SPRING RUNNING

When I run, everything feels better. It truly does. I write thoughts in my head when I am running, if that makes sense. I make lists. I think of a thousand things I want to paint. I watch the angler stand for hours by the bay, patient in his endeavour of a good catch. I stare at the ducks and wading birds that glide by in the bay and I wipe away dark thoughts if and when they prey upon the mind. When I feel troubled, for the mind is such a cauldron of thoughts bubbling away, I run longer and harder. Let’s put it this way: I literally pound away all my frustrations. Running has been a great tool to keep my mind engaged all of last year, except for that awful period right about this time in 2020 when I took a tumble and skinned my knees. But the sorer my body feels, strangely enough the more alive it feels. This does not however mean that I recommend running one’s knees out. As in everything, I believe in listening to the body. I do not believe in weighing myself on the scales and feeling awful. Instead, I simply let my clothes speak. And these days my clothes are being mouthy, so I am trying to curb my insatiable appetite for all things baked.

Anyhoo, as I was out today morning, trotting in the cool loveliness of this hump day, I saw that the boughs were thick with blooms. The magnolias have blossomed though some buds are yet to unfurl, and this promise of tightly curled-up beauty makes my heart thrill even more. The heart’s eyes (because I believe that the heart can be persuaded to see) are filled with the sight of pear tree blossoms thickening away in clusters of white, daffodils winking prettily in patches of gardens alongside carpets of sweet droopy bluebells, and I am filled with wonder all over again. How the seasons march on relentlessly and how the beauty of each goes down a treat in the face of life’s challenges! And because every feeling of joy is almost always balanced out, it seems, with a tinge of pensiveness/ wistfulness/solemnity, I am irked by the thought that my running locale shall change by this time next Spring. What will I do without the bay, the vast sparkling swathe of water by which I run and watch the migration of the birds from the sidelines? The heart stumbles. It feels as it did a few years ago when I had to leave behind the mighty Racecourse. But then I had this beautiful park in Bayonne to soothe away the heartache of leaving those beloved trails behind. Who knows where I shall be running next Spring. But maybe it will not be all too bad. Maybe I will be quite alright. After all, it is the one constant in life. Change.

P.S.: The books have arrived and I am excited to announce a few giveaways soon for my readers.

If you would like to participate, do pop by later this weekend, and it should be up.

Happy Hump Day! ❤️

Spring Fever

I have been thinking of this moment for a long time, clacking on the keypad, drumming up words, letting my thoughts flow. It has been coming long, since the beginning of the new year which has delivered googlies with such precision that I honestly do not know where to start. Should I begin at the beginning with my travel to Calcutta on the first day of 2020? Should I tell you about the disquiet that spilled into my thoughts as I read there about this novel virus making itself felt in China? It was just the beginning. Who could have predicted that this would be the world we would be living in? Let me rephrase that – for there are revelations of foretellers who saw this coming for some time now — and say that I certainly did not think of the possibility. Must be the brand of arrogance human beings are naturally kitted up with.

We are spending all our time at home. The customary nipping to the grocery stores for provisions has been nipped in the bud. The library has closed its doors. New Jersey has set a curfew for its residents – 8pm to 5am. This leaves intact running in the park and walking till our legs feel it — we have been exploring every odd nook of this town we live in.

I am grateful for this. The opportunity to simply step out. Let my brains air themselves out, let the fresh spring air flood the head with serenity. The cells are in danger of feeling stale with the constant barrage of news that is all gloom and doom (I think the most disturbing part is to read about the panic-buying of guns in this country — not toilet paper rolls, cans of corned beef or soup, but Guns).

The trick is to funnel some of it out, however we can.  Let the mind slip into meditative spaces through long unhurried sessions of yoga, make way for the imagination to wander through books, of which one cannot have enough, flip through the pages of cookbooks, rustle up new dishes. There’s therapy in routine.

