By Varkala standards, the air was a little bracing one January morning last year when our elderly neighbour informed my girlfriend and me that the local Hindu temple would hold its festival at the end of the month; it would run for four days. Now, this temple isn’t large or overly celebrated; just another neighbourhood temple, really. That, combined with the fact that I was still relatively new in India and had no idea what the phrase ‘temple festival’ actually meant, led me to a somewhat understated reaction. A festival, I thought. How quaint.
Over the next couple of weeks leading up to the festival, excitement and expectations grew. On the final night, there would be a Kathakali performance that lasted all night, and six or seven elephants would join a parade at dusk down our street. It sounded like good fun, but I’d heard of festivals nearby that had fifty or even a hundred elephants. How incredible could six or seven be? You’ll enjoy, said our neighbour. Sure, I said, trying to believe him.
The festival began at 3 a.m. on a work night, with music. It was much more than just ‘music’, though. Massive speakers had been placed strategically around the neighbourhood to ensure that any respite was absolutely impossible, and cranked up to 11. At dawn, it was replaced over the PA by bone-rattling drumming. ‘Okay, okay!’ I wanted to shout. ‘I believe in the festival! I am now excited – and festive! Can you just let me sleep for a few hours each night?’
No chance. When there wasn’t music or drumming, young folks let off fireworks and firecrackers in the schoolyard next to our house. Sometimes there was music, drumming and fireworks all at once. It all added up to an experience I figured I’d never forget, but for all the wrong reasons. All night we lay awake, eyes pinned open by the noise, and all day we fended off sleep and deprivation-induced hallucinations at work. There is a natural order to things, and it seemed to have been completely subverted.
Come the final day of the festival, I was more than ready for it to be over. Still, I tried to keep high spirits, it being my first. Within seconds of the parade’s start, however, it took no effort to smile. Or to laugh with delight, or to gape in amazement. First came a band of drummers, about 20 rum-stoked youths in dhotis beating out an intoxicating rhythm; then dancers carrying huge fountains of red, orange, pink, green, gold that stretched three metres up from their shoulders; then Kathakali actors swathed in ornate costumes and vivid makeup; then children, some as young as five, carrying ceremonial oil lamps.
Finally, the elephants arrived, weary with their heavy attire but still a fitting and impressive end to the parade. Our landlord and his family, who came for the day, fed each elephant bananas and puffed rice in a dutiful and dignified manner. We later learned this was a yearly tradition for all the houses on the street. I looked on in wonder: this ‘experience I figured I’d never forget’ could now be added to my collection of cherished memories. The colours were extraordinary, and the indescribable energy in the street was something I’d never felt before. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends and family back home all about it.
The elephants and drummers and dancers sashayed on down the street. My conversion complete, I turned to my landlord and exclaimed with glee, “That was INCREDIBLE! Did you enjoy it too?”
His expression barely altered, save for a flicker of respectful amusement at my glee. “Yeah… well. Another festival, I guess.”