Author Archives: ishkh

About ishkh


The Ever-Celebrated Victory of Good Over Evil

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘M’. Translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 65-year-old Punjabi woman, born and raised in Gujarat.

I: Many people have heard about Holi, but don’t know the story behind it. Could you share this story? 

M: So, Holi, an ancient Hindu festival, actually means burning, and is derived from the name Holika. Holika was believed to be a person, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashyap, who wanted to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of Lord Vishnu (the preserver, protection). So, he did intense penance and appeased Lord Brahma (the creator of the universe, knowledge), who finally gave him a boon that made him (virtually) indestructible. What happened afterwards is predictable, because… he became arrogant, he started thinking he was god, and told everyone to worship him as if he was. His wife was scared, but Brahma’s son (Narasimha, who later does kill Hiranyakashyap) told her to confine herself and worship Lord Vishnu, who would keep her safe. Then, her son was born, Prahlad, and he was very devoted to Vishnu… and—and no matter how hard he tried, Hiranyakashyap couldn’t kill him—he refused to worship Hiranyakashyap as god—even though he thought he was near all-powerful because of his gift, right? So, he went mad with rage and then decided to take his sister’s help to burn his son alive in a fire—this sister being Holika. She also had a boon that made her immune to fire, so she could hold him within the fire, but he prayed to Vishnu, who called—who summoned wind that blew the shawl from Holika onto him—oh, the shawl was what made her immune to fire, it was only if she wore that. This is why Holika was burned alive, and Prahlad survived. Hiranyakashyap was obviously angry, thinking of more tricks to kill his son, but that’s another story. Basically, the day Holika burned started being celebrated as ‘Holika Dahan’, the victory of good over evil, light over darkness. 

I: Thank you! And when it comes to the celebration itself, the festival, what is generally carried out, other than the colours? 

M: People gather around—in a circle, around a pyre-looking thing, essentially signifying Holika, and they burn this as almost a cleansing ritual. You take all the flammable things you have, old things, trash, wood, anything that you want to get rid of, for a new beginning. After this is burned, people take these ashes, along with, I believe, some sandalwood and leaves, and put them on their head to promote health. On the next day, there’s the festival of colours—that’s what Holi is usually thought of… associated with, more widely. The play with colours is thought to enhance health, body and mind, and you also clean your houses to allow positive energy to flow into the home environment and get rid of bad things, like insects. It also has a big significance because… people come together, you see, it strengthens their bond when they play during this festival. This can turn enemies into friends, removes any differences between people, you give gifts to your family and friends, and you put colour on… nearly everyone you see around you. We also have this drink called Bhaang, which the adults usually drink during this celebration, it is a derivative of grass (Cannabis)… It’s celebrated before the summer and after the winter, so people are feeling lazy and tired, so at this time, Holi brings a lot of activities and happiness, new starts. People feel much better. It also brings in the spring!

I: Is the story of Holika the only origin of Holi? Because I’ve noticed that the Holika Dahan festival is more prominent in the North, not as much so in Mumbai.

M: There are many stories, relating to Holi being celebrated within Hindu stories. There’s one about Radha and Krishna and their love, their divine love… another one from the South has to do with Shiva saving the world… I’m not as familiar with those, if I’m being fully honest, but it is celebrated and thought of very differently in different states, but it’s always a festival of colours and happiness, of fun. 


There is a lot that comes with Holi, the favourite festival of many, but it is known largely for its more familiar portion of the festival of colours. However, the story behind it is not as familiar to people, and neither is the ceremonial burning of Holika, at least outside of North India. Most Indian festivals celebrate the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and Holi is no exception. Another such festival would be Diwali, the festival of lights, in celebration of Lord Rama’s defeat of Raavana. This story specifically, the one of Hiranyakashyap, Prahlad, and Holika, has a lot of mythological significance due to its divine characters (Hinduism is polytheistic): Brahma, the creator of the universe, and Vishnu, its preserver, two out of the Trimurti of principal Hindu deities (the third is Shiva, the destroyer, also part of the continuation of this seemingly never-ending epic story). This continued emphasis on the victory of good over evil says a lot about the values that ancient conceptions of Hinduism and its traditions are built upon: the belief that good will always win, and light will always prosper, even after the darkest times. Simultaneously, the way these celebrations are conducted, the traditions and rituals within them have a lot to do with colours and light, but primarily with a coming-together of the community, where people find joy and love in each other, no matter what, and have fun. The coming of spring is also a widely celebrated thing across the world, and this celebration usually falls sometime in March, around the time the Springtime comes in, in the states that do experience it!

