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Published: June 18th 2013
It was the festival of Holi, a dangerous time for anyone not wanting to be covered in red powder, or worse, red-dyed water. A large pole festooned with long coloured cloths hanging from three disc-shaped tiers had been set up outside the temple of Kumari, the pre-pubescent living goddess. To protect her from shedding any blood, a calamity that would have ended her stint as a living goddess, the molly-coddled little girl was only allowed out of her temple on special occasions, and this was not one of them.
But at least, on this occasion, she would be able to peep at the goings on in the outside world from her lattice window. A band dressed in what were once dark-blue uniforms was playing in a very dignified manner considering that each member was covered from head to toe in red powder. After the music stopped, the crowd dived into large bags of red powder, and battle commenced. Powder flew like storm blown dust. A week of merry warfare had begun.
That was the start. But the next day Frank had forgotten about the festival, and made his way to work on foot through the bazaar. A gang of small boys was standing on a corner, swinging water-filled balloons and bags of red powder, and though in theory they were not supposed to attack anyone who didn't wish to join combat, he was uncertain whether they respected office workers dressed in suits and ties. He eye-balled them in a seriously threatening manner, and wagged his finger, as if to say 'Don't you dare!', and they stared back assessing their options. It would have taken just one bold one to initiate mayhem, but he made it through unscathed.
He had promised to invite Sunita and her sisters to a meal at his place at the weekend, and they would need an audience to show their charms off to. He invited Hamish and a couple of Peace Corps friends, Dick and Simon, whom Frank knew could be counted on to respond enthusiastically to the seductively charming ways of Sunita and her sisters, to join them. This was an opportunity to pay off his social debts in a way that would delight all parties.
When the weekend arrived, he and his friends were keen to have some Holi fun before smartening themselves up for the encounter with the girls. Meeting up in the afternoon, dressed in their scruffiest clothes, they went down to the river Vishnumati with bags of scarlet powder, to engage in battle. They opened hostilities against each other, but soon their antics attracted a group of children who wanted to join in. The foreigners were outnumbered. The battle began tentatively at extreme range, with the result that much of the powder was dissipated harmlessly in the air. But soon the children were engaging them in close-quarter combat shoving red powder into their mouths and down their necks. They were forced to surrender. The adult spectators clapped them as heroes as they staggered away covered from head to foot in red powder. They had been vanquished, but with honour.
It was getting late, and they hurried off to their various flats to wash and change. Hira was busy cooking the meal when Frank arrived back, and expressed a mixture of horror and admiration at his dishevelled state. He had a long shower, and scrubbed vigorously with a loofah, but failed to eradicate the redness from his face and hands. The others arrived in the same state, and waited in his dimly lit room for the female contingent with trepidation.
“Thank God it's dark in here,” said Hamish.
The girls arrived as shyly and as colourfully as birds of paradise. Frank's friends were dumb-struck as they fluttered onto the mattress, arranging their saris as they settled. Sabitha and Yesha giggled helplessly, leaving Sunita to respond to the boys' valiant efforts to find a topic of conversation that would engage them. To break the ice, Frank told them about their Holi exploits earlier in the day. The sisters were impressed, and, with more embarrassed giggles, dutifully inspected their hands and faces for the evidence. In fact, the girls far outdid them in redness. Their saris, their rouged cheeks, their glossy lips, all glowed red in the darkness of his flat. Their own colouring was pale and wan in comparison.
Frank asked the girls if they would sing them a song, since he knew that this was something that came naturally to them, and would put them at their ease. They pretended to be taken aback by the request, and giggled that they were insufficiently competent to sing for them. But soon they were singing popular songs from the Hindi movies for all they were worth:
Oh, remember the first vow of love, sweetheart?
Remember the first step of love?
What is love’s name, from where does it start?
Who gave birth to it, where does it end?
Love is the name of desire, it starts from the eyes.
The heart gave birth to it, it ends with breath.
This is love.
This was a performance to impress, and when Yeshe's stomach rumbled Sabitha did not hide her annoyance. When they had exhausted their repertoire, they insisted that the men reciprocate, and they would not take 'no' for an answer. After an anguished discussion, they fell back on the one song they felt competent to sing: Bob Dylan's “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – a very poor gift in return for the girls' efforts.
Hira, who had been popping out of the kitchen to observe the goings-on, saved them from further embarrassment by serving their meal, and when they had finished eating the girls left, leaving them to reflect on the wonders that they had beheld. “You're a lucky man,” said Dick to Frank. “They're all gorgeous, but Sunita is the queen.” Simon and Hamish concurred with this assessment, which did wonders for Frank's self-esteem. It was pleasant being the object of such wide-spread envy.
He passed around glasses of whisky, and they were at last able to relax, and chatted inconsequentially and increasingly illogically as the whisky took hold. Dick began to rage against American society and its criminal involvement in Vietnam, punctuating his assertions with nervous bursts of laughter. He had hoped to escape from the evils of America by working in Nepal, but he had found the same kinds of evil going on at the school where he was teaching. “God! Those Newars are the pits. They're just so corrupt, and bloody-minded and petty and vindictive!” Frank put an end to his rant by reminding him that the girls, who had so entranced him an hour or so before, were Newars. Chastened, he blamed the whisky, said it was time to go, staggered to his feet and the other two followed him out to escort him home.
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