After a particularly long day, I finally got some time for lunch in the office café. I found some of my friends already there with their faces longer than usual.
“Is the lunch that bad today? Should I make a run for it?” I asked hoping that would bring a smile to their faces. But instead they played the dimwit to that joke, looking at me with an expression that was a cross between ‘just drop dead’ and ‘you pathetic walking excuse for a human being’.
“Is anything wrong? Did you guys get an extension to stay here instead of back home?”
You see, my friends weren’t from here. They had their roots in Agra, Mumbai etc. but were settled here for the time being for the sake of ‘employment opportunities’. I got the reply from Mili, who applied something on the left side of my face. “Happy Holi”, she said with the exact same tone that my manager said Good morning to me. I looked like a very gay version of Mel Gibson from ‘the patriot’, with one side of my face covered with pink-coloured powder. “Gulal” she said. I had completely forgotten it was Holi, the festival of colours and what not. It was never such a big occasion; you can’t possibly blame me. But looking at their sorrowful faces, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them.
I sat down at the table, forcing the rusty spoon into my mouth. Swallowing the stale junk, I tried to draw myself away from this moribund affair and happened to glance through the window. And I could see Mili’s face - she seemed lost. Nostalgia had engulfed her. Seeking distraction and entertainment, I just walked to her. “It’s really odd to observe the transparency on these glass panes”, she said. They just used to be drenched in colours by this time. And then she had this sudden eruption of memories…
“You know our entire town wears a festive look when it is time for Holi celebration. Market places get abuzz with activity as frenzied shoppers start making preparations for the festival. Heaps of various hues of gulal and abeer can be seen on the roadside days before the festival. Pichkaris in innovative and modern design too come up every year to lure the children who wish to collect them as Holi memorabilia and, of course, to drench everybody in the town.”
“So, tell me what you guys do during Holi apart from the obligatory colour-throwing and feasting on delicacies?” this brightened her face as it brought forth fond memories from her time back at home. It wasn’t just the colour thing. There was, as I cleverly deduced, more to it.
“On the eve before celebrations, a strong pole would be fixed and around it all the collected material would be arranged for the bonfire. It is held to remember the story of Prahlada and Vishnu. The bonfire is symbolic too - eradicating evil, preparing for the new harvest and celebrating the onset of fertility.”
Ahhh, Indian mythology and the symbolism can be so profound and overwhelming, I tell you!
“And all kids, including me, in addition to collecting from those who gave willfully, would also look for something that can be picked for the bonfire. Next morning the ashes from the bonfire are collected as Prasad and smeared on the limbs of the body. If spared by the fire, coconuts are also collected and eaten.”
“Our high-class neighbours never failed to make a display of opulence as they would get colossal amounts of Tesu flowers to be boiled in massive brass cauldrons for hours on end, and they used the vermilion-coloured water to play Holi.”
Holi! This was all, Madan needed to hear and the fat-ass dragged his suffering chair and jiggling man-boobs brimming with excitement. (These guys would never spare me some lone time). But today, it was more the content of our discussion and not his cunning intent that propelled him. In a vibrant, colourful and euphoric mood with higher expectations, he added, “I miss a special sweet that is prepared only during Holi - ‘Gujiya’, stuffed with grated coconut and jaggery.The best part is there is no special Pooja performed on the Holi day. This day is only meant for celebrations so you don’t have to wait to stuff your mouth with meat and enjoy the absolutely delicious, semi-crunchy, colourful Holi-special dessert. The fest preparations would start days in advance. Mom would double a kitchen sergeant, preparing the batters. We would have loads of mathri, papri and the aroma would delight me. Oh, and the Saoji mutton curry that she prepared! I could never stop at a single helping.” For Madan, everything had to be about food, but his descriptions made my mouth water as I recalled some memories of my mother’s meatloaf.
I was lost in that taste when Varun arrived with his blackberry shirt, looking like a big canvas with colours smeared upon. Slightly upset with his shirt yet cheerful, singing praises of the weather he said, “Nature too seems to rejoice at the arrival of Holi and is out in its best clothes.” “Your favourite shirt has been messed up, how did this happen?”, I said in no mood to listen to the abstract glory of nature.”
“Just some kids at the parking”, he said. “But this is nothing. In my hey days, my friends and I, armed with massive pichkaris and pails of coloured water, would patiently wait for the appropriate target. If a gentleman with a starched white kurta and dhoti passed by, our delight at besmirching his pristine attire, with a melange of crimson and orange, knew no bounds. If he fumed and fulminated, brandishing his stick, our joy was multifold. We would scamper away at lightning speeds to raucous screams of Holi hai! And all complaints would fall on deaf ears.”
