Mourning Holi

Today is holi, and my heart is heavy with grief at something precious lost.

When I was a kid, I lives with my grandmother and grandfather. We used to plan for Holi for AGES. We used to buy enough water balloons so that we didn’t run out of supplies. We used to make sure we were well equipped with all the colors and pichkaris for squirting colored water. Days… in advance, we used to be humming with energy, often trying out a few balloons because we simply couldn’t wait. Oh, we didn’t have careless parents, but how much can a parent endure endless pleas? So there were compromises. No more than a couple of balloons, no throwing them on anyone except friends, no colored water in them till the big day, only a couple of balloons, no more….. we agreed. Instantly. Just let us get the balloons.

Often, I remember nursing those water-filled missiles all evening, not throwing them on anyone because they were too precious. Screaming like a hooligan and threatening to throw all the time. Only actually throwing the precious missile when dared beyond endurance. Usually, the excitement was such, that the baloon didn’t even remotely hit the friend excitedly waiting to dodge, and hoping to be hit. It took years to learn to control excitement (and be trusted with balloons to practice) enough to hit what we aimed at 😀 Lovely, mind boggling chaos.

The day before holi was a big project in preparing. Filling balloons with plain or colored water, making sure the pichkari (squirting thingy) actually worked, which was  a big drama, because it was well tested already and generally exhausting ourselves into an early night and thus the perfect early morning on the next day.

holi celebrationsOn the day of holi itself, we were wide awake as early as we could be, ready to head out before brushing teeth. And we rushed through formalities before arming ourselves to the teeth and heading out in search of unsuspecting victims.

What followed is a little difficult to describe. A lot of color, water, glorious mess, and happy grins. We used to collect together as a group and then go around convincing parents of our friends who weren’t allowed out, drawing everyone we could into our riot. Once we were satisfied with putting color and sneaking smears of color on each other and all avenues of expansion were done, someone came up with the bright idea of going door to door. And we did, and colored everyone who would let us. And we did that every year after that.

Once that was done, we still weren’t through. We used to go around the building yelling “aunty, paani do!” [aunty, give us water] and the people used to throw water out of their windows at us, which also served a very slight clean up purpose, but more importantly, ensured that we were indeed thoroughly wet and no part of our body had been neglected.

By this time, the parents started coming out to retrieve us, their own playing and recovering done with. The more paranoid, to the most easy going in order of arrival. Wet kids, will get ill, this that and the other. In one ear, out the other. We knew the lectures and didn’t mind them. This was worth it.

Then some parents would bring or order snacks for all of us. Full stomachs usually had a way of slowing the hyperactivity and the parents chipped away at our gang, removing the more malleable ones for tidying up first, which then started breaking up the group till the most determined of the lot was left with no more companions and went home for a bath.

Around the time of my puberty, special dye crystals started making the rounds. This was a green crystalline powder which dissolved in water to form unbelievable quantities of bright red color. You could dilute it all you liked, but it was going to last. We started discovering our hair rinsing bright red after half an hour of washing because some boy had quietly put in some of that powder in it!!! It became a big thing. It was a chemical, so people didn’t really approve. Most of us never even purchased, but it was mostly the “boys” who did these things, so it was a secret shiver of delight that someone went out of their way to do this to you, while dreading finding the nasty stuff in you hair at the same time. The assumption was that they fancied you. Go figure. The things newly blooming hormones can forgive!

As teenagers, I noticed a few among us get up close and personal with each other. those delicious flirtations that never went anywhere or didn’t even mean anything when we were in our senses.

When I grew older I used to go to my parents place in the evening. They stay in a colony of chawls, and on the back side of ours, there is a playground surrounded by chawls. We used to make teams and head to the roof to throw water balloons across the playground to the other roof, and anyone who dared walk through the ground itself. People entering the terrace would usually be ambushed with a bucket of water. The idea was WET. No one stayed dry. If we dried, someone would notice and dunk us and we returned the favour.

The whole thing was almost a tradition. We had our champion throwers and piddly little useless arms like me would willingly provide slave labour to ensure an endless supply of baloons to throw. Actually, it was plastic bags. For throwing long distances, balloons can hurt. You fill a plastic bag from the bucket and instead of knotting it closed, you simply twist and hold it and throw it like that. The throwing is a technique. It spills some water on the way, and releases all the water on contact instantly. Doesn’t hurt at all.

For days after holi, school couldn’t enforce usual cleanliness rules, because everyone had traces of color left no matter how well scrubbed. Ears, nails, hairline….

I don’t remember a single allergy or anything from whatever colors we used. I don’t remember falling ill from so much excitement or wet either. Maybe I did, but it wasn’t worth remembering. Maybe when something happens from the heart, it doesn’t harm.

Delicious memories. Perhaps its childhood I lost rather than holi.

Today is Holi. I stayed home. Last year I had wandered out briefly, but the adults I know weren’t playing. They weren’t out at all. The kids I know looked at me as if I was an alien and started behaving themselves all of a sudden, and I didn’t find my need for company to be worth making all of them self conscious. As is was, I had seen one of them from a distance carefully producing a clean handkerchief from his pocket and wiping at his face in between putting color! Frankly, it also didn’t appeal to me. They were mostly walking sedately and talking. I didn’t know what we had in common for talking on a Holi day. Now I wish I had shared my stories of adventurous Holis with them if they wanted to listen, but hindsight is 20/20

I walked further out of the gate, and a street nearby had a loudspeaker playing Rang barse…. I can’t think of a single contemporary song celebrating Holi and that was quite depressing. It seems that right along with not wanting to untidy ourselves, we have stopped writing odes to anything that evokes that. I took a small walk, secretly hoping that some group of people would apply color on me and I could join them for a bit before going home, but there were very few people around with color. Those who were were obviously in very exclusive groups, and not interacting outside them….. Anyway, most of them had cleaned up faces.

This year, I did not wish to go out.

In a way, this is quite amazing for me and I see it as yet another brick in the wall of civilization standing between us and our roots. Today, we speak of letting go of inhibitions, of embracing color, of opening up, of freeing ourselves to have fun, etc. But do we really mean it? If we did, how is it that Holi is dying?