The elderly lady on my doorstep with a copy of The Watchtower had just invited this lapsed Methodist to a Maundy Thursday meeting at Kingdom Hall. For once I had the perfect repost to a Jehovah’s Witness: “I’m sorry but I’m going to a Hindu temple.”
Twenty-four hours later on a chilly night I was watching saried ladies circle not much of a bonfire in the car park of an old school, now Sheffield’s Hindu Mandir temple on Buckenham Street, just off Spital Hill, and got my face daubed in coloured paints as they called “Happy Holi.”
I’d been invited by Nirmal and Parshotam Gupta, previously owners of Nirmal’s Indian restaurant on Glossop Road (the only Indian restaurant run by a real Indian as opposed to Pakistani and the only Indian one run by a woman in this 99.9 per cent male dominated profession). I’d missed Divali, for family reasons, but Holi was the next one up.
Holi is the festival of colours, hence the face paints, and the festival of sharing love, as Wikipedia puts it, welcoming the arrival of spring while commemorating the legend of a king who thought he was a god. In India it is a two day event with massive bonfires, water fights, women hitting men with sticks, getting intoxicated, then cleaning up to forgive and forget for past misdeeds the following day.
In Sheffield this is toned down (no water fights, no sticks) with a mini-bonfire and explanatory call to the fire brigade and all over in a couple of hours.
I followed the celebrants into the temple for songs in front of an altar decorated with brightly coloured images of Krishna and the gods. They sat cross-legged on the floor or on chairs, singing unaccompanied except for rhythmic clapping and the beat of a tabla drum.
But this is a food blog and I was there for the food. I can’t think of any religious festival anywhere in the word which does not have food or drink associated with it in some way. In this case there didn’t seem to be anything special (although I missed out on the offering of sweetmeats) but it was what wasn’t eaten which was important.
The food afterwards, dispensed in a giant soup kitchen to several hundred people, was vegetarian, of course, because strict Hindus don’t eat meat. “It won’t quite be like what you are used to because there is no onion or garlic but we can have plenty of ginger,” said Nirmal, whose restaurant blazed a trail for Indian food in Sheffield back in the Eighties. Hindus eat lots of this, of course, but it is banned within the confines of the temple because plants of the allium family are thought to promote ignorance and, ahem, passion. Now I would have thought passion was what was wanted in the festival of love but I kept those thoughts to myself.
Nirmal had sponsored the food which meant she arranged the menu and hired a lady, Manisha Popat, to cook it, which she did splendidly. Holding plastic thalis we formed a queue to be doled out spiced rice, vegetable and aubergine curry, a thin dal, bread and poppadoms. It was very pleasant – I didn’t notice the lack of onions or garlic – but not as spicy hot as I’d anticipated. I had a surprise on my second mouthful when I discovered another of the dishes was a sweet vermicelli dessert.
There was also something I’d not had before, a boondi raita, yoghurt with fried balls of chick pea flour. You won’t find this is a restaurant.
I ate my meal sitting next to the poet Debjani Chatterjee who filled me in with the finer points of the festival. She had dived into the ladies to clean her face of paint before supper. “I’m going home on the bus and I don’t want them to think I’m a madwoman.” I kept mine on to show them at home.