Holi

The mad warriors of Holi 2013. Ellisbridge, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They pounced on me like vultures swooping on fresh carrion.

On the night before Holi, my aunt and her two daughters-in-law gathered silver matlas filled with water, and a thali with popped dhana and a few coins. The sun had already set and we walked in the darkness to what was – surprisingly, in the urban density of Ahmedabad – an empty field next door where an adolescent-sized bonfire about eight feet high licked towards the sky. People were already gathered around the fire and my relatives exchanged subdued greetings with them. What was just neglected urban pasture a few hours earlier was now holy ground, a place where good was beating back evil.

The story goes that Hiranyakashipu, the great king of demons, was granted a boon by Brahma that he could not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal; neither by astra nor by shastra.” (I’m not sure exactly why a God would grant such a power to a demon king but perhaps it was all part of the let’s-all-get-along movement among the divine and the damned at the time.) Anyhow, Hiranyakashipu began to think a little highly of himself, as one  might since even death did not now have power over him, and demanded that he be worshipped as a God. But his son Prahlad refused. He was a devotee of Vishnu. So Hiranyakashipu  ordered that his son to be put to death by fire. Prahlad would be held on a pyre in the lap of his sister, Holika, who herself had a boon that fire could not harm her.

Instead, because of his devotion Prahlad was saved while his sister burned. Thus, the beginning of the “Holika dahan” that takes place each Holi eve. Small effigies are placed in the bonfire to represent the siblings, one made of highly flammable material while the other is fire-resistant. This was a darker side to a holiday I knew only as a light-hearted frolic when we would throw colored powder and water at each other.

The colors come the day after, on Dhuleti, and mimic the frolics Krishna had with milkmaids, known as gopis. Today, people go from house to house, color-bombing and throwing buckets of water on friends and family. We had set out for another cousin’s house yesterday only to find when we got there that he had run away! So, sporting our shades of hot pink, purple, green and yellow, we zipped along Ahmedabad’s unusually quiet streets for a food stall and enjoyed vada pav.

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Living amid history in Patan

Peacock brass door handle

Peacock brass door handle

Patan, in northern Gujarat, has been described as a “living museum” and I agree. Walking through the pols’ narrow lanes gave me a sense of the life in Gujarat my Dad describes when he was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. The small-town feel came in no small part because of P.S., a now retired doctor who had worked with my dad at a Mehsana hospital in the 1960s. Patan is her hometown; she spends half the year there and she’s an enthusiastic tour guide.

The architecture in this small city is notable. Many of the homes still bear the carved wooden facades and brackets that were common features in Gujarat until concrete began to replace them. Thankfully, modernity has largely eluded Patan’s neighborhood havelis. Its out-of-the-way location and relative obscurity mean the city is definitely on the less-traveled Gujarat tourism path.

We wandered around its pols, a shortened Sanskrit word for community or neighborhood, stopping along the way for the doctor to chat with friends and neighbors – in some cases, more than one generation – she’s known her entire life. Apart from the main artery in and out of town, Patan’s streets are quiet – save for the occasional bovine that always commands the right-of-way in India – and encourage leisurely strolling.

my scarf

my scarf

Patan’s most famous export is its Patola saris, once weaved for Solanki emperors 800 years ago. Weavers use a technique called double ikkat that results in the exact same design on both sides and can be worn either way. P.S. took me to see her friends Satish and Parish Salvi, who belong to one of only three families left who weave Patola. In their upstairs studio the two brothers showed me how they create this unique Gujarati art.

It’s a complicated dance between fingers and threads where a single weft thread binds it all together.  The threads themselves are painstakingly dyed according to a preset pattern and knots are used to distinguish between each color during the consecutive dying processes. Saris take more than five months to make and can cost as much as $11,000.

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India’s new royalty of business tycoons are now the patrons of Patola’s finest weaves. But they must be prepared to wait. If you place an order with the Salvis today, they will deliver it four years from now. That’s their waiting list, and they said they recently turned down a lucrative contract to make wedding saris for a prominent industrialist’s daughter.

