A lazy morning, it being Holi. Breakfast at 10am. Someone explains that all the food is vegetarian because hotels are owned by Jains. The same source assures us that all Jains are very rich because they eat no meat. This, plus the fact that they drive very large cars and either wear white clothes or no clothes at all, accounts for their stunning business acumen.
There is a kind of poetic justice about being filthy rich but condemned to walk around in your birthday suit, eating nothing but salad.
The taxi arrives. There are four of us: David and I, Febry and her friend Toby. We have booked for a large car. What arrives is probably the smallest car in Delhi, aside from Tuktuks.
Empty roads. The only people out on the streets belong to the species homo colourfulus. Red faces, yellow faces, multi-coloured faces … Quite a few are very definitely drunk. As convoys of motorbikes carrying multiple passengers kick up the dust around us I am reminded of a spaghetti western. A tuktuk lurches across a junction, four guys standing, leaning out, dancing and swinging their arms wildly in celebration. Struggling to keep the three-wheeler upright, the driver clings the handlebars with the grim look of a condemned man.
We reach the village.
‘Not that way’, I call out, ‘the road has been dug up’.
‘That was yesterday, ‘ David reassures us. ‘It will be sorted by now.’
It hasn’t been sorted by now. The road is blocked.
But there is worse. Now committed to this narrow lane we are driving towards a bunch of men, big guys, faces painted and carrying semi automatic weapons. Kalashnikovs and AK47s. They part to let us through. Now we have a blocked road ahead of us and half a dozen armed men behind us. Now is not the time for photo-reportage; I bury my cameras in my rucksack. The driver, having finally understood that our path ahead is blocked, begins a five-point turn. The guys swagger towards us, guns swinging.
I feel an urge to whistle; not a suspenseful ‘For a Few Dollars More’ whistle but that kind of tuneless whistling that projects a casual innocence. Maybe we could all do that. Maybe the car could do a Transformer thing and turn into the meekest of tuktuks. The gunmen aren’t talking anymore. (Flashback: I have been here before, in Nigeria, when a group of a dozen armed men stopped us and requested that the white man get out of the car.)
At the last moment the men step aside and let us pass. Which is nice. The diversion negotiated, the car’s suspension on its last legs, we arrive at Karm Marg.
Febry wants to dance. I step out of my trousers to reveal my running shorts. For a while I take photos but sooner or later I will need to dive in. A young girl muddies my nose. First a smear then a full lumpy witch’s nose job. Much laughter.
Chai and pakora arrive. Ten metres away fifteen people are dancing, wrestling, rolling, splashing in a pool of mud that has appeared overnight in the middle of the compound. Honoured guests are expected to muck in.
Febry and Toby go first. It doesn’t look too bad, you can still see white patches on their t-shirts when they return. David wades in. Much splashing.
My turn. I am treated to the full immersion baptism. Why me? Lie down, I am instructed. If I didn’t know the compound was dry yesterday then no way would I lying flat out in what looks like melted chocolate, but … in for a penny.
The mud is cool, thick as double cream. I am gently massaged while a voice whispers that there is no black and no white … now we are all brown. I am torn between the urge to ascend to heaven and the desire to shout ‘what a bunch of hippies!’
‘See, he is meditating,’ someone else says. Maybe I am, or maybe I realise the futility of struggling. I sit up refreshed and try to open my eyes. Bad idea. Someone leads me by the hand towards a tap. Water is thrown at my face, like in the movie Perfect Storm when George Clooney’s jutting jaw takes all the raging sea can throw at him … but less so.
Eventually I am able to open my eyes and spend the next 20 minutes doing one of those exfoliating the insides of your eyeballs things that people do in posh spas.
More dancing. It is important to keep moving or you set and end up like an overgrown chocolate decoration on a Christmas tree.
We have barely begun the partying when the taxi driver is there. On the one hand he is keen to go, on the other hand he is keen not to have us in his taxi. Febry and Toby who have taken the first and most modest dunking are almost dry. I, being a wise man, have a pair of trousers to climb into. I hose myself down, rinse out my shorts and t-shirt, and present myself bare-chested to the driver. He nods. David on the other hand …
David sits at the front of the car. Febry, somewhat embarrassed but wanting to exploit the situation rings her best friend in Bali and shouts look I’m in a cab in Delhi with three naked men, filming us on her iPhone.
We reach the hotel some 30 minutes later. As we walk up the grand steps into what is quite a fancy hotel. I explain to reception that David has become a Jain. Dressed only in boxer shorts David waves sheepishly and disappears into the lift. Happy Holi!