The Owl… as a Fool?

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘P’. Translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 48-year-old Punjabi woman, born and raised in North India.

P: Saying “ullu ka/da pattha” (child of an owl) is just an insult, it’s an abuse (in this case, the word ‘abuse’ is referring to a curse word or insult). It literally means ‘child of an owl’, but is used more like ‘child of a fool’, because ‘ullu’ (owl) has come to mean fool more in the way we talk.

I: The owl is usually a symbol of wisdom in Western cultures — why do you think it’s so different here, why would it mean fool?

P: Um… I would presume because owls are nocturnal, and generally, people don’t relate with that? It’s unusual, weird… and usually when people do unusual or weird, or, or foolish things, the response of calling them ‘ullu ka pattha’ is normal, but now it’s just become more like an abuse, like… ullu pretty much means fool more than it does mean owl. So, a person who behaves in unusual or silly ways — saying you are the son of a fool. Which is also weird because why would that make sense? You’re abusing (insulting, cursing out) the parent, you’re just saying that he is the son of a fool, not that he is one. 


Insults can tell a person a lot about a culture and its values, and here, one thing that stands out to me, other than the owl discrepancy, is exactly what also stood out to my informant: the act of insulting a parent rather than the person themselves. This is especially apparent in many Indian insults, where there is an equivalent to essentially any imaginable animal as or sexual act being performed upon a parent, or a relative (usually a sister or a mother, which points to sexual taboos and gender-centric disparities). I think this points to the family-centric nature of Indian culture and its values, where an insult about a family member is an even more grievous insult than an insult to the self. The owl part is largely explained by the informant, and I concur with their explanation, the idea of acting unusual or weird as being foolish, worthy of being insulted (or having your family insulted, in this case), even though the owl is a creature of wisdom in many Western cultures, for example, within Greek mythology, the owl is representative of the goddess Athena, primarily known to be the goddess of wisdom and strategy, among other things.

The Drug That Wasn’t

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘L’. Translations for any words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 20-year-old non-binary transfeminine musician, born and raised in Mumbai.

I: So you have something that originates within the musical space, but isn’t about music?

L: Yeah! So, it’s kind of… an urban thing, not really ancient or out there, it’s niche. But it’s really interesting, because the way it spread around was really cool, because it’s false. So, when I was about thirteen-fourteen and at this music school where I used to study after normal school, this bunch of punks, this band called Mommy’s Not Home [they laugh], told me about this… this text, sort of a cookbook. It’s pretty dated, pretty subculture-ish, and has many weird details about how to break into ATMs—in the ‘90s—, make IEDs, extract psychoactive chemicals, et cetera, et cetera. Most of the techniques described in there were real, right? So, me, being a too-inquisitive thirteen-fourteen year old… I read it. So, I read it, perused through it, and I’m not going to go into the finer details of how to break into a ‘90s ATM in America—

I: You don’t have to.

L: Great. But what especially interested me were all the drug recipes, right? And one stood out to me, because I’d never really heard of it before. And, at this point, I think I was pretty well-read about these things. I was a young, punk musician who hung out with older stoner-kids. I was into punk and stuff, and that’s how I heard of this whole thing. But I was always kind of told not to talk about it in public, right? I tried and this guy who was one of the people who introduced me to it was immediately, like, ‘Hey, listen, you can’t talk about this out here, out in the open,’ which just… intrigued me further.

I: Why do you think they didn’t want you talking about it?

L: Because it detailed various criminal activities… So, basically, back to this, it was a recipe of this drug called Bananadine. It detailed an extraction of this drug called bananadine, and first of all, I’d never heard of this drug—why was it called bananadine? Why was there ‘banana’ in its name? [They laugh] So, it detailed, like, how to extract this from the skin of a banana to smoke it, for similar effects to marijuana, except more psychedelic. 

I: Did you have any experience with it, in the sense that, did you ever try it? When you told people about it, what did you say?

