Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Painted Blessings

There was a brief period when I was a teenager when I thought it would be nice to grow up and have a house that was neat, orderly, and decorated with white walls and furniture.  I can't imagine what possessed me to want that.  All I can think is that my body must have been changing too fast and my parents were separated and my new high school was ten times bigger than my grade school and I thought if everything was just simple and white and put together that I might feel the same way inside.

I grew up to have a house filled instead with chaos and color.  Color on the walls, more color in the many things hung in the Victorian style, which is to say everywhere, on top of the walls.  Multi-hued and many-patterned pieces of cloth drape the furniture and useless beautiful things of every shape and size pollute the shelves and table tops and rob them of their innate purpose which I've always supposed was to organize ones belongings and to keep the environs free of too much physical noise.

Imagine my excitement then when I was told that I would be in India for Holi, the Festival of Color and the official arrival of Spring.  I'd seen pictures of Holi before I came and wondered at the faces covered with bright purple, red, yellow, green paints.  After I arrived, when I told people how long I was staying, the first thing they would say was, "Oh, well, you will be here for Holi then."

Holi is a word that always carries a charge.  Indians and foreigners who've been to Holi always light up a bit when they describe the ritual mayhem of painting the whole of India and each other in every color under the springtime sun.  They also always look at my fair skin, my shapely bosoms and follow up their praise of Holi with a caution which essentially, though not in so many words, translates to, "Be Careful.  Men are going to want to 'touch' you."

Yesterday, Holi Eve, as tiny Santiniketan filled quickly with tourists from Calcutta, the color factor on the streets rose precipitously.  Everyone was dressed in their finest Saris and suits and paraded, as best they could amidst the throngs of bodies, through the campus and the village shops.  Gold jewelry and diamond nose rings glittered on the girls and the men looked dashing in their long flowey robes of saffron and white.

Wagons of paint powder appeared on every corner, some loose, some in small plastic bags.  Children were hawking necklaces of red flower blossoms to be worn in the hair.  Stalls selling food and drink shot up out of nowhere and had a full house of patrons in the blink of an eye.  Cars zoomed within inches of children, dogs and each other, honking as if honking could make a hundred humans and fifty cars magically disappear thus clearing the road so that the honker could have the safe and swift passage he, above all others, so obviously deserved.

I had an early bedtime, last night, in order to be bright and bushy tailed for the 6 a.m. departure to the university campus and my first Holi celebration.  Chandana, who was sitting out the early morning festivities, arranged for Minou and Jahor and Rocky to be my bodyguards so that no men could "touch" me.

Rocky was thrilled to have an excuse to miss her daily tutoring sessions, as if Holi wasn't excuse enough.  Minou was, I think, nervous to be in charge of me.  Jahor was, well, something...I can never tell what Jahor is thinking.  I, myself, was a wee bit scared, but mostly of putting on my sari and making it out of the house in time.

When I awoke the sun wasn't up yet and the wind was blowing.  In the night a rainless storm had whipped things up and a large chunk of a tree had landed on the other side of the house from where I sleep bringing the electrical lines down with it.  We were without power and water.  Jahor was already in fix-it mode; he would be lost to me and my security detail.  Minou and Rocky and I, therefore, set about dolling ourselves up.  I should say, that Minou and Rocky set about dolling me up, wrapping and pleating my sari, putting kohl on my eyes, getting my hair just so.  Jahor even took a break from his duties to watch, obviously impressed, or was he amused, at my complete transformation from westerner to West Bengaler.

Chandana came to inspect me, then the house, and then set about calling the electric company while simultaneously prodding us girls to get a move on so that we could get a good seat for whatever lay ahead.  I didn't really understand where we were going and why Chandana wasn't joining till later.

Eventually Minou and Rocky and I set off and discovered that at 6:15 in the morning hundreds of people  in saffron were already streaming in front of us towards the campus.  Rocky took my hand firmly in hers or wrapped her arm through mine depending on how strongly she felt I needed to be minded.  Minou kept hold of me more lightly; sometimes I would feel her gently grasping a fold in my sari, or I would notice a finger tucked into the waist of my skirt.  If things got too crowded too quickly both women would take hold of an arm and try to navigate me through the multitude, often at cross purposes and I would have to gently but firmly tug one of them back, or simply make some noise to let them know that, as amazing as I am, I cannot actually go in two directions at once.

We thread ourselves through the small gate onto the grounds of the university and headed to a large field where a stage was newly set along with a series of fences that prevented most of the spectators from getting anywhere near the main stage.

As we walked, Rocky, arm linked in mine, kept asking and saying and asking again, "You nervous?  You nervous?  I think you nervous.  Why you nervous?  You nervous?"

When I could get a word in edgewise, I admitted that I was a little nervous, but not extremely.  She was not convinced and would start up again, "You nervous.  I know.  Why you nervous?"