The saris could become harder to get. Neither of the brothers have sons to carry on the tradition and they are both divorced. The scion of another weaver family, Rahul Salvi, had given up his architecture career to return to the family business but found that taking up weaving made him less desirable on the matrimonial market. “Educated girls seem to find it below their dignity to marry a weaver,” the then 32-year-old was quoted as saying. “They want me to settle in a city and find a ‘decent’ job.”

Surya’s temple at Modhera

An hour’s drive north of Ahmedabad’s hustle, amidst agricultural fields, lies the elaborately carved Surya temple at Modhera. Built by a Solanki emperor in 1026, the temple was designed so that the first rays of the sun fell on the image of Surya, the Sun God, at the equinox. Solankis were considered to be descendants of the Sun God, and at the time of the temple’s construction Modhera was part of a thriving Hindu empire based out of Patan, a town to its north.

‘Tales of Tears’

Saturday night I went to see a play called “Tales of Tears,” staged by a local group called “Apna Adda.” The story is about a man who is on trial for raping Muslim women during the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad. His daughter, a lawyer, is convinced it’s a case of mistaken identity and much of the play is set in the courtroom as she cross-examines state witnesses, Muslim victims, who attest crimes they say her father has committed.

tale

I won’t tell you how it ends. If you are in Ahmedabad and they have another performance, you should definitely see it. The cast performed Saturday to a packed house. Tickets were oversold. When the lights came up at the end, several people were sniffling and/or had tears in their eyes.

After the show, we had a Q-and-A with the cast, a remarkably candid discussion on the riots and why we should or should not still be discussing them. It very much felt like a reconciliation panel; the comments were sometimes raw and emotional but honest. One man got up to ask what good does essentially picking open a healed wound do? His opinion was the minority and I appreciated his willingness to, one, show up to the performance and, two, to step up and start a conversation that might be perceived as hostile by a majority of those assembled.

His comments prompted several responses along the lines of “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” – an opinion I largely agree with. Also, it seems to me that the city and its residents must come to terms with what happened in some way. Indian justice will move slowly. Perhaps very few of the victims will see their tormenters pay for their actions. But how can a city merely brush aside – whether it be in the name of progress or “moving on” or what – the idea that their neighbors, friends, even family members are capable of such terrible violence? Many of the perpetrators were not say, hardened criminals or conventional psychopaths. Yet there was something psychopathic about what these people were able to do to fellow human beings.

In the decade since, Ahmedabad has moved on by increasingly compartmentalizing itself along religious lines. Muslims live in Muslim areas and Hindus in their own for the most part. I tagged along with my cousins to see some new apartment buildings constructed to meet the high demand for middle-class housing in the city. The new neighborhoods were being constructed along communal lines; Urdu and Arabic names on the buildings meant for Muslims; Hindi or Gujarati names for those meant for Hindus. It’s not the fault of the developer. They are only providing their customers the product that they want to buy. But I found it disheartening to see.

So it was interesting to hear from the actors in this play. Most of them are in their early 20s and prior to joining the cast their memories of the riots in 2002 consisted of “5 days holiday from school and no ice cream” being available with shops closed. One of the student actresses said that just before taking on the role in which she plays a Muslim riot victim, she  decided against taking one rickshaw home one night “just because the driver was Muslim.” That was her perspective of Muslims: other is not to be trusted.

Her participation in the play, she said, helped her realize the prejudices she didn’t even know she harbored.

Among the audience, a British-Indian woman, who said she had moved back to Ahmedabad with her family a year ago, said she was shocked at the fixation of people on caste and the general derision of “other.” She said her neighbors had strongly discouraged her from hiring a maid who happened to be Muslim and that her children were constantly being asked – even by schoolmates – what their caste was. In Britain, she said, questions on castes are not raised. “They don’t even know,” she said.

(I was introduced to Apna Adda by Zahir Janmohamed, an Indian-American by way of Africa, who happened to be in Ahmedabad during the riots. He’s now living and writing part of the year in Ahmedabad, working on his book on his experiences then and the conversations he’s having with Hindus and Muslims about that event today. I read one of his columns in The Times of India and he was kind enough to respond to my Twitter message. Follow his work!)

The swastika

Many of the pictures that I’ve posted on my travels to India include an image that might have surprised some of you.