Spring has arrived earlier this year, but at least it has arrived.  To channel Rilke: “The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”

Pale pink Rosebud Cherry blossoms. Deeper-hued Sargent Cherry blossoms. Saucer Magnolias. White Wild Pear blossoms. Yellow wildflowers. Fuzzy catkins of Pussy Willows. Portly squirrels running around bushy tailed, nuts clutched in tiny paws, pausing occasionally in your path to see if you have anything to share (drat people who think that animals in the wild depend on them to be kept). The Canada geese and gulls slowly taking their leave. Plump robins flying in. Fresh clumps of grass. Tiny leaves so delicate. Buds unfurling. Sweet spring. Let it work its magic on this overworked state of mind.

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The Sublime Winds of May

The winds are in a hurry to get somewhere today. Their whooshing sounds permeate the insulation of these glass windows and there is this suggestion that they are feeling rather spunky. That’s all there is to it. Just the suggestion. No nannies and tots floating around. But there is this romantic feeling that sets in upon the senses when the wind whistles outside and the skies are smothered with clouds.

Now, the last time I last wrote here, I was in Calcutta, on a spontaneous visit to my parents. My father had just had an angioplasty then and I thought it was imperative to have a look in on them, if not for anything else, for the mind to stop concocting grim scenarios.

On the way to Calcutta, I flew Cathay Pacific for the first time. I was won over on two counts. The service was simply splendid and the food so healthy and flavourful that by the time I reached Hong Kong airport for a few hours’ layover, even after a 15-hour long flight, I was brimming with contentment.

I headed to The Wing, Cathay Pacific’s flagship lounge in Hong Kong, where I bathed in the shower suites. Minimalistic and neat inside, each suite was sheathed in beautiful dark stone and the fixtures carved from bamboo wood. Kitted up as it was with the fresh-smelling lux cleansers and shampoos, I came out feeling spiffy and ready to take on the world which as it turned out was not too tough. It was but a pillowy world of fluffy baos, you know, those big Chinese buns filled with vegetables and meat. The Chinese woman at the counter barely smiled and she understood no English, something that is rather common in the city of Hong Kong if you saunter into its flea markets and street food stalls, but all that mattered was that she doled out a platter of baos. Now these were proper bad boys. You could fashion them into pillows and sink into them, really. Except that the teeth would rather sink into them and make quick work of the matter at hand. This took place in the Noodle Bar which was one of the three sections in the lounge.

There was the Long Bar too where you could sit and catch a drink apart from making a beeline for the buffet, but this was kind of boring, it being early morning in Hong Kong, so I wandered into the third section, a Coffee Loft. Ooh now there was the real deal following a heartwarming breakfast. Shots of espresso and traditional  pastries. My pick was the Chinese Wife Winter Melon Cake. Names get me. Just like books with smashing covers and titles. Who says I am not superficial? To get to the heart of the pastry, it was flaky, and if I were a bard, there would be sonnets on Chinese melon cakes. This beauty was rich (you cannot go wrong with pork lard shortening) and it dissolved in the mouth in a beautiful symphony of melon and spices. As usual, there are enough stories behind the name, but I will tell you of two of them.

One goes back to a man’s love for his wife who sold herself as a slave to get money for her father-in-law’s treatment. The man conjured up the idea of this cake as a street snack. His plan was to get his wife back once he had enough money. The other is about a Guangzhou chef who worked at a teahouse. He initially took some round pastries home as a treat for his wife. Her feedback: They made it better in her hometown, with winter melon paste. The chef reworked the pastry with melon paste and gave it a flat shape.

Dear men, it is thus easy to draw the conclusion that good things come to those who listen to their women.

