Monday has dawned with clear perfection. The sun is shining in the clear blue dome above me and the spring air is sharp. The cherry blossoms are in full bloom and the daffodils are nodding their pretty yellow heads in the slight breeze as they almost seem to wish me a merry Holi.
It is the festival of colours that marks the arrival of spring in India. You essentially play with friends and family, coating each other in colour. The thicker the layer of colour on you, the whiter the teeth shining through the medley of colours on the face. There are many stories behind the celebration of this Hindu festival which mainly revolve around the age-old concept of good triumphing over evil. The Hindu god Vishnu is said to have saved his follower Prahlada from a pyre in which Prahlada’s (evil) aunt Holika was burned. So there are usually bonfires of Holika the night before Holi to commemorate the tale.
But there is also a story of love couched in to the celebration. Originally coloured powders or gulal were popular (and thankfully for the last decade or so people have decided to go back to gulal instead of opting for synthetic colours). Now the Hindu god Krishna who had dark blue skin is supposed to have been troubled by the difference in complexion between his love Radha and him. To make the fair lady look like him, he mischievously smeared gulal on her face.
My earliest memories of Holi belong to my growing up years in Calcutta, as a 9-year-old, kitted out in raggedy clothes – not the super white clothes that people wear nowadays (just like everything else Holi too has had a fashionable makeover). Those rags were eventually going to be discarded or recycled next year. A bunch of friends would arrive at the door and I would promptly head out into the streets, smeared in oil carefully by my mother, so that the colours would not stick on the skin. The oil was of supreme importance. In those days, during the late 80s, synthetic colours had caught the imagination of all young boys and girls. They came in neon colours and would refuse to be washed off you. Seriously, they were bloody stubborn.
After an entire day of being out on the streets, doused in buckets of water into which colours (including opaque shades of silver and golden) had been generously emptied, I would ring the bell at home with some urgency. It used to get chilly by evening as the wet clothes dried out eventually under the harsh sun and I would return home with the colours baked into me. My mother would open the door to an urchin.
Every year she had the same horrified expression and refused to let me up into our upper floor. The routine never changed. She always came down to receive me, armed with a shampoo, a big bar of soap and a dish scourer. She would then go on to scrub me down with all her might in the shower downstairs in my father’s den-cum-office. There would be rivulets of purple-black-green colours streaking down my head and body after several rounds of shampoo and scrubbing. The end result would be raw skin, a very colourful visage even post my mother’s vigorous rounds of cleansing and a hungry, cranky little person who just wanted a lot of food. I continued to play Holi into my teenage years till I shifted to Delhi to study and work.
Suddenly I had left those years behind. I have not played Holi since and have not enjoyed it as much as I did.
In Delhi, I came across an aggressive, not-so-attractive version of the festival where it became an excuse for men to manhandle women they did not know and hurl water balloons at their bodies. It became a nightmare – the two weeks preceding Holi and the two weeks after the festival. I would come back home from work, often every alternate day with my blood boiling and tears of frustration and anger. My nice clothes would veritably be spoilt by colourful splotches from water balloons – which when thrown from a height like the balcony of a house or from a motor bike passing by can leave a stinging imprint.
But today as the sun shines beautifully from a blue, blue sky and I feel far away from the Delhi version of Holi, I remember the Calcutta version of it, the innocence of childhood making the memories rose-tinted.