Looking For Holi and Haveli

Tell the boys back home
I’m doing just fine,
I left my troubles and woe.
So sing about me,
For I can't come home,
I’ve many more miles to go!


So don't cry for me
Because I’m going away,
And I'll be back some lucky day.
—Tom Waits


The state of Kerala is distinguished from the rest of India by its small size, its muggy jungles and backwaters stretched along the feet of the Western Ghats; by its independent history and colorful culture, its matriarchal traditions, its kathakali story dances and kalarippayat martial arts, its traditional customs and devout Catholicism; its language, Malayalam, a relative of Tamil and as distinct from northern Hindi as is Russian; and by its freely elected communist government, the world’s only, which gives it India’s highest literacy rates, standard of living, and suicide count.

Amma, the Hugging Mother, who lived at her massive pink ashram in the middle of the austere Keralan Backwaters where she grew up, who sometimes spent twenty hours hugging thousands of people, and who since her charitable activity after the 2004 tsunami has been a global celebrity; that Amma tried to deal with the problem. She went to rural areas, where farmers in droves bent their plows into razor blades, hung their harnesses from the barn rafters, and ended with a final revolution all the proletariat’s labor and toil, and there Amma offered to pay for the higher education of thousands of these farmers’ children, and why?

The problem was not a lack of education—the communists provided all that—but a lack of jobs. For many of these socialist wretches, there was no work! What company would build their factories where minimum wages were highest? Kerala may be egalitarian, but the rest of India is far from it.

The Keralans, intent on the state-sponsored misery they call communism, refuse also the delights of the Holi Festival, that great equalizer of North India. In the streets of Jaipur and Udaipur, in the maidans of Delhi and Bombay, in the alleys of TK, where Krishna was born, and in parks and neighborhoods all across Gujarat and Rajasthan—there men and women, old and young, bureaucrats and businessmen, journalists and the voiceless poor all smear and throw handfuls of colored dye at one another, until they and all their shirts and sarees, however expensive, are covered in purple, pink, teal, red, and orange. They hurl colored water in buckets, shoot it out of supersoakers and water guns. They smile up slowly to clean-faced spectators and rub a great indigo streak down each cheek and say, “Happy Holi.”

In Fort Kochin, all was quiet. The fishmongers just past the lashed-together Chinese fishing nets on the northern esplanade, the antique vendors in Jew Town, the warehouse workers and merchants along the wharfs of Mattancherry, and the tuk-tuk drivers and trinket peddlers all over town opened their businesses and shouted at passer-bys, just as they normally did. Kochin, like much of the deprived state, thrived on tourism. Today was no different.

Lola and I had come down from the Niligri Hills to Kochin for Holi, only to hear, “No Holi here,” from everyone at the train station. We cursed the Bible, as the Lonely Planet clearly said Holi was celebrated everyone in India—but apparently not in the Tamil zones, you sods! You inflate that book with so much smug wit and advice for spendthrift tourists that it’s the size of a brick, and you can’t get anything right! Half the recommended restaurants are closed down, and none of the recommended hotels are good deals. Travelers in hostels can’t give the things away. They tear out the few pages they need and leave the paltering tome where it belongs—in a garbage fire! No book burning was ever more just than that.

Anyway, a few people told us that the young Kochinese would celebrate Holi when it started the next day, and that a small Gujarati community lived there who held a Holi Festival every year, so we checked into the Sapphire Tourist House in Ernakalum, the cheaper neighborhood across Lake Vembanad from rich and peninsular Fort Kochin, and began an investigation. This first day of inquisition ended, as so many inquisitions should, with fish and prawns in Fort Kochin, followed by two bottles of Old Cask rum, shared between a New Yorker named Fate, a girl from Texas and London named Leslie, a Manhattoe named Rebecca, who was already very tight, and Lola and myself.

I ate breakfast the next morning at Hotel New Colombo, where I ate all my breakfasts over the six days I spent there. I had an egg sandwich with pineapple, orange juice, and coffee, and felt horrible. We expected some Holi festival that day, so I bought a white T-shirt that said “Party Like A Rock Star” from a peddler on the Ernakalum boardwalk and Lola got a white dress with black polka dots to be decorated by all the thrown paint. We spent a long time looking around Ernakalum for some festival and heard nothing but rumors.

The next day we followed one of these rumors across the lake to Mattancherry and asked around for the Gujaratis. The enclave of that northern state lived around a huge Jain Temple they had constructed there. In a nearby Shiva shrine, a good looking northern girl, a daughter of the Brahmin Pujaree, told us to find the Haveli Temple (although I later learned that this only means courtyard), and that Holi would be held there tomorrow.

Now, this was the first of March, when Holi is generally held, but as it was not a holiday in Kerala no faithfully combative Gujurati could get that day off. However, the gods work in mysterious ways! The following day all the drivers of buses, trucks, and tuk-tuks had conspired to strike on account of a raise in gas prices to 50 rupees or $1.10 a liter, for which they blamed the government. That’s what you get for trying to control the market, communists!—some people think you really do. With all the buses parked, businesses would not be able to staff themselves, and so the second of March was a holiday all across Kerala, and the Gujuratis would take advantage of that in their celebrations.

