Holi War: An Indian festival Charlton Heston could love

Guns are thankfully not a distinguishing feature of India’s unruly landscape.

With a self-regulating karmic system in place and with the abjuration of violence as the central tenet of our founding father’s teachings, the business of law enforcement has largely been left to the Gods and the right to bear [or ‘bare’] arms is something you’d normally see being exercised on a beach in Goa.


...not this


But there is one day of the year when a state-sponsored war game, complete with Vietnam War-era quantities of mood-enhancing drug abuse and a cathartic bloodlust shared by toddlers and old timers alike encourages every man, woman and child to get armed and dangerous.

I am talking, of course, about the recently concluded festival of Holi.

Celebrated to mark the onset of spring, the festival probably took on a martial flavour when it was co-opted by the crusade of good versus evil. Throw in an uninhibited excuse for our repressed population to behave badly, newfangled ideas about the virtues of hypercompetitiveness and years of regressive Capulet v. Montague-themed Holi imagery from the Yashraj Film Studio and you’ve got a brutal mock civil war on your hands.

Hello Auntie. Can your son come down to play Holi?

Our finest engineering minds are deployed the night prior, in industrializing the filling of water balloons and in feverish calculation of the trajectory required for surgical strikes on pedestrians from apartment blocks. As in the Chandrayan 1 Moon Mission debacle, little thought is given to the standard acceleration rate of 9.8 m/s, resulting in many a blinding and much damage to property.

On the ground, the theatre of operations is prepared with the kind of fidelity seen only in one of those medieval battle reenactment fairs. We’re talking dunking pools, mud pits and tables piled high with mounds of powdered colour ammunition ranging from the potency of depleted uranium to child-safe food grade. Stadium-rated sound rigs pump frenzied DJ sets to stimulate all the barbarism.

The girls oil their hair helmet sleek and select appropriate armour [typically lengths of dupatta] to avoid getting mauled by some uncle with a license to paw. In a delightful twist to this clichéd aggressor-victim construct, there are places in UP where the ceremony focuses on a public beating of the village menfolk by the women.

And then there is Bhang, the narcotic lubricant behind all this frisky behaviour, which is doled out to otherwise pious homes in unholy chunks.

Guns N Gulaal

But, for my money, the real sign that our Holi posturing has us staring over the edge into a violent abyss is in the cherished acquisition and use of the water pistol.

In the paintball-styled arena of this festival, the axiom is every man for himself, and your gear generally determines your survival rate.

This is why, in the run up to the festival, we see mothers who would traditionally bare their bosoms to shield their kids from violence begin to resemble Mama Grizzlies at a Walmart sale, beating each other senseless to get to the last double-barreled pichkari. Fathers have been known to steal the good shooters from their progeny in an attempt to channel their own inner Dirty Harry. The children meanwhile are happy to just get a chance to shoot their parents in the face with greater impunity than in a video game.

Now you may talk all you want about the inconclusiveness of the evidence equating increased video game violence with its real-world counterpart, and you may argue that it is people, rather than guns, that wet people,  but there is clearly some writing on the wall when a spring rite festival makes a complete descent into a right to spring your amiable, 70-year-old South Indian neighbour with a riot dispersing water jet…. with the expectation that she will give back in equal measure. The words ‘cute’, ‘little’ and ‘terrorist’ have not been bandied about in combination and so often since the Intifada.

Chinese Water Torture

This bellicose drift has found more appreciation amongst the card carrying members of the Communist Party than those in the NRA.

Although it is only just emerging as a meddlesome arms superpower, China has long been fueling conflict in India by supplying us with cheap plastic weapons for Holi. Forget the stealth fighter, the real watershed came when the Chinese reverse engineered the popular Super Soaker and began flooding our market with ever-more sophisticated water warfare artillery. This was when we made the leap from Bapu to Terminator.

Holy Oral Tradition Batman!

From Mars Attacks!-styled pump action blasters with ammunition reservoirs large enough to hold an entire daily ration of our suburban water supply, to novelty peashooters which spit out water onto unsuspecting passers-by from what can only be termed as an obscene array of spoutlets; and lately to the ubiquitous, LED-lit pichkaris, which mix water and electricity in a audacious attempt to win the award for Worst Toy of the Year, Chinese hawks provide us with an irresistible arsenal of choices to act on our animal spirits.

But are we ready to be a gun nation? Do we realize that great responsibility and reserve must accompany great power? And, without having spent our formative years on a firing range, aren’t we dangerously misinformed about what makes the ideal weapon for Holi combat?

Does size matter most? What about range, accuracy, longevity and other such concerns? And is there any way to bring back the sense of play amongst the martial madness?

I took these questions to the one person in my family who has about as much firearm knowledge as a Pashtun tribesman. I asked my 6-year-old son.

Like Manmohan Singh at a post-scam press conference, he pleaded the case of simplicity. The lesson for [and perhaps from] India is that the best-designed equalizer is really the most straightforward…

Holi Squirt: Is this the World’s Greatest Water Pistol?

This pocket rocket, picked up at an anonymous roadside stall in Dadar, is everything you need to survive Holi – and a whole lot more.

The fact that I ran into it not by means of seamless distribution but rather via a random act of fate [I fought with the first roadside vendor I visited] makes it even more precious and the process of its acquisition all the more triumphant. Of course I picked up all four available pieces. I haven’t found any others since.

Best of all, because it isn’t a ‘soaker’, you can continue to use it all summer long. We’ve been driving around taking pot shots at [what we believe are] grateful pedestrians and drivers, giving them good humoured relief from the sweltering heat. Spraying a deescalating balm onto their hot heads.

If we do manage to spread a few smiles and keep thoughts of vengeance off their minds, then I’d believe we’ve bought ourselves another year of peace… or at least until the big guns come out for diwali

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