We didn't even try to get close to the center action but stood, instead, about ten rows back from the edge of a bamboo fence to the far far far right of the stage.  People were sitting on the ground in front of us; the plan was that eventually we would sit after Minou's sister and brother-in-law found us.  I tried to teach the Indian gals my Seattle dance-floor technique for saving space for a friend who has gone to the bathroom.  But my wide stance was deemed inelegant and we tried to hold our ground firmly but demurely by simply standing.  I was dubious that this technique would work.

Sure enough, after half an hour or so, an old woman with a small grandson pushed her way through the crowds and in front of us and plopped down at our feet, sending my security detail into a tizzy.  Harsh words were exchanged.  The old woman refused to budge.  I was told by Minou and Rocky to sit so that more room wouldn't be lost and so that my legs wouldn't cramp up .  It was already getting to be too tight a squeeze.  A second woman soon muscled her way in and sat to my right in front of Minou and Rocky.  More shouts were exchanged.  This time I was angry and in very clear English, I told the new arrival that she was very very rude.  The interloper pretended not to understand, but I think she did.  Still, she did not move.

The crowd waited some more.  Eventually I had to stand, my poor legs were just not getting the circulation room they needed.  Soon music began to pour out of the loudspeakers surrounding the area and just in front of us and to the right, in the paddocks, a stream of children, dressed in red and gold, started to walk at first towards us then, turning, streamed passed us in profile towards the large center area now well beyond sight, congested as the grounds had become with people.

Before the dancers turned, just as they appeared, I was assaulted with hands and angry voices from spectators behind me and to the left who had decided that I, above all others who were standing, needed to sit in order for the view to be clear.  Considering everyone to my right and behind was standing (and Indian), I thought it was incredibly strange and prejudicial that I was singled out.  That's when I really understood that at 5' 5" I, who am short in America, am almost Amazonian in India.  I knelt long enough for the dancers to clear the turn and thus become visible to all those poor souls who could not see for the first 45 seconds of the show due to my enormous size.

For what seemed like an hour, variously clad school groups danced past us, some clanking sticks in rhythm as is the Tagorian tradition.  Just when I thought I was going to have to push may way out of the pressing crowd to get some space,  the seated folks in front started getting up and we all began moving into the center of the field together.  I sensed the colors might be on their way, but my handlers weren't communicating very well.  In retrospect, I think Minou's stress level was rising; once the color started up, she was going to have to be on her guard.

At first I was seeing no color, people were just generally milling about.  Off in the distant center stage another round of dancing had started up.  Rocky told me to secure my camera away in the plastic bag I'd brought for color protection, giving me a clue that paint was imminent.  I switched my camera for bags of paint that had been waiting patiently in the, now, camera sack, and handed a color pouch to each of my protectoresses, keeping the bright green for myself.

Within minutes I began seeing people with smudges of paint, just a few people and a little paint.  I didn't know what to do, how this thing worked.  I knew I was supposed to only offer color to women, to be on the safe side.  But who was supposed to make the first move?

Minou and Rocky were holding onto me, pulling me again towards some unbeknownst destination; eventually we ran into women they knew.  Here, at last, was Minou's sister and a friend, or daughter, or cousin...?

While we introduced ourselves a woman suddenly appeared at my side and said, "Happy Holi."  She then proceeded to gently stroke my cheeks with her paint powder filled hands.  I had finally been anointed with the color of spring, well one of them.  I can't remember which color came first, but soon I would be good and covered with pink, green, pale blue, dark blue, purple, orange and red powdered paint.  I, in turn, would then say, "Happy Holi," and bless my blessers with my own chartreuse Holi dust.

At first it was just women that came up to me, but once I'd announced, by virtue of my multi-colored head and face, that I was game, men started to approach and ask if they, too, could add to the pallet that was me.  Sometimes 10 or 12 men would appear all at once and Minou would turn lioness and pull me clear, but there was really no need.  Everyone who sought me out kept to the proper painting zone which seemed to be anywhere from the clavicle up.

Since the powder was flying I kept my camera hidden away, but the same could not be said of other folks; I was a favorite photographic subject.  I wasn't too surprised for, in a sea of beautiful brown subjects, I was one of only four white ones that I saw all day.

I began to feel a little bit like a sacred cow who is kept around just for the good karma of feeding it, as more and more people went out of their way to come up to me and to add to the growing pile of color stuck to my hair and face.  I don't know if it was simply a novelty to touch a white woman, especially if it was a man doing the touching, or if they actually thought it would be good luck, but I felt like it brought people a particular flavor of joy to put their own seal on my Springtime facade.

I do know that it felt auspicious to me, to be dolloped with color from so many strangers, some of whom also took the time to introduce themselves and to ask where I was from, was this my first Holi, was I having fun.  The strokes of their hands on my face were, for the most part, so careful and loving or so genuinely playful that I never considered being nervous or frightened, especially because as they painted my face or head they were always saying, "Happy Holi" which became a sort of prayer left in the touch and in the color, a prayer and a blessing, one that I returned in kind, if the bestower had not painted and dashed onto the next lucky soul.

