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Strangers #11 & #12 - Prabhjot and Zubair, Holi Party, Stage 88

But I see your true colors

Shining through

I see your true colors

And that's why I love you

So don't be afraid to let them show

Your true colors

True colors are beautiful

Like a rainbow

True Colors, Cyndi Lauper

The day is going to be hot.  Clear skies, hot sun with no breeze. I set off early to the Holi Party at Stage 88 to find colour and movement, joy and music.  Festivals and feast days bring us together and the Indian community of Canberra is inviting everyone to put on a white t-shirt and sunnies, grab a bag of colour and come and join their party.

Celebrating feasts and festivals is something humans have done since Palaeolithic times, but it took off once humans settled down to farm and live less mobile lives.  In Hello, Stranger Will Buckingham describes feasts and festivals as a way of binding humans, increasing solidarity and providing a way of managing what it means to live in larger groups.  Feasts and festivals invite strangers to the table with offerings of food, in the case of the Ancient Greeks, bread, skewered meat, wine, black puddings, cheese and seafood.

At the Holi Party at Stage 88 there are offerings of different curries, chai, samosas and pizza, with a tandoori topping.  At the gate I am greeted by a young man in a fluoro vest sitting behind a trestle table with white t-shirts, bags of coloured powder and wads of tear-off wrist bands.  I show him my ticket.  He is a little flustered.  ‘Am I too early?’ I ask.  

‘It is not that, it is me, not you.  I don’t know what to do’.  He goes on, ‘I will get someone who does’.  He ducks behind the tent wall to return with another young man in fluoro vest.  Both dressed smartly under their safety gear.  The second man, who looks like he really does know what he is doing, is welcoming me too.  As he talks he tears off a wrist band, with VIP stamped on it, and puts it on my wrist.  Another is torn off with Thandi stamped on it.  ‘This will give you a free drink.’ He explains.

As the admin is over, I have also been given a t-shirt and package of hot pink powder. The first young man, who introduces himself as Prabhjot, tells me he is  a poet, doing paid work as a public servant. He asks why I am attending.  I tell him about my project to talk to strangers.  Music sounding like a European pop version of Bollywood music invades the air.  We raise our voices.  Prabhjot tells me about his website and his poetry.  We exchange information about where you can read poetry to an audience.  Prabhjot tells me a trick to reading and pronouncing South Indian names, ‘There are no silent letters, say all the sounds.’  Good advice and gives me an insight into how to read names.  He tells me about the city he comes from outside Delhi that was designed by a Frenchman so it feels European, but Delhi is his second home.  Zubair tells us both, the two men have only just met, that his family comes from Pakistan but he spent most of his life in Malaysia where his family moved for work.  He now studies in Canberra.  They both tell me to enjoy my day, this is a big joyous day.

Holi or Dol Dratra is celebrated, with different names around India.  The India diaspora has taken this festival to most of the continents of the world.  It celebrates the end of winter, the divine love between Radha and Krishna and good over evil.  People who celebrate Holi also take it as an opportunity to reset and renew relationships that have been fractured, or to rid themselves of emotional impurities, Image: Wikipedia to set the clock again.

There is also a religious side to the festival.  Holi takes place over two days.  At the end of the first night there are bonfires to celebrate and remember how Prahdala refused to worship his father, Hiranyakashipu, a mortal who believed he was a god.  Prahdala worshipped Vishnu.  His father attempted to kill all who dissented, even his son. Hiranyakashipu was made to feel invincible as he was told by a god who gave him gifts, that he could not be killed by anyone by day or night or by any weapons in any building. (Just like Macbeth.) In one of the attempts on Prahdala’s life by the evil father, he was saved by Hiranyakashipu’s sister Holika.  She had told her brother she could not be killed by fire, as a ruse, thinking he would then never try to burn her.  In a trick gone wrong she ends up being burnt to death but saving Prahdala at the same time. This was the act that made the god Vishnu mad.  He appears to Hiranyakashipu as a Narasimha, half man, half lion.  He takes him to a dwelling threshold (not inside or outside) at dusk (not day or night) and kills him with his claws (not a weapon).  The bonfires celebrate good over evil and the women who saved the dissenter.

As I wander the stalls of food and items for sale; white t-shirts, water pistols, packages of colour, more people enter to chase each other around armed with the colour.  I am told by one of the stall holders white t-shirts are not compulsory but they do show the colour to best effect.  I am offered chai and a samosa, one of the best I have ever had.  The woman behind the trestle table tells me it is her mother’s recipe.  The music is pumped up another notch.

But not everyone thinks feasting and celebration are a good thing for humanity.  Socrates tells us in Republic that it is only those who are under the spell of erotic love that fall for such excess.  He thinks those preoccupied with feasting have lost their way.  They are destined to wander without finding the true pleasures of intellectual virtues.  The pleasure they gain from the festival is only masking their hunger, or desire.  In a correspondence with Glaucon Socrates cites what makes an acceptable feast; bread, olives, cheese, boiled roots and vegetables, followed by figs, beans and chickpeas.  Glaucon replies insisting this is food for pigs.  Socrates, in reply tells Glaucon that feasting to excess gives, poor health, moral decline, warfare and strife.