L: Right, so, me, since I didn’t have the same tools, I didn’t try it out like that, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t eaten a few banana peels in my day, looking for some sort of high [they laugh]. But, I still told all of my friends, and I’m pretty sure they tried the same thing, some of them might have even smoked it, I’m not sure, but I know I told them and they probably told their friends. Young and stupid, you know. I pretty much said, like, there’s this drug I found out about, and it’s legal—because bananas—so… maybe we can extract it together? But then we never really managed to meet up to do it, but I think he also just ate some banana skin around that time, too, just to see. Because, I mean, that’s logical right, one would assume that you can maybe get some effects with that too, right?

I: Had you heard about this from anywhere else, not just that cookbook?

L: I mean, the part about it in the book was only, like, a paragraph long, a short paragraph, but those punks, Mommy’s Not Home, who told me about it, kind of like they had experienced it? They would do, like, smoke-ins, where they would try this kind of shit, and other things, of course, but I think it placebo-ed them.

I: Why do you say it’s a placebo?

L: Because bananadine doesn’t exist, right? When I researched more about it, it was just kind of like… an urban belief, I guess, but people have felt these hypothetical effects of bananadine for a long time. It was, I think, first in a Boston magazine, because some singer called Donald, or Donovan—who I’ve never heard of—wrote a song about a yellow drug, or something along those lines. All the hippies, you know, 1960s America, thought he was talking about smoking a banana, so people all over the nation… they, like, also organised smoke-ins where they would extract bananadine, so-called bananadine, and smoke it as a sign of protest, you know, counterculture and all that. People actually felt the effects! But, just a disclaimer, there is no drug found in banana skin, I learned that the hard way. 

I: So it was false but people believed it, and sometimes, people still do?

L: Yeah, it really depends on who you are, I think. I was too curious, and young, so I researched before I really had the chance to try it beyond eating some banana skins. Research showed me it was false, but I know people who did believe it. I mean, the fact that people were and are organising smoke-ins… people did experience the placebo effect. Actually, I think the FDA—I’m not kidding, the FDA—launched an investigation into banana skins for psychoactive chemicals in it, because they were really going hard against drugs, weed, LSD, at that point, so having a drug possibly extracted from a household item was dangerous. But they found nothing. So, people do, and did collectively believe its existence, but… bananadine is not a thing.

I: Technically, you believed it was true until you looked further into it, so would you say that there are still a bunch of people who believe it?

L: Yeah, like I said, it really depends on who you are by nature, you know? Also, who told you about it. Mommy’s Not Home was told by an old guitar teacher in the music school, this sixty-seventy-something white guy, but I was told by Mommy’s Not Home, and even though I was fourteen—probably why I believed it for so long as it is—[they laugh] I still looked further into it because, I guess, they weren’t really trustworthy sources… or whatever the tween-age thought process equivalent of that is.


While the informant here refers to learning about this so-called drug through both people, and an authored source, they also point to it coming up before that, which is verifiable: there is an earlier version of this, from before the cookbook that they reference, therefore establishing a terminus ante quem, through the oral spread of this recipe and smoke-ins conducted by people in 1960s USA, with it gaining huge traction. Simultaneously, the informant also talks about believing its existence, and knowing people that experience a placebo effect of this bananadine, essentially solidifying the idea that belief can do big things, even make you feel a psychedelic high from smoking a banana peel. This source was particularly interesting to me, because I think the belief in it is the central part: the people believed in it, so its effects were real, a psycho-somatic high, to the point where the government took action then. Similarly, some people believe in it now, and its effects, for them, are real, and this information still spreads in circles within some sub-communities of musicians, even though the truth about it is only a few clicks away. Basically, people believe what they want to believe, and they want to believe each other, at least about this, and that belief alone can create real impacts and effects, even though there is no material reason for it other than that belief. It’s a lot like the idea behind mass hysteria, colloquially called groupthink, especially when it comes to those community smoke-ins where everyone would supposedly feel these effects, even when nothing was… really happening.

A Pep-Talk… For War?

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘D’. Explanations and translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is an 82-year-old Punjabi father and grandfather, a former military man, born and raised in what is now Pakistan, but moving to post-partition North India.

D: I am a retired infantry officer. In the 1965 war against our neighbour, I was a young officer. I was not fully trained, in… in weapons. War started and I was sent to a picket called [X] picket, along with my hundred-and-twenty men. As a young officer, whenever the enemy fired their shells, I used to go on top of my bunker and see it, take reconnaissance. I did not know that the enemy had been firing star shells, those are the shells which are air-burst—they burst inside the air only, can kill a person who’s standing on his bunker. [He smiles] God saved me that I was not killed… but I kept doing it, out of ignorance and youth. There cannot be a bigger story than this from my many years in the military. 

