As I stare out of the balcony on a snowy, wet morning in Toronto and wish people here and back in India, a naughty smile takes over my face, bubbling with memories of this festival. There are several festivals in India, but this is the only one which embodies a sense of humour – Holi!
The memories that accompany it cannot be drowned by any drab morning in any country that I inhabit! It all started at six, when I was a new immigrant in Bombay. On most festivals, we wear new clothes and I did do that on my first Holi ever! I thought it was only water that we played with, so all wet I went with my friend Subhash, a five year old, into his building to be coloured black, red and blue. My teeth were all green. When I landed home, my uncles and my grandparents were really tense about cleaning me. My uncle, extremely nervous, said, “These colours won’t go! How are we going to clean you now?”
Fear gripped my six year old body, “Was I always going to be so colourful? Why didn’t they tell me that these colours were permanent?” But my aunt, who was a veteran in Bombay came to my rescue and bathed me for over two hours with oil and water and I finally saw a clean me! From that day on, Holi has been special, because its energy, meant to mark the advent of spring, ‘colours’ every single human being who has had the fortune to come in contact with it.
Holi means you can drench and throw colours on just anyone, even an unknown passer-by! This starts the evening before the festival. Carrying water balloons to Marathi tuitions in standard seven, to target passers-by was a favourite hobby. Usually people expect balloons to be thrown from top of buildings, nobody ever expects someone walking right behind them to do that, and chuckling to oneself when the passer-by looks up and shouts at some non-existent person on some balcony, was fun!
As teenage dawns, this festival takes on sexual connotations where one looks forward to playing with one’s crush at that time. That’s perhaps the only time you can go and put colours on each other even if you have been shy to talk to them before. Sometimes you get a peek into the other person’s heart while fake-declaring, “I am not playing Holi”, to catch a disappointed look on their face, hinting at their possible interest in you! This also means a pretext for phone calls, sharing similar experiences and laughter on events in one’s neighbourhood and a sense of possible connection that you longed for, till that day!
There is some kind of drunken fervour in the environment that everyone sort of gets carried away in, although not actually drunk! Something in the air forces you to strip naked and show your true selves to each other, even if that means sometimes you are being nasty. If your otherwise grumpy neighbour shouts at you for drenching him or her in Holi colours, it is perfectly okay to laugh at them, because that day if they are outside their homes, nothing can stop you from drenching them.
Also those walks on the roads expecting water balloons with the determination to protect yourself, and then the disappointment at not being targeted by any balloon, is a strange dichotomy that every Holi day walker experiences. The joy is in announcing, “They targeted me but I escaped!” The day is just different on Holi because everyone suddenly becomes a part of your existence.
But once I moved to study in the US, I never played Holi because it was always on some other ‘convenient’ day and was played on some beach far away. The ‘nasha’ was not present in the environment which drags you to get drenched in the festival. That said, the drunken fervour stays in the mind anyway through memories.
Like all festivals which have an introspective aspect, the philosophy behind Holi is to bring humanity back to reality. The burning of wood, the previous night, symbolic of burning our egos in the pyre with Holika, to attain wisdom sets the tone of the festival. And that’s why, the next day it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or how old you are, everyone gets drenched and everyone is treated alike, reminding us that we are all the same.
And today when I look around in the neighbourhood in Toronto, I see myself in people of different colour and nationality, I see myself in my life partner and in my dog – we are all indeed the same. And as my partner sits immersed in his laptop, oblivious to the happenings in my mind, I quietly ask him yet again, “Do you play Holi?” just to see the naughty smile on his face, reminiscent of the days when we first started talking. Now that will make him dive into his memory lane, I know because that’s what the festival is meant to do, it enchants you in its high to never leave you!