When I landed in Calcutta late at night, the wind was knocked out of me. It was sultry. The real feel was often 49°C during the day and I was dissolved in the heat every morning I headed out for a run. Summer had blustered its way into the city. But in a few days swept in Kalbaisakhi. The season of thunderstorms when the skies grow dark, so suddenly that you do not have the time to even cuss. Smoky blue clouds mushroom in armies and hang ominously above your head, like dark devils with a mission. They then proceed to let loose upon you with all their might. These are accompanied by dust storms, which are not kind on you if you happen to be walking on the roads like a daft creature out to court trouble. Naturally, I had the thrill of being caught in one. I had forgotten how it all was since in the last few years I have been going back to Calcutta during winters when the weather turns all mellow and lovely.

After two weeks, I returned home to Bayonne, having spent time in Calcutta schooling and scolding my dad — also feeling relieved that all was fine with my folks for now. When I got back, I found to my delight tiny leaves upon the trees and cherry blossoms about to bloom. It was still nippy and the days were starting to warm up. On days, when it rains, it all looks like a beautiful painting. And with the change of seasons, there are children now in the park, yellow dandelions matting the grass in the parks, waiting to turn into those airy fairy balls of seeds, flowers everywhere you look. It is so happy and joyous that I can feel my heart bloom along with them. So that it is also time for me to stop prattling, leave you with some random photographs, and pop out for a wind-in-my-hair-and-a-song-in-my-heart kinda walk.

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I had forgotten how scenic the landing is in Hong Kong.

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Cruising along the runway in Hong Kong

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Bamboo wooden vibes of the Noodle Bar at The Wing, coupled with suspicious lady.

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Baos stuffed with pork and cabbage, sweet lotus, and the third was a plain mantou, a bao made from wheat dough. Teamed with the scallions and chilli and peanut sauce, these were the formidable three.

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Above-mentioned, Chinese Wife Winter Melon Cake.

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Flaky pastry to swoon over

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Moonlit night in Calcutta on our terrace

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Back in Bayonne, the green is so fresh and young, as the trees shrug back into their clothes. Nature’s fashion is effortless.

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Well hello, long time! What, no peanuts? Must have been waiting for a little booty since people here insist on feeding them.

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Cherry blossoms with their brief and intense spell of beauty

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And, that’s a wrap for today from Bayonne. 

Spring in Seattle

It is May already and I wonder what it shall bring, but in the last sunny week of April, we were whirling around Seattle. It was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday and the family had decided to get together at my sister-in-law’s who lives in a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of the city. It was a merry gang of 8 and there was enough feasting to last us a month. I have to confess that Adi and I have returned home with food tucked into our waistlines. The sister-in-law is a great cook just like her mother and it was a pleasure to do justice to her efforts in the kitchen. Plus there was all the wonderful eating out.

We gorged on juicy chicken wings at Wing Dome which does a bang-up job including smothering its 7 Alarm Wings in heavy-duty sauce. There’s enough of it. So much so that the wings are incidental to the sauce.

Now the 7 alarm is a serious challenge. Worthy individuals have admitted defeat. That would include Adam Richman of Man Vs. Food. Imagine the hottest dish you have had and triple it — and you have this shattering sauce that sets your nerves on fire. The crackling in this affair is that they refuse you tissues to dab your runny nose nose or burning lips. Who said it was pretty? Then there is no beverage to accompany this challenge of stripping meat off 7 wings within 7 minutes, if you are up for fame upon its Wall of Flame.

The Wing Dome is kind though. It advises you to order a recovery kit before you start on this path of intense adventure. Expect two glasses of ice-cold milk and an ice cream sandwich to feel anywhere near human again.

Three years ago, we had visited Seattle from the UK. A time when I had short hair and the ability to handle nerve-wracking hot food. The niece had insisted that we take part in the 7 Alarm challenge. With no time at hand, we had to relegate it to our next trip. What broke me on that particular trip was a certain sauce in Leavenworth. Naturally, I am a cautious creature today.

This time, Adi, his sister and I, each ordered one 7 Alarm wing. The brother-in-law refused to be party to this brand of gastronomic self-flagellation. I threw up my hands halfway through that one wing and was tearing up, hyperventilating, while Adi and his sister finished it. And then began their tears.

