The most noticeable thing while seeing in India is the color. Whether you look at the buildings, the shops, the trucks, the items for sale, the clothes, or the food, everything is ridiculously colorful. Even nature seems to provide subtle hues that entrance the eyes. There are not proper words to describe them all.
The buildings are brilliant pinks, yellows and blues. They are all different colors, some vibrant, some faded and running down into stairs that end in blue, opaque river. There is nothing like the stark contrast of trees and mountains, green and looming above, to the pink and maroon, yellow and white rectangles washing into deep cerulean, thrashing water.
Interspersed amongst them are stalls of men selling different wares. Some are piled up on carts. Therein lies green and red vegetables and fruits, deep wooden boxes, toys, glass bottles of lemon juice, and popcorn. Bright colors entrance the eyes from shops with clothing hanging in every shade around the door and inside, so that when you pass by, you are assaulted with a range of pattern and color that confuses the mind.
In a few of the carts, often pushed to one side, are salesmen with little bags of colored powder. Bright, vibrant colors, which are rich and deep. And on one day a year, when everything else is closed, those carts become full of pink, green, blue, red, and purple little bags, while the sides of shops (made of tarp and sticks) line up squirt guns, water balloons, and compression water guns for sale.
On this day, people drive by on mopeds, in cars, and on foot. For small amounts of money, they buy a piece of India.
And the majority of them have turned color already. Suddenly, there are green people. Pink people. Hair becomes purple and blue and people carry on as though they have not just become the most out-standing people of color anywhere, ever.
There are three main ways people become this way, three general uses of these powders, which, when you look closer, have more variety than it first seems. The first is the dry powder, which you can throw on people, and which is easier to remove. The first day I emerged from my treatment and the holiday had begun, one of the women who is usually at the desk was sitting as normal in her perfectly composed sari. Today it was green, with gold lining, and I always envied her ability to look so poised all the time. She sat behind the computer, shoulders strait and completely focused, only her face was bright green.
The rest of the staff was equally covered in the powder, and in the center of the floor, someone had drawn a flower with the excess powder that had apparently been sacrificed in battle.
The next day, I woke early to screaming, laughing children. I finally realized that they were playing Holi. This was a slightly wetter process. The second type of powder you combine with water, and it makes deep, opaque colors that go into buckets or water guns, and are mercilessly tossed on motor bikes, squirted at cars, and splashed all over people and the outsides of homes.
As we drove, I saw everybody playing. Courtyards, fronts of homes, and streets were covered in vibrant colors. Children and adults alike were generally multicolored, though occasionally I enjoyed just one or two hair colorings, which looked clown like and amusing on upright, classically dressed and respectable Indian men riding motorbikes. Even the cows had colors on their snouts and between their eyes.
When we got there, we mainly used the third kind of color. This kind we dumped into our hands as powder, added a bit of water to, and rubbed together to make a sticky paste, which we promptly rubbed all over someone. A favorite seemed to be to hold someone tightly and rub the hands all over their face so that the whole thing became a bright, distinct color.
Before I exited the car, I pushed pre-made gold paste out of a tube and onto my hands in an effort to protect myself. It was good thinking. As soon as we had pulled through the rural area, where the homes seemed much older and a cow lounged outside the brick stall of the bathroom, the children reached for the door handle on my side, leaning forward to see through the windshield. I had the feeling they were equally excited for all of us, but I was thankful he had the forethought to lock the doors.
When I emerged, I was happy for the thick gold on my hands. Anytime anyone came near me, I put them in front of me, ready to attack, and the person ran away. Quickly, however, powder and colored water were thrown, and then a bucket was dumped, and I was drenched. And blue.
It was a lot of fun. We chased each other. We slapped at arms and faces. Someone would catch one person and hold them as everybody covered them with color. One girl had it out for me, pushing color all over my face, then promptly running away. But I got her back. She dumped buckets on me. I dumped them on her. She was restrained for me, and I wiped color all over her, and she came up behind me and got my whole face at once.
A woman lounged on a couch near the door and watched, laughing and enjoying, and some of the neighbors peered over the wall to watch, laughing along as well. One of the young men would regularly rub color all over my face, but would always say ‘Maam, Happy Holi,’ first. It was endearing. And it seemed that you had to say ‘Happy Holi’ whenever you got someone particularly badly.
At the end I was mostly blue and purple, with some green thrown in and red sprinkled on me. As we ran out of color, people started dumping buckets of water on each other, which continued in the spirit of playing Holi, but also helped clean us. The girl who had picked me out dragged me to a mirror to see my reflection. Then, in a small brick and concrete rectangle, the one we had been running in and out of for water, several of us gathered around the water pump and washed.
It felt helpful. Someone would pump the water and hands would go under, washing faces and arms and fingers. Soap was passed around. People would crouch in front of the gush and a few of the kids would brush color out of their hair and off their backs and necks, helping remove it. The girl who got me kept splashing water on my face because I was still tinged pink.
When we got on the car, completely soaked, we saw many others driving back tinged yellow and green, or pink and purple and blue like me. As I walked back to my room, a woman washed the floor and walls of the yellow house across the street. It took me four washes to get my hair clean. Despite my scrubbing, my face looked slightly sunburned, and the skin around my nails was pinky purple. I didn’t care.
The day was colorful, not just because of the bags of powder, but because it was like India. It had been explained to me that there were only two things in this diverse country that really united the people: cricket and the festivals. That day, everyone was a friend. Food was brought, offered, served to all (offered but denied by me, unfortunately, due to my restricted diet). People laughed and played with each other, even with strangers. Nobody cared about the mess in the house or the car. Nobody seemed to care when they were drenched by a water gun firing from a rooftop vantage point. People danced and played on rooftops and streets and courtyards and they all became a million colors at once.
And while each combination, each painting on each person, was unique and beautiful or dirty or hilarious, they all came from a few colors, bought on one of those little carts. They had been melded and applied differently, but no matter how each person celebrated, they all picked the same powders from the market, and played the same game.
That day, everybody, no matter what, was more colorful than your eyes could believe. And more representative of the country where color always assaults and caresses the senses.