Against the Grain : Celebrating Phagwah


I’M NOT one for holiday festivals and celebrations, particularly religious ones. All of them tend to merge into one continuous stream of things I would rather not suffer through. One holiday however, that I have always and will most likely always enjoy celebrating is Phagwah.

Brought to Guyana in 1838 by Indian Indentured Immigrants, Holi, more popularly known as Phagwah commemorates the New Year for Hindus. Well known as the celebration of good over evil, Phagwah also represents a period where people are encouraged to get their lives and affairs in order. It is an incredibly popular holiday that always attracts crowds of thousands here in our little Guyana.
The reasons I love the holiday are many. There is always good food and drinks and the place always looks like some scene out of a Dr. Seuss cartoon where everything is wonky and colorful. The main reason I love Phagwah however, is that it is one of the few days that I see the Guyana I want reflected so beautifully.

A friend made a joke stating that “black” people celebrate Phagwah more than “coolie” people and while that is up for debate, one cannot really argue how cohesive we all are on this one day. Largely, there is no room for ethnic tensions. The years of deep-seated hatred, dislike and distrust that has ingrained itself in our politics and society are for the most part forgotten in the celebration of water and powder.

Strangers greet each other with dabs of colors, something that on any other day might elicit some kind of emotional response. It doesn’t of course because we all know the intention is pure and fun, at least for me it is.

Every Phagwah, I am reminded of why we need to practise the same thing throughout the year because we are a deeply fractured country that is in dire need of healing when it comes to the divisions between Indo and Afro Guyanese.

The savage beating of two afro-Guyanese, Dameion Gordon and Vernon Beckles in Canal No. 1 Polder, West Bank Demerara, on Phagwah day shows us why we need to embrace the messages the day has for us. The beating by the residents in my view was prompted by stereotypes where their only crime was not fitting in the predominantly Indian community.

It is times like this when I further button down on the belief that we need to continue talking about race rather than trying to adopt a ‘color blind’ philosophy that is too deeply entrenched in ideology to be of any real purpose. It is times like these when I further button down on my opposition to vigilante justice, which tends to lead into a breakdown of the system. Is the system perfect? No, but it exists for a reason.

We always keep talking about our multi-ethnic society and how fortunate we are to have an amalgamation of cultures. While this is certainly great, what I want to see is more responsibility from us as a people. I want to see more responsible politicians who do not use the clarion call of race at every opportunity and who do not continue placing blame on others to offset their own mistakes.

I keep trying to find hope in a country that keeps telling and showing me that my idealism will be crushed and I am wrong to have it because this is a place that stifles such. I keep on because I am not sure I want to continue living in a place where on one of the most cohesive days the country has, we have incidents such as the one at No. 1 occurring. I keep on because the surest way to ensure we never move forward is to lose all hope and that is a very dangerous thing.