We asked all around the neighborhood for this Haveli Temple and failed to find it, or any solid information about Holi. Everyone had a different thing to say, a different place, time, day, and often just a remark that, “No Holi here, only north India.” In front of a sealed blue door we saw five Canadians pantomiming a throwing gesture, familiar to us who had used it many times, and they had also no luck. In abject failure, we took a tuk-tuk up to Fort Kochin for lunch, a vegetable thali at a cheap local place, and then walked back down to Jew Town and to the Dutch Palace, full of murals from the Ramayana and relics of the Kochin royal family, and to the Synagogue, where Lola was surprised at having to take off her shoes.

How did the Jews come to be in Kochin? Well, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, when the Canaanites disintegrated all over that Empire and beyond its borders, a small detachment came by boat to the shores of Kerala. The local pagan chief, who was bare-chested as well as all the Keralan women, welcomed those robed and bearded Jews and gave them their own little kingdom on the eastern shore of Lake Vembanad, where today stands Ernakalum.

There they lived happily for some centuries, but—alas, the cursed luck of the Chosen People! A fleet of Moors and Portuguese discovered the little Promised Land and sacked it. The last King swam across Lake Vembanad with his wife across his shoulders, and that Hebrew Aeneas established Jew Town on the peninsula of Kochin. Recently, most of the Kochin Jews moved back to Israel and settled into a town outside [Ber Sheva], depriving Kerala of much of its color so that Israel may have a little more, though 48 still live there.

The next day appeared to me our last chance for Holi, and we were desperate. I asked all around for the Haveli Temple and, failing this, for Krishna Temple, and received shrugged shoulders and contradictory answers, people pointing in every direction and speaking of a Palace Street and the Jain temple, and finally sat down on a curbside and looked like to cry. Walking down the road, we saw the blue doors from the day before, only today they were open: “This is it!” I declared. We entered, ecstatically asking, “Holi? Holi?” of everyone we met in the temple grounds, who said it began at 11, though the little old Hindu said, “This is Hindu temple, no Hindu, out, out!” and shooed us with his hand. Even this treatment could not diminish our spirits!

We had bought packets of dye—Lola a lot of small ones in different colors, and myself two large bags, one purple and the other orange—and bought some squirt guns at a store around the corner from Haveli and tested them with a bucket of water set out there. After breakfast and tea, and earlier than the appointed hour but too anxious to wait any longer, we took up our weapons and went back into the temple.

Through the blue doors, a stone corridor led under the blocks of houses and shops surrounding the Haveli Temple and into the grounds of the shrine: a wide courtyard of dirt, with a low and simple building at the center. Off to the right there were washing stations and shady trees, and to the left it opened out into a wider area with a colonnade along the wall.

At first the priest shouted at us and said, “Only Hindus!” so we went out and shot at each other in the street until they let us in. The festival was not to start until 11:30, but children were already arriving an hour before then and we started unloading our dye powder on them. One got hold of my squirt cannon and filled it with mixtures of dye that he sprayed thickly over everyone. More and more people entered the courtyard in clean shirts and pants and joined the festive fray of running, screaming, strangely colored men, women, and kids.

The Canadians arrived and smeared yellow dye down the arm of a Western photographer with a white beard. “You’re not Hindus! You can’t do that!” cried the venerable tourist, and he left immediately. Indian journalists stuck around, almost cradling their cameras and always ready to turn and protect them with their bodies in case some overzealous kid ran up with a squirt gun or a handful of powder, not respecting the sanctity of expensive electronics.

Mothers watched their kids from the colonnade, and young men grabbed one another as a mob and dumped buckets of colored water on the victim, and Lola went off to buy more bags of dye. The temple served idli and rose milk and ice cream, and the fighting continued. This went on for a few hours until everyone looked tye-dyed.

At the end the high priest gathered all his messy congregation within the temple for a final blessing. After some song or mantra, he splashed buckets of water across them, and another priest sprayed them with a supersoaker. Everyone cheered. When the whole laity was soaked, the priest threw out a bucket of pink dye that erupted into a cloud and doused everyone, and then he threw out more buckets. Pink mist steamed out the open doors, and shell-shocked men and women and children emerged from it, eyes wide and mystified, their faces and their whole bodies covered in pink.

“Can you imagine this happening in a Western church?” asked one of the Canadians. “This is crazy.”

I watched the final rite from the back of the temple and maintained the diversity of my shirt and pants, which I later mailed home as trophies. Out in the courtyard, I watched the Hindus emerge, looking shell-shocked and dazed. One of them offered my betel leaf, a minor narcotic, as Lola and I sat on the colonnade and I chewed it and spit out yellow. Soon all the Hindus gathered up and walked or rode in tuk-tuks down to the Kochin Beach to wash off the mess in the sea. I observed this ritual, and then Lola and I went back to Ernakalum, to try and scrub off the paint.

"Oh, it will be on for two weeks," said the Hindus, apolagetically.

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