Durga puja, redolent with incense-infused rituals, appeals to my Bengali soul. Flying solo, you can enjoy the ceremonies from a distance and do some people-watching. But the fun lies in sitting around doing adda with family and old friends, listening to singers who come in from across the country to perform at the pandals, and gorging on Egg Rolls and Mughlai Parotha.
Holi is different. Holi feeds my spirit. For one, there is no sitting around. Two, anyone is fair game to be covered in colour, regardless of age or social status. Three, you can enter a Holi gathering alone, and leave the party hours later having made several ‘friends for life’. It’s a different matter that the sensory overload—crazy colours, endless glasses of bhang-laced thandai, jhatka-matka and exuberant shouts—of the previous day may keep you from remembering their names the next day, but that’s ok. What happens on Holi stays on Holi.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. I mean the bhang. That was a no-no when I was young; but the rest of the festivities has stayed much the same since I was little. In Allahabad, where I grew up, the celebrations would start the night before, with the burning of Holika to mark the victory of good over evil. There’d be bonfires across the city. It was a sound and light show, with the soundtrack coming from loudspeakers tied to electric poles, blaring one Hindi film song after the other.
We’d usually have a party at home. My mother and her friends would be in new saris (their last chance to wear their silks; even then, the weather gods turned sultry immediately after Holi). We would crowd around our bonfire and toss dry colours into it. Someone would start singing; some others, dancing; and before you knew it, the men had started tossing gulal around. We kids would run to join them and, within minutes, a full-blown colour fight was on. The ladies would begin shrieking about their new saris getting spoiled, but who listened? (You’d think, with the same thing happening year after year, they would learn not to wear new silks to the party, but no.)
The next morning was when the fun—wet and wild—began in earnest. We’d be up early to oil our hair and bodies and hunt up suitable clothes before our friends came around—in a truck—to play. My father, a pucca sahib normally, would morph into a mawali come Holi. In fact, one of my most enduring (and endearing) memories of him involves him tightening the laces of his special ‘playing keds’ and running to meet the truck as it came up the driveway with a giant pichkari in hand.
I read somewhere that originally only four colours were used on Holi, with each symbolising a specific thing. Red reflected love and fertility; yellow, India’s beloved haldi; green stood for spring and new beginnings; while blue made a hat-tip to Krishna, who has a special relationship with the festival. Personally I’m partial to silver and gold and the purple that takes days to scrub away, but maybe this year I’ll be a chameleon and just take the colours of those around me. Provided they throw in the bhang for free.