A most unusual thing turned up in my Facebook feed a few weeks ago. Instead of the typical pictures of friends smirking at the camera at some weekend revelry or another, I was inundated with post after post of entirely unrecognizable faces caked with colours. Although this was a welcome break from the usual photos of people getting drunk, getting married or both while on a beach in Krabi, it was clear that Holi celebrations were in full swing.
Back in India, Holi is a terrifying, inescapable experience. Even if you managed to avoid the initial attack from your family by claiming a sudden allergy to all things powdered or colourful, nothing and no one would spare you once you stepped onto the street. For those of you unfamiliar with Holi, it is the festival where you get touched by complete strangers with colour-laden hands. Even the animals are not spared: it is the only time when seeing an indigo-speckled mongrel dart past you, or a pink-and-green cow in the distance is not a sign of madness.
When you’re in Singapore, Holi takes on a strange new form. Instead of being an inescapable annual sufferance, it becomes a by-RSVP-only event, open only to the elite NRI club and their distinguished guests. Actually, that’s a bit of a misrepresentation – I don’t mean to say that celebrating Holi is in any way refined, even here in Singapore. However, it has been appropriated as the ‘cool’ Indian festival that allows us Indians to have our own version of Spring Break: all you need is wet T-shirts, daytime inebriation, and a handful of coloured powder. How else are we NRIs supposed to get ‘goras’ to think we’re hip and liberal?
The seventh of the Ten Commandments of Being an NRI is “Thou Shalt Photograph Yourself With Foreigners of Different Skin Hues to Prove Thy Worldiness.” Since we all have better things to do than go out and make friends that won’t watch Badlapur with us, Holi is the perfect opportunity to attract the fairer expats, get tagged in their photos, and get thanked publicly on Facebook for showing them how lovely and vibrant our culture is.
The benefits of these associations extend far beyond the end of Holi. Any picture in which you have a white person voluntarily posing with you makes your relatives back in India think that you have finally made it in life. Incidentally, this explains why most Indian weddings nowadays come with a ‘four gora-minimum’ to make the wedding photos look more multicultural than a Singapore HDB advertisement.
Of course, there are nearly as many Indian festivals as there are days in the year, so why is Holi the only foreigner-friendly option? Surely, at least one or two other major festivals should be interesting enough to share with our ‘gora’ friends.
Take Diwali for example. Diwali, the festival of lights, smoke, and psychotic indulgence in pyromania, is really a phenomenal festival back home. The all-night rockets and firecrackers create enough of racket to wake people from comas – which they probably slipped into after they asphyxiated on the absurd amount of smoke in the air. It’s a scientifically proven fact that the smoke in the air during Diwali is equivalent to chain smoking ten packs of cigarettes in under 10 minutes or experiencing a regular day in Beijing.
In Singapore, however, we get to experience a feeble, toned down version of Diwali. Since firecrackers and large ethnic congregations seem to be either illegal or widely frowned upon, the festival of lights in Singapore is reduced to three children with sparklers standing at East Coast Park, traffic jams in Little India, people getting diabetes from the sweets, and those terrible Diwali Bash Bollywood nights. Instead of being able to post of photo of yourself with your one arm around your blonde friend Jane and a sparkler in another, smiling and caked in colour like you would during Holi, the same ‘Kodak moment’ during Diwali would feature you offering Jane a glass of water and an epi-pen as she bites into a laddoo that may or may not set off her nut allergy. Not a glamorous photo for anyone involved.
Then, of course, there is Navratri as a whole, and its derivative festivals. In Calcutta, Durga Puja is the closest thing we Bengalis have to the Rio Carnival, with four straight days of merriment and dancing, just with more clothes on. Once again, we get a watered-down version in Singapore, with a solemn little tent in Little India that looks like it has been set aside for some kind of quarantine zone. Instead of Hazmat suits, the little tent is filled with sari-clad aunties and the sound of ‘talented’ singing from the stage microphone. The only exciting part of Durga Puja is on the tenth day when the idol has to be immersed in a large body of water marking the end of the festival. Not only is the event sad because we cannot use the festival to justify half day leave at work, but also because you just had to explain to your white friend why your entire community just committed a grievous crime against the environment.
For now, the only festival that we have that has exported well is Holi. It makes us look fun-loving, vibrant, and carefree – the exact opposite of what most of us are like during the work week – and it gives us the opportunity to step out of our usual surroundings to meet new people. Not that we should make a habit of it: having to explain all the idiosyncrasies of Indians to our newfound ‘gora’ best friends is exhausting. Same time next year, I guess!
- By Arpan Roy