The rest of the holiday was spent mooching around decor boutiques and antique shops in Snohomish which were exquisite and we had to garner all the self-control we could to not lay our greedy hands on just about everything; celebrating the mother-in-law’s birthday at a beautiful restaurant on the Puget Sound, along with an early barbecue supper; laying her hands on some exquisite Beecher’s handmade cheese; catching up with old friends and listening to smoky jazz in charming eateries; ooh-ing and aah-ing over cakes and mousses from Taiwanese bakeries (and making a mental note to never scoff again at the likes of them); and stalking neighbouring dogs.

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The family catching up at the sister-in-law’s tastefully done-up home

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Pink azaleas and us

 

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Violet azaleas

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Spring glory on the roads

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And some cherry blossoms, please

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Noshing at The Pink Door in an alley off Pike Place Market 

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Browsing stores in Snohomish

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This beauty of a lamp now graces my sister-in-law’s home

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A caramel coffee brûlée that had me heart and soul at 85°C, the Taiwanese bakery 

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Chocolate bomb at the Taiwanese bakery

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Shaky shot at Wing Dome. Blame the 7 Alarm Wings!

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Oden the Mighty

 

 

 

This Spring of Contrasts

I had my first sighting of the leaves. Tiny green leaves are sprouting on the smaller plants in fits and starts all over the park. But the older trees, they are stubborn. They are holding onto status quo. This is a spring when we have had snatches of days that could not have been more at odds with each other. If there have been days of liquid sunshine with skies to match, snow has coated the boughs on days, and then there was that day when the fog was thick and heavy, it sat upon my eyelashes as I went out for a run. And the sunsets, let me not even get started about their exquisite beauty as they flame out into the skies.

The squirrels have started showing in greater numbers. They look suitably plump after their hibernation with possibly a decent reserve of nuts. Oh, and there are robins too! Now I have heard that it is a misnomer that robins appear during spring, but oh they do. There are whole bunches of them hopping up and down the slopes of the park, pecking and looking delightful with their breasts of red. As I felt this spirit of joy quickening in their sudden presence, I remembered my mother’s obsession with the cuckoo who lives somewhere in the coconut trees in our backyard in Calcutta. She gets great pleasure from telling me in detail about its odd timings for calling out, till I start zoning out, and the other day, I realised (with a tinge of horror and amusement) that this apple has fallen not too far from its tree.

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The Darling Buds of March

They are here. The tiny buds with their fuzzy pale pink pouts. And I can feel the familiar itch again, on this first day of spring. The itch to travel. To catch the breeze as I set my eyes upon places old and new, meet people, listen to their stories, climb hills, cuddle a bear or two (if the old boys are up for it), and make new memories.

What’s on your list this spring?

Crackpot Hall on the Dales

It got me with its name. How can you possibly ignore a ‘Crackpot Hall’ when it looms up on the map, right? In the Yorkshire Dales, last weekend, we walked 6 miles from the village of Muker to get to it. Even if it be just an abandoned farmhouse, more than half of its roof having given way to the elements, the ruins added drama, perched above the deep winding valleys of Swaledale.

The word ‘hall’ is a misnomer in Crackpot’s case. It necessarily conjures up visions of grandeur, mansions, opulence, right? Only this was an isolated building. Some of its small and dark rooms were still intact under the portion of roof that remained. A big fireplace recreated suggestions of considerable warmth on cold, windy days. Rusted pots and pans were still to be seen stashed away inside the alcove next to the fireplace. And then a rusted metal bath stood on the side of the room. Bracken and weed grew inside.

Walking through the derelict bits of it, I could imagine the shepherds and farmers who lived in it – their constant struggle to eke out a living from a land that was not kind to them. In the early-1900s a pair of women authored a book titled Swaledale.

They wrote: “Once as we sat gazing at the distant view of Keld (the settlement nearby), there was a sudden rush from behind. Our caps and sticks were snatched away and hurled over the wall and a tiny figure clambered over them with a mocking, chuckling laugh. That was Alice with the madness of the moors about her and all their wariness. ‘Ah you are plaguing me,’ she said.”

