother and his friends. Most of those around me are on MDMA and so are being very garrulous and touchy-feely. We sit in the darkness. Everyone is speaking English. I am the only foreigner.
I went to buy a bottle of water from the bar. The bartender was urinating into one of the beer tubs. When I asked him for water he turned around still peeing and stared without saying anything. His urine stream splattered a few feet in front of me.
We are the only ones left here.
Anupriya has volunteered to drive us home. Everyone in the car is silent, stupefied. We should still be at the festival. The festival should be going on for another few hours…
We just passed a woman riding sidesaddle on the back of a motorcycle, breastfeeding a baby.
We just passed an elephant walking along the highway.
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