The Epicurean philosophers who lived outside the city of Athens in a community called The Garden argued that pleasure was not a bad thing in itself but it does invite trouble and we, as humans, are not very good at controlling what comes with the pleasures.  (More practice needed?) At the entrance to The Garden a sign read, ‘Here, Guest, will you be well entertained; here pleasure is the highest good.’  Epicurus himself was a man of frugality.  He likes a glass of wine with a piece of cheese with friends in a nice setting to lubricate talk of philosophy.  His followers and strangers who become guests got a reputation for all sorts of excess.

The MC at Holi is imploring the crowd to stop hugging the edge of the outside venue, and the shade, to move forward to watch the entertainment.  Two girls (Years 4 and 8) dressed in matching outfits, yellow t-shirts, pants and white long cotton shirt over the top, dance two numbers to more traditional sounding Bollywood music.  Their routine has elements of traditional Bollywood dance and more modern, twerking. Their moves encourage some jigging from the audience who have been drawn from the cover of trees with flying foxes hanging upside down.  The marsupial bats are not a fan of Indian MC Hammer.  They too are jiggling around, flapping to keep cool, squawking, competing with the music.  The MC interviews the girls encouraging them to say ‘Happy Holi’ in their native tongue, from ‘God’s own country, Kerala’.  They tell the audience they have only been in Australia for 18 months and their parents want them to stay connected to Indian culture, dancing is a way of doing that.

A man with an orange long cotton t-shirt is hovering in the shade.  Sanskrit writing in columns adorns the shirt.  I admire it.  He tells me what the writing means, the Om sign in Hindi, and the name of a god, Vishnu.  He tells me about the Trinity of Hindu Gods, Bramha (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).  He tells me orange is the colour of Hinduism, that is why it is on the Indian flag along with white for peace, green for the environment and a wheel to signify the many parts of India.  He asks me why I am there. He listens as I tell him, interested.  He replies with ‘We need to talk to strangers, all sorts of strangers, especially now.  We will know each other better, understand each other’s culture.’  This man has travelled from Sydney for this event, he, his wife and ‘business associates’ run the curry stall at festivals.  They have done New Years in Parramatta, Diwali and other community events.  It is a side line from his business as a mortgage broker.  They do it as a family, his daughter helps out.  

The biggest tent in the area is the Commonwealth Bank tent.  A young man encourages me to play the games they have prizes for, ‘We have great prizes!’ Before I play I have to sign a form.  I think it may be a data collection idea by the bank but no it is a waiver to say that I understand the risks of playing these games and they can not be held responsible.  The form wanted my name but no other information I could be contacted on.  I am not sure if the games warranted such a form as the first involved picking up a juggling ball rolled in colour and throwing it at a target three meters away.  The second, which I am still trying to wash off my hand, involved finding a gold coin in a jar of plastic coins all submerged in green water.  The colour from the powder is hard to get off.  I managed to hit the target but failed to find the gold coin in the allocated 30 seconds.  I was rewarded with a pair of yellow bank-branded sunnies and a calico bag also with the bank logo.  

The DJ has ramped up the music another notch and groups of people are dancing while covering themselves in colour.  Kids are chasing each other with one group intimidating another with the water pistols filled with coloured water.  The white t-shirts are now covered in colour.  The adults like to cover each other's faces with colour, some of them looking like Bennetton ads.  They get up close to do this.  I prefer the water pistol method.  

Setting a tone for the interaction with strangers is all important.  If we see this as any sort of obligation or duty it does not feel as welcoming.  Immanuel Kant thought of any entertaining as a duty.  Will Buckinham tells us Kant expressed it is ‘the right of a stranger not to be treated in a hostile manner by another upon his arrival…’ but for Kant it is not about a shared enjoyment but a duty devoid of any pleasure.  The only satisfaction being derived is by the knowledge the host is offering ‘authentic moral worth’.  Not much joy there.  

The Hindu Holi Festival organisers have not read any Kant.  The joy on the faces of the volunteers helping out, the food stall holders, the Commonwealth Bank volunteer, and the attendees is palpable.  I am not sure I understand the joy about covering each other in pink dust, but I am sure the Hindus in the audience feel the same way about Christmas.   I have not had the anticipation they have.  Holi is a celebration looked forward to each year.  They are very good hosts.  No duty here; welcoming, engaging, curious and genuine.  

This party is going on into the night but I have to take my leave.  On the way out I have another chat with Prabhjot and Zubair who are still welcoming people into the event.  Each new attendee gets the same attention and smiles.  Each is told about what to expect and encouraged to have a good time.  It is joyful.  I am thanked for attending, for coming to find out what Holi is about.  No duty here, the hosts want everyone to have a good time.


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