That bit was reconstructed into a tale of haunting. Poor Alice. She actually lives near Carlisle, is in her 80s, and laughs a lot. I heard a podcast featuring her on BBC in which she reminisced about her years in Crackpot Hall. It made me smile to hear her recollection of her early years atop the hill. She was born in Crackpot Hall with her brothers and sisters and her father was a farmer. He kept cows, sheep, goats and farmed everything possible. She also mentioned the coffee her mum made and brought to the hay fields as being exceptionally flavourful – that you could relish that coffee even if it went cold. This was some time in the 1930s. The children had the freedom of playing in caves and abandoned lead mines and Alice’s favourite companion was her dog Moss. ‘Moss the dog,” she said, “would only work for my daddy.” They eventually moved to a farm near Hawes because it promised better land and earnings for her father. A shepherd did live in Crackpot Hall for some time after they left it. The building was abandoned in the 1950s.

The name Crackpot is considered to be Viking because of the presence of other Old Norse names in the area such as Keld (it means ‘spring’). Crack translated into ‘a crow’ and pot was a ‘crevice/crag’ in Old Norse. It could be thus deciphered as “a deep hole or chasm that is a haunt of crows”. It is said that there was a building there since the 16th century that served as a hunting lodge for a nobleman and baron who was a follower of Henry VIII. Thomas Wharton went to the dales frequently on red deer hunting expeditions.

It was a perfect day of sunshine and blue skies when we set on the walk, which turned out to be an average to easy one, with bits of steep portions thrown into the jumble. We walked past working farm sheds, met curious, frolicking lambs, flocks of poker-faced Swaledale sheep and a handful of other walkers. We did sit down once in a while to stare at the River Swale gushing by the meadows which we were treading. I have to remark upon the narrowness of the stiles and bridges during the walk. I promise you that a person with considerable girth would get wedged between those dry stone walls that ran through the meadows.

My dear husband felt extremely hot after a while and started taking off his hiking shoes and revealed hairy legs as he hiked up the cuffs of his jeans, moaning out, “Why did I not wear shorts? This is your fault”. With that blame on my head, I trudged ahead. My own shoes were not unlike clodhoppers. But once we were skipping down steep descents and hopping across the stones and boulders on the river, I wanted to give them a hug.

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Along the walls of working sheds.

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Duh. I challenge you to keep in double file.

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River Swale

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Just as we saw this banner…

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…lo and behold, out popped a pheasant with an iridiscent coat upon him.

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Crossing the deliciously cold water of the River Swale.

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Adding the appropriate amount of crow to the backdrop in my all-black ensemble.

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That, my friends, is Crackpot Hall.

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Look at the view that the families who stayed at Crackpot Hall had.

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The kitchen with its fireplace, pots and pans.

 

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The valleys of Swaledale, with River Swale winding through it, lie behind me. You can also spot fresh patches of snow on the hills in the backdrop. It had snowed four days ago in the north.

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A snap of Alice with her parents and Moss the Dog. Courtesy: BBC

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Alice and Moss the dog. Courtesy: BBC

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Alice’s mother, the star coffeemaker, with their flock of Swaledale sheep and possibly her husband in the backdrop. Courtesy: BBC

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How to Get There: Start the walk from the village of Muker or from Keld. The walk from Muker is longer than the route from Keld. But Muker has a tearoom and better eating options, so we had to listen to the call of the gut.

Where to Stay:

At Keld Lodge (www.keldlodge.com), a former shooting lodge, double en-suite rooms are available for £100 a night and breakfast is included within the price.

A double en-suite room on bed & breakfast basis at Bridge House (www.bridgehousemuker.co.uk) is pegged at £90 per night.

Next up, more on the stunningly green Yorkshire dales and the barren isolation of the moors.

Holi Kinda Day with Daffodils

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.