Sunday, March 07, 2004

Holi Hai

Another Holi has come and gone. For me it was just another Samedi here. Except for a few holi greetings and R’s email, it would have, for me, passed away unnoticed. Instead, I spent the afternoon, thinking about the holis past.

The last time I played with colours, was when we had first moved into our apartment in a newly constructed building. We were young, full of energy and enthusiasm, with a building full of new friends.

The holi would be announced by kids in the next building, dropping the inevitable water balloons on unsuspecting passers-by, five flights below. Our building was enclosed within our parking space and therefore did not have access to the main road itself robbing us of this pleasure. Notices in big prints would appear all over the house ‘No colours beyond this point’. It was ignored ofcourse. On the day itself, the main gates would be shut with only the solitary guard at his post, the drivers all absent, it being a holiday. The youngest would be the first to start. They hid behind bushes and sprayed each other with their pitchkaris and more often than not, the guard, when they tired of each other. There was no one else around. We’d come down later, around 10.30 or 11ish and within a few minutes to turn into absolute frights…black or dark green being our favoured colours!! And finally we’d dunk each other with buckets of water and then drag our weary limbs upstairs and finish off with the most important ritual of scrubbing out the colours. We’d be very proud of those last obstinate tinges which would refuse to budge and go to our schools or offices the next day proudly displaying these as proof of how much fun we’ve had!

In the last few years, many of our friends moved away for higher studies or with new jobs. New people had moved in. We could no longer summon up enthusiasm for the half hours of playing and 2 hours of scrubbing the paint off. The last couple of years before I came to France, I did not play holi. It was like any other holiday for me

Thinking over the years of different holis in different places, with different sets of friends, one memory resurfaced from deep down, crystal clear, every detail replaying itself as if I was there and it was happening now.

I was four and in Assam. We were living happily in a small bungalow. My nanny was very occupied with R who was just a baby. Her eldest daughter Manjudidi was my enlisted to make sure I kept out of trouble. She was in her late teens and although I was quite unaware of it then, she must have been quite an attractive girl. Passers by would stare at her, pass comments and once a cyclist swerved right onto us and tried to grab her. She picked up a stone from the roadside and flung it at him and he pedalled away furiously.

During those years, R and I didn’t play holi. Ma and baba did. They would be back by noon, take a bath and scrub off their colours, have lunch and since it would be a holiday, retire for a siesta. The same thing happened that day too. I was as usual, left to my own devices. Suddenly the drowsy silence was broken by a loud commotion from the courtyard. There was a small gate in the wall behind our bungalow from the covered courtyard. 4 men had entered quietly and grabbed Manjudidi and was dragging her toward the door. She put up a tremendous fight, screaming shouting, flailing her limbs. Her shrieks brought all of us outside. Our cook ran out with a heavy ladle in his hands followed by his helper. My nanny and ma too joined in and only when baba came out and shouted did the men leave her and make a hasty exit through the gate. By that time, Manjudidi had managed to bite and scratch them properly. The door was firmly bolted and everyone retired indoors for hushed conversations. R slept peacefully through it all. I was ignored by all. It must have been over in a couple of minutes at the most but to me it seemed like an eternity. No one explained to me about what happened. But the sight of those men pulling her remained imprinted on my brain for days afterwards.

Soon afterwards, we moved into a larger bungalow, just across the road. I had loads to keep me occupied. I was going to a new big schools and had many friends. Our new house was a veritable orchards with a much bigger garden. I spent a lot of time among the mango, grape fruit, jackfruit, litchi, tamarind trees, among the beds of pineapples, vegetable gardens behind, flower beds or simply on the green lawns.

Manjudidi herself was no longer with us, having gone to Delhi with a family to look after their baby.

Next holi, I heard our cook and my nanny whispering and pointing outside. Those men were back, restlessly prowling around our old bungalow across the road. They looked puzzled to find a new family there. They sat on a fallen log and stared at the house for a long time. Late in the evening, they gave up and went away.

A year later, we left Assam. And bit by bit, the terror went away. We have had many holis since then, some fun, some tiresome but once in a while, a twinge, a sudden unexplained feeling of unease would flash across me. Perhaps, it was this memory of my first holi, a horrible one, forgotten for the moment, but never gone.

This year, sitting so far away with not a single thing to show that half way across the world, an entire sub-continent is awash with colours and screams of ‘holi hai’ in the air….I wonder where you are my dear Manju didi. Are you playing holi this year with your family and kids? Or are you thinking about that horrible holi so long ago. I hope you have forgotten all about it, and are enjoying yourself.

Glossary Indian words
Holi - Indian festival of colour
pitchkaris - A sort of water pistol to spray coloured water during holi
didi - elder sister

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