Exorcising Colonial Ghosts

June 29 2015

This is a competition entry that, for a number of reasons, I failed to make the deadline for. I cannibalised some lines from other india things I wrote. I like how tight this is, normally I ramble.

not the pug dog from mentioned, another dog

The sun is setting across Lake Pichola behind the white crumbling baroque buildings and minarets of Udaipur. I’m in a rooftop restaurant, enjoying a Coke and watching a pug dog of indeterminable ownership scramble around. He’s resplendent in the attention he gets at every table and occasionally confused by the sound of two gangs of monkeys that seem to be waging a turf war a couple of storeys below.

Slowly, as the sun recedes behind the water and distant mountains, the silhouette of the buildings become a clearer picture of the ornamental balconies, spires, and rooftop verandas.

I only came here because the sign outside promised daily showings of ‘Octopussy 7pm’. It turns out the sign was referring to the Bond film, the climactic chase scene of which was filmed through the streets and landmarks of Udaipur. I ask if they will be showing it tonight and get a shake of the head.

“Not for many years,” I’m told. The server smiles a little wider than usual, wider even than the sort of smile that usually comes from one of the locals doing the how-much-more-can-I-charge-tourist maths. And I remember I look like I’ve been gang stomped by Care Bears. I look down at my mess, vivid blues, purples, reds and green smeared over my clothes and skin.

“Happy Holi,” he says

Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated in the spring across South Asia. In India, especially Udaipur, the streets explode in clouds of powdered paint. Everyone is fair game, tourists more so. The sound of drumming and dancing is everywhere. Kids spring from side streets pelting you with water balloons and small bags of paint. Out of the fog of psychedelic colours strangers approach you and douse, smear, or blow paint directly onto your body - making eye-contact and a heartfelt “Happy Holi”. Be prepared to be have your personal space invaded. Be prepared to be incredibly messy, and be prepared to smile.

Colonial ghosts haunt any right minded English traveller to India. But Holi is about starting anew, repairing relationships despite the harshest grudges. And being hugged, held, and handled by a crowd greeting the spring with sheer joy, it's hard not to melt into it.

Looking back over the lake as the last of the light hits the mountains in the distance, I smile back at the waiter “Happy Holi”.

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