Symbols

Symbols

This photo is of the place where Mahatma Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. The house is now a museum/shrine and my father and I visited it in Gandhi’s hometown of Porbandar last month. My post on our trip prompted a response from my friend K.S. back in Dallas who wrote: “Again I have learned something new and interesting from you. I only knew the Swastika as a Nazi symbol so was surprised to see it in your photos. I now know that it dates back to ancient India and literally means ‘to be good’ and is considered a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. What a shame the Natzi Party bastardized it.”

For more than a decade now, India and being Indian has been a little more cool; Westerners are more familiar with our culture(s) and our cultural idiosyncracies. A few years ago, there was even a show on network TV set in an Indian call center. People have heard about Bollywood and there’s “Lie of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

But, still, for most people in the West, the swastika is first associated with Nazis, not Hinduism – even though the symbol has been used as a good luck emblem not only by us but by Buddhists and Jains as well. Swastikas have appeared on petroglyphs in Armenia, a gold necklace in ancient Iran and on Greco-Roman coins.

K.S.’s remark reminded me of a story from my childhood. We had just moved to Texas and my Dad’s nurse was visiting our home for the first time. It was our family’s first stand-alone house, brand-new and seemingly huge, with a big backyard and enough bedrooms to give my brother and me our own rooms. It was also the first house that either of my parents could call their own. Neither of their families had the means to own their own homes in India, and eight years after arriving in America with very little money, they had now built and owned their own home. Looking back now, I realize just how, justifiably, proud my parents must have been – proud to show it to visitors, proud to raise their young family in it.

Anyway, the nurse, whose name was Helen, was a kind person and she was a gracious guest. She just had one piece of advice on the house: Get rid of the swastikas.

I’m sure she didn’t say it quite that way. My parents had hung up Indian tapestries on the walls, which pictured pastoral scenes in the classical style. And in various places there were swastikas. This was 1979 or 1980 in Texas City, Texas. And Helen basically said that it would probably be best if we didn’t have these sorts of things displayed.

This was before I had learned anything about World War II or Nazi Germany. I just understood that, for some reason, the swastika was bad and that we shouldn’t have them around or people would think bad of us. Texas City didn’t have a big Indian community where we could find safety in numbers, or with whom we could “expose” our cultural icons without being judged.

The tapestries came off the walls. And, as I’m only beginning to understand lately, with them began a process of “hiding” my Indian-ness. Not deliberately and not out of shame, but as part of a process of wanting to fit in, normal for any new kid-turned-typical teenager. I’m Indian, certainly, just take a look at me. But I didn’t have to emphasize that. Back then, being Indian was definitely not considered cool. It just made you seem weird. And I wanted to fit in. We settled in small-town Texas, my parents raised their children and we focused on being an “American” family.

Looking to the Skies

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I was 10 years old, on a family trip to India, when I first learned about Kite Day. Imagine, a holiday just for flying kites. Everyone was out on their rooftops flinging thinner-than-paper-thin kites into the air. The sky was littered with pastel diamonds, bobbing in the breeze. It was a day of simple joy, enjoying the mild Indian winter, out in the sunshine with family and friends, flying – and cutting – kites.

The festivities relate to Makara Sankaranti, or the transition of the Sun from Dhanu rashi (Sagittarius) to Makara rashi (Capricorn) and takes place around 21 days after the tropical winter solstice (between December 20th and 23rd) that marks the starting of Uttarayana, which means northward journey of the Sun, according to Gunatit Jyot. It marks the start of harvest season and is generally considered a good time to begin a new endeavor – like perhaps a trip to Gujarat!

I wasn’t so fortunate in actually flying the kites. Despite able assists from my cousins who launched the patangs in air for me, my line-tugging skills only resulted in the kites’ fall to earth. So, I sat back, took pictures and enjoyed watching them fly their kites so high as to be mere specks of color in the sky. I cheered along when they dueled with another kite, each player furiously tugging the string to be the first to cut off the other. Eventually the cry of “lapet!” would ring in the air, signaling victory and we would watch the colored paper, now deflated, slowly drift back down to earth.

Because Uttarayan is a holiday on the solar calendar – unlike the rest of our auspicious days which fall on the lunar calendar – Kite Day happens each year on January 14, fixed. So, why do we fly kites to mark this day? Gunatit Jyot suggests: “The act stands as a metaphor for reaching to their beloved God, the one who represents the best.”