“Yes”, anxiously waiting, Mili continued (Girls! You just can’t shut them off in any conversation) “We kids would put on old clothes and douse each other with coloured powders. It’s the one day of the year that parents encourage their children to get filthy! My brother would drop the bombs and I was instructed to hide as soon as the balloons were released. I prayed that I be allowed to know whether it was a hit or a miss. But the orders were clear. He would say we’d know if it were a hit. And true to his prediction, there were screams downstairs! Success!”
“The rowdiest Holi experience that I’ve had is playing with dry Abir - that too, making sure they have been organic. Yes, kick me if you want…but I never want any fun that could turn into a trauma”, said Madan (the fat-ass had been an over-tensed freak all his life. I didn’t want to hear his long list of lifeguard precautions, so I just diverted my attention to Mili.)
“All moms and dads would form groups called tolis and move in colonies – applying colours and exchanging greetings. And all newly wed couples would indulge in a game of cat and mouse, where stealth and the art of surprise served them well. After a bombardment of powder bombs and shower of water in every imaginable colour, everyone, with age being no bar, partied hard amidst massive dancing and grooving to the beats of Bollywood and Bhangra under wet sprinklers. And you will always hear a squeal, followed by more screams of pampered princesses with skeptical parents who were uncomfortable with so much of smearing of colours, and that too with strangers.”
And just when I was about to play that squeal “eww Praharsh don’t do it, I dare you “Shefali bulleted to our table.( I hated her for the pretentious freak, she is).”The festival of Holi has always filled me with fear. Year after year me and my friends would go outside, they would chase us down and throw buckets of water over us and scream out of sheer excitement. We’d scream on being chased down, jump for joy on a hit, devise devious plans to counter the boys – yes, back then too it invariably was, as is today, a battle between the girls and boys. Boys from all blocks used to patrol the streets, those whom we had never even spoken to would jump out from nowhere”, said Shefali.
“And have you ever witnessed those gang wars?”, finally something could bring Anjan back from food. “If a gang found a member of the other on the street alone, they will go and attack the outsider with all the colour. In retaliation, they will wait for a similar occasion. All this, obviously, happens in a friendly way without the events going out of hand at any time.”
“That sounds like super fun”, said Mili (who wouldn’t love this girl?).”
“Our parents must have been really tolerant and so in love with life – they didn’t care about the mess nor the coloured finger prints on the walls. Back then as kids, we were all trying to compete and show off. Who played the most colourful Holi this time? The winner, of course, has to be the one whose colour lasted the most and won’t come off even after days after having played the Holi!
We would run around applying a bit of permanent colour to the gulal to make it stay for an entire month.”
“And what about that ethnic intoxicating drink ‘thandai’?”, I added with an evil smile (Damn! I just couldn’t stop the “bhandi” within me).” Maa used to move around serving everyone with tumblers full of Thandai. It’s not intoxicating - it’s just a cold drink prepared with a mixture of almonds, fennel seeds, magaztari seeds (watermelon kernel), rose petals, pepper, vetiver seeds, cardamom, saffron, milk and sugar. However, it was Baba’s job to make an intoxicating version of Thandai by mixing small and big amounts of Bhang. He said that it further enhanced the spirit of Holi.I never got to taste it, but it was fun to watch Baba’s friends making a fool of themselves in full public display. After a funfiled and exciting day, the evening was spent in sobriety, when we met with friends and relatives.”
The festivities of Holi bring thousands of people out onto the streets in a dazzling display of colour and good cheer. There are parties across the lengths and breadths of streets. With so much information, I still couldn’t understand what the song ‘Balam pichkari’ meant.
Holi might be more of a nostalgia for some.
Having to stay at work, when back home it was almost a month long celebration - it does indeed make it a terrible feeling. I could sense them cursing their fate of having to work rather than enjoying their life. Is that what it means to grow up? Sacrificing things you love so much for the ‘greater responsibility’. Healthy trade-off? No?
Though we have re-created the festive moments in whichever city we have stayed in, I miss all the festive fervour. The festive spirit of a particular festival doesn’t float everywhere in a foreign land. The playing with colours doesn’t happen in each Muhalla (neighborhood) or each Galli (street and alley). All we have is a the post-Holi Facebook photo exchange of friends. Songs, dance on the rhythm of dholak and mouth-watering Holi delicacies - these are more of moments than memories.
It did feel like a terrible way to spend this occasion in a foreign land far away from family. You tend to miss something more when you have already had the taste of it, but listening to them speak with such bitter-sweet emotions only made me wonder how I would have reacted had I really experienced it. We decided to get together for the weekend to celebrate Holi. I couldn’t promise them that it would be more fun than how they had celebrated it. The reason was simple and I quote: “nothing beats celebrating at home.”
“The lunch time is over, everyone just get back to your desk”, that was our hitler boss Mr. Kasturibalarangan standing in the corridor. And as submissive employees, we started moving with our faces down with melancholy.
We had just taken a few steps forward, and we were drenched in a fall of colours.
And laughing his heart out, shouted our charcoal coloured, pot-bellied boss, “Bura na mano, Holi hai!”