I: Is there anything you would tell your men, something motivational, to boost morale in times of war?

D: I would raise the morale of my troops, I would say what I remember being told to me, what I hope to have been told to others in—in the future. “Mere bahadur gujar jawaanon, yaad rakhna ki jahaan bhi ham honge, jeet hamari hogi. Apni paltan ki aan aur shaan hamari zindagi se hamesha upar hogi.” (My brave, fighting young men/armymen, remember that wherever we are, victory will be ours. Our platoon’s dignity and pride/honour will always be above our life.) It was like… what you call a pep-talk, like that. 


The words in this may not be proverbial, as such, but I would classify them as folk speech because they are inherently a performance, and one that was passed on from person to person, echoing the same sentiment, even if the words were different. Even as an eighty-two year old man, my informant shone with the same honour and dignity that he spoke of, as he performed these words, while also admitting to his own faults, earlier on. He does state that these words were passed down to him and from him, a cultural idea of patriotism, one that arose especially strongly after the partition of India and Pakistan, and the ensuing decades-long, violent bloodbath. Putting my own not-so-favourable-or-popular views on the India-Pakistan feud and the military/militarism as a whole aside for a second (we would be here for hours and I’d probably get mobbed, I’m against both the feud and the military), just hearing him speak like this was especially intriguing because he spoke with what seemed like a hundred voices. There is more to this than simple patriotism for a motherland, because technically this was his motherland in name but the other was in place. There may not be a rhyme or a special poetic structure to what he said, but when performed live, this was a sentiment that could be felt, palpable, even though a video-call interview. Again, this is especially odd to think about, especially since he was a man that was born and raised partially in what is now Pakistan, but this same speech that was given to him, and this same overwhelming post-partition sentiment of patriotism, honour, and nationalistic pride, led him to fight in several wars over the years, against essentially what became of his birthplace.

A Dance for the Feminine Divine

The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘B’. Translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 34-year-old Gujarati woman, born and raised in Gujarat.

B: Garba is the folk dance of Gujarat, and a religious—also very social and happy—event that originates in Gujarat, but also among Gujaratis all over the world. It comes from a Sanskrit word, I believe, meaning womb, and here we dance around a clay lamp in a circle, the lamp is also called the ‘womb lamp’. It’s performed by women, around the lamp with a light inside of it, but as time has passed I think men also do perform it sometimes for fun. The circle kind of represents the Hindu view of time, it’s circular, like the circle of life. There are nine nights of dancing, the festival Navratri, as a form of worship to the Goddess Durga, our devi (goddess). Men and women dance late into the night from the evening onwards in honour of her, but women generally perform Garba specifically, as a celebration. Like many other Hindi religious practices and rituals, and this is part of one… this is done on our feet, it’s barefoot, because going barefoot is like respect for the earth on which we walk, you know? The foot is the body part that touches the earth, the mother, and dancing barefoot is like our way of connecting with her, as well as devi—Goddess Durga. It’s a dance that worships, celebrates the feminine form of divinity. 


Hindus are polytheists, and have many gods and goddesses, some favoured by people with specific jobs, others by people from specific regions or families, and all of these different groups of people have specific festivals and traditional ways of honouring these gods. One such example is the affiliation of the Gujarati festival of Navratri, and one of its dances, the Garba, with the goddess Durga. Durga is, as my informant states, a representation of the feminine divine, one of the most prominent Hindu goddesses. The connection with the earth that is also emphasised by my informant is important, since it furthers the image of the feminine mother, since, a) the earth is the mother, b) the goddess Durga is the mother, and c) the women dancing themselves are also, often, mothers. Simultaneously, the lamp being called the “womb lamp” and the word Garba coming from a word meaning “womb” adds to this, essentially creating an all-round aura of fertility and conventional* divine femininity around this celebration, along with its general enjoyment and euphoria with all the dancing and collective experience.

*I say conventional here in reference to the idea that fertility and motherhood is associated here with femininity and vice versa, when it is not always so in reality, those need not coincide, this is simply a derivative from what the informant is stating.