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Published: March 26th 2008
It's Holi today. Holi is one of North India's most exuberant and playful festivals; Hindus celebrate the beginning of spring by throwing gulal
(coloured powder) and coloured water at anyone within range. This sounds fun, I think, and despite the doubtful looks of my fellow ashramites, I decide to throw on some old clothes and brave the mayhem. 'Put some oil on your hair and body before you go out', advises a concerned Yogi Vishvketu in this morning's yoga class, during which he falls in with the festival's joyful spirit by having us perform a whole lot of loud 'mieuws' during cat pose, whilst laughing uncontrollably. I dutifully borrow some coconut oil from Ram Ji, our long-haired and equally long-bearded, robed receptionist and slap a handful onto my hair. So far, so good. I go out with a vague plan to visit Rishikesh market (again, I earn bemused looks when I announce my plan), and the neighbourhood is quiet. A little girl delights in sprinkling some pink powder onto my head and shirt. Cute.
The streets are deserted. The only vehicles are motorbikes carrying sparkling young men covered in bright rainbow colours who yell 'Happy Holi' when they see me,
and lots of big 4-Wheel Drives. There are no rickshaws, most shops are closed, and generally there are very few people on the road. With no rickshaws in sight, I have to drop my plans to go to the market, and decide to walk down to Ram Jhula instead. Still, everything is pretty peaceful and I continue along my way in the morning sun. The couple who run Moksha restaurant drive by on a scooter, stop to wish me Happy Holi and colour me some more. All harmless fun, I think, what's the big fuss all about, and set foot into Ram Jhula.
On the long drawbridge that leads over the Ganga, things become a little more busy as many Indians stop me, gleefully rub my cheeks and hair with coloured powder, hug me and take my photograph. Once I am over the bridge, I buy some green powder from a salesman sitting on the road, and make the acquaintance of a bespectacled middle-aged Englishman. 'It's not too bad here', he comments as we sprinkle some colour on the salesman. 'It's supposedly really bad in Lakshman Jhula though', he continues and shakes his head. 'Oh, I'm going there now',
I say optimistically. He eyes me as though I had just told him that I will jump into the sewer. 'Well, good luck', he says, before a gang of young men get hold of both of us, colour us from top to bottom and chuck several litres of water over us. 'Happy Holi!' they cry, as I run up the hill towards the little country road that links Ram Jhula with Laksham Jhula. Here, it's reasonably quiet, too, although I have to dodge a few kids that launch water bombs from the rooftops, and a few guys on motorbikes stop to give me a bit more colour. A Sadhu who lives in one of the cottages amongst the trees approaches me and gives me a worried smile. 'That green colour is danger colour', he murmurs as he inspects me. 'In Laksham Jhula, boys are using black danger colour', he warns, and implies that I should not go there. Ah, it surely can't be that bad, I think, thank him for his advice and continue along my way.
When I do get to Lakshman Jhula and the water bombs start hailing from the rooftops, I begin to realize what he
means. Rowdy kids yell and chuck water and colour at everyone in sight. It gets better. Before I know it, a gang of about ten or fifteen screaming boys grab hold of me and rub something black into my face and hair for what seems ages. It is all happening very fast and it's actually quite scary. I try to break free by kicking and elbowing them, but I don't stand a chance. Eventually, they relent when two boys sitting on a cart tell them to leave me alone. I escape whilst cursing them, not quite sure what has happened to me. I am soon to find out, judging from the shocked looks of the people I pass. 'Oh my God', they mutter, 'what has happened to you?' 'You're black!'
'Can I take a photograph of you?', an Israeli girl asks. 'Sure', I say, and ask her if I can look at the photograph in her digital camera. When I do, I gasp. I am indeed black. And I mean BLACK. The little bastards have covered me completely in slimy machine oil. My face, my hair, my neck, my hands are completely black, as black as octopus ink. Great.
I now face a 20-minute walk back to the ashram. The reaction of the people oscillates between shock, amusement, bemusement and pity. Every second person wants to take a photo of me. Some actually think that I have chosen this transformation voluntarily. The walk seems twenty hours long. An old swami stops me and looks at me with sympathetic eyes, before sprinkling a generous amount of pink colour on my head and body. 'Thank you', I say, and mean it. He nods, 'Yes, you are so black, so I wanted to add some colour to you.' I want to hug him. When I pass a gang of children playing in the dust, one of them mutters in awe: 'Ma Kali'. Of course. That's exactly what I have been transformed into on this otherwise colourful day: Mother Kali, the Dark Goddess. Suddenly, I start laughing. 'Jeeha, Ma Kali', I turn to the kids and roll my eyes. I stop myself before I extend my tongue as well and send them screaming for their mothers.
When I reach the ashram, Ram-Ji looks at me from the safe distance of the office through his wise bespectacled eyes, forehead furrowed with concern. 'I told you!', he said and shakes his head. Sanjay, the yogi's cousin, sees me from a distance and collapses into a fit of giggles. The girl from Kazakhstan arrives with her boyfriend, both infuriatingly colourful with not a black dot in sight. They seem in awe of my new identity, and get me to pose like Ma Kali for photographs. Deepika arrives. 'Wow', she hisses, 'you truly are Ma Kali. Cool!' When I can't take the requests for photographs any longer, I escape to my room to behold the damage in the bright bathroom mirror. Not bad - there really isn't a white visible spot left on my upper body. Even my ears are black. I gingerly turn on the water and try to remove some of the stuff from my face. The sink turns black, however, my face doesn't turn white. I grab some cotton wool and make-up remover, and after about twenty minutes, there are some results. My face is dark grey, not black anymore. Another ten minutes and a huge roll of cotton wool later, I almost look normal again. However, my hair is still jet black (with pink dots on it), and it's lunch time. Yogi Vishvketu sees me, stops dead in his tracks and erupts into a fit of giggles. 'That colour will take three months to get out of your hair', Emmanuelle oracles, and I feel lots better. I might just have get used to having black hair - we're practising detachment here, right? And despite, it suits me.
After lunch, we play Holi outside of the ashram. It's mayhem. More colours, more water, more fun. A drummer appears, and he is so drunk that he has to stop every two minutes to remember what he is supposed to be playing. We dance in the midday sun and freeze mid-motion every time the drummer stops. Yogi Udei, who lounges on the rooftop, has the wonderful idea of getting all of us to assemble outside the ashram door for a group photograph - and chucks a bucket of cold water on us when we do so.
When none of us can fit any more colour onto our bodies, some of us decide to go for a dip in the Ganga. We jump in fully clothed (in North India, and in particular at the Ganga, bathing suits are a 'no-no', as feminine modesty needs to be closely guarded at all times - long gone are the times of the Kama Sutra) and the black colour runs from my hair onto my face, mixed with red. I look like I've been in a car crash. Martin starts laughing. 'Kali, pose for a photograph', he yells. He can laugh. He looks like Lord Shiva emerging from the Ganga.
Back at the ashram, I finally dare to have a shower. Chris, who is a car mechanic, advises me to wash my hair with washing-up liquid. Apparently, this will get the oil off. I have a bottle in my bathroom and try. One time, two times, three times. After the forth application of yellow washing-up liquid, I start to see some results. After about forty-five minutes, I look vaguely human again. All of the black colour has come out of my hair. I realize that Ram-Ji's coconut oil which I slapped into my hair before going out has saved my golden locks. Bless him. My Holi day as Ma Kali has come to a happy end.
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