Around nine, my security detail, which had grown with the addition of a few class friends of Rocky, shepherded me back towards home.  To get there, we had to pass, again, through the gates of the University.  In order to manage the crowds, someone in their infinite wisdom decided not to open the large gates that block the service road, but instead to funnel thousands of souls through a gap in the fence that is only one person wide.  As we approached the brief passageway, Minou and Rocky had hold of me, one from the front, the other from the back.  Minou made a start through the gate, pulling me, at the same moment a man was pulling his wife in the same direction, and several other people, too, tried to get out while even more tried to get in.  For a minute or so we were all stuck, like a human log jam.  I was pressed against a fence, Minou's arm pressed even harder behind mine into the wall and I thought, "I might actually be crushed here while all these crazy people insist on being in one square foot of earth at the exact same time."

Minou gave up and let go of me and pushed through, the man pulled his wife and I had a split second to try and clear the gate.  Just as I entered the stone walled entry/exit an older woman tried to shove me out of the way in order to come into the grounds.

"Are you nuts," I thought, "there are a hundred people moving in my direction.  You are a salmon swimming upstream!"

Ok, I actually panicked a little, too.  There was no way I was being bullied back into the human traffic jam, so I forced my ample hip out and fought my way to freedom using my Amazonian size to hip-check the crazy old lady.  The woman screamed after me, "Idiot!" as I happily embraced life on the outside of the campus walls.

My security detail.  Minou is leaning on the wall, Rocky is sitting out in front.
When we got home, the electric company was fixing up the house and breakfast was served and Chandana got ready for her foray into Holi.  Around ten, I set off  again into the color zone with my Santiniketan hostess.  She finally explained that the morning show is something everyone should see once, which is why she sent me, but that the locals always wait and go to the university around 9 or 10 when the tourists all think Holi is over.  While the Calcuttans stream out into the town, the Santiniketanites sashay inside where small groups break out into the various schools, music, art, etc., and dance freely, spontaneously, joyously without the pressure of performing for the outside world.  As Chandana and I explored the various schools, more paint was added to my color soaked skin, pictures were snapped, conversations started.

Chandana had not read my blog from last night where I wondered aloud what it would be like to be in a crowd of thousands of suddenly uninhibited Indians who don't allow themselves to frolic the other 364 days of the year.  She said to me as we walked past citizens of all ages, sizes, shapes and religious backgrounds, "It's amazing, isn't it, to see all these people letting lose when they aren't allowed to at any other time?"

Sometimes I think Chandanda and I are sharing the same mind.

Taking the long way home, Chandana and I decided to stop and see and paint everyone I know in Santiniketan.  First there was Dr. Ganguly, then my land-lady from the old house, and finally, we went to see Chompa and Bishar who I hadn't visited since I'd moved out two weeks ago.  I was greeted by Chompa loudly, as you might expect, and with hugs and color.  She enquired after my care taking and told me that she'd been dreaming of me and saying goodbye over and over in her sleep.  Once again I wished I could understand this woman who continues to bless me with her love.

Bishar opened his bag of paint and, smiling broadly, set about making sure that any spots on my head and neck that might have been neglected were now fully saturated and well attended to, Holi-speaking.

Before we left, Chandana made plans to have the family for tea.

At some point in the day it occurred to me that Spring was also arriving back in the states.  I'd actually not put two and two together before that, while the year plowed on in these parts, the seasons were doing their changing of the guard back home as well.  So, egocentric, I know.

"How fun would it be", I thought, "to go around from house to house, from state to state, visiting my friends and family back home and sprinkling them with the colors of Spring, being kissed with color from their loving hands and hearts?"

Tonight the full moon will dip closer to the planet than it has been in 15 years, giving us all an extra dose of lunacy.  Chandana and Jeanne and I will sit on the roof, drink rum and cokes, watch the magical moon sail overhead and leave the mayhem to the streets around us.  It is not without a tinge of sadness that I will keep my distance from the revelers, but I think that my life is so full of color on an average day that I have no need to over-dose on it tonight.  I will, instead, take all the paint strokes of the day, plant them in my soul,  and let the moon-rays nurture a fresh crop of color and love to keep the coming year blooming with joy.

I will, as well, send those seeds home to all of you that I love and miss who are so far away tonight, and to those wonderful few who are reading that I don't yet know.  I wish for you all an early and lasting Spring and dreams of purple, red, yellow, blue, orange and so much more to color your days and nights for years to come.

Mid-morning paint break. 


Tina Rowley said...

Aaaaaaa! Beautiful!

And do you look there like the you-i-est you you could possibly be, or what?! Drenched in color and experience like that!

Amazing. Glorious tale.

auntiemao said...

Marvelous! Happy Spring!....xo

Amy said...

that picture of you is the most... i can't find the right word.

it's just you
the REAL you the BIG you
hopefully you sort of understand what i am trying to say :D