A short story of the travails of a south Indian couple
|Delhites had packed up their woolens. The bone chilling cold had given way to warmer days. The city’s forenoon chill was enough to freeze the unsuspecting young migrants from Madras, who were used only to the much milder days of Margazhi temperatures. Even at those high temperatures it used to be a standard protocol to wrap a muffler around the head while heading out in the morning. But having already faced the much harsher first winter in Delhi, these milder days seemed to bring in a relief to the stricken couple.
‘Splat’’ the balloon burst on her back, as a chill ran down her spine. The imaginary fear of ‘Holi’ now stood transformed into reality, as she stood in the market place, drenched and shivering. She had just stepped out to buy some groceries, knowing well that with a day left for holi, she would be lucky not to be ambushed by water balloons or a splash of color, from any of the endless rows of balconies and terraces which she had to cross on the way to the market. For those with a ‘holi’ phobia this was a terrifying ordeal, of having to navigate through the narrow lanes, with half an eye on the sky, to spot an incoming missile and trying to avoid it, and at the same time appearing as nonchalant as possible. As the children in the balconies, resembling snipers, waited to take as many victims as possible, each successful hit would be greeted by a big cheer from the balconies around, as the unsuspecting victim stood around sheepishly, some grinning in disbelief and some gesticulating wildly at the mocking children in the balconies.
She looked around for her tormentor, but found tens of children perked in ledges around the buildings, it would be futile trying to guess as to who had fired the deadly missile at her. As the chill made her uncomfortable she wrapped her saree more tightly around her shoulders and proceeded to finish her errand. As she started her return trip, she found a large group of revelers coming her way, all of them adorned with bright colors and dancing merrily and spreading color all around. She froze in her tracks, looking for a doorway of escape, and thankfully found a grocery store a few steps ahead and quickly ducked in, to let the group pass. The grocer looked curiously at her, as she beat a hasty retreat back into the street.
The holi eve brought in more revelry, a huge bon-fire was lit few doorways down the street. The street folk gathered around the fire merrily dancing. As the couple looked on in curiosity, there was a call from down below asking them to join the group. They looked at each other, Pattabi smiled his usual smiled and jumped up to go, egging her to join him, and she reluctantly accompanied him down the stairs. The ‘Dhol’ started its beat just as they reached the cross road, as people jumped up in a burst of dance. To her surprise the ladies joined in the dance too, a big taboo down south. One of the young ladies grabbed her hand and pulled her into the dancing crowd. Too dazed to react she tried doing a few dance steps. The little dancing that she knew was the ‘Bharatnatyam’ that she had learnt as a child. She would look awkward indeed trying out those moves out here in this group. For a short while she managed swinging her hands in sync with the gorup, and when she found the men folk watching her, anxiety got the better of her as she broke away from the dancers and regained Pattabi’s side.
The game of ‘Holi’ elicits extreme reactions from people, on one hand are the majority who swear by the fun and frolic of anointing each other with colours and chasing each other with water in hand. The fervor & gaiety marking the high point of camaraderie and brotherhood, and has a deep symbolic effect on the participants who swear by it. On the other hand you have those who simply can’t make out what the fuss is all about, the invasion of privacy, aversion to the touch, the inconvenience of being drenched, the slight shiver of the cold water, make it hard to convince them about the greatness of the festival.
Kuchalambal was not part of the latter group, but the concept of ‘Holi’ was new and too much of a cultural shock for her, the initiation yet to happen.
‘Holi’ dawned and what started off as a sober day, slowly burst forth in a mix of colors and noise of Dhol beats. Kuchalambal not adequately forewarned, had her bath early in the morning as practice would have it and got ready for her prayers. The children had begun their fun in the streets and were heard shouting with joy, throwing colors and water at each other. The couple watched stealthily from the floor above, at the rapidly increasing fervor on the streets. The elders had started gathering in the street below, applying colors and sandal paste on each other, it was not long before they remembered the Madrasi couple. Raamanji! went the call.”Come down, come join us”. The couple eyed each other. Fear writ large on her face. “You go”! She urged Pattabi, before they could decide what to do, the banging on the door started, a group had assembled outside the door, and was wanting to drag them out to play colors. Pattabi opened the door and the group barged into the small room. Within seconds Pattabi was transformed into a unknown figure, all black and blue and red, his veshti and white shirt suddenly transformed into an artist’s canvas, ‘Holi hai’ cheered the crowd, as Kuchalambal cowered in the kitchen beyond, a few ladies barged into the kitchen, and began the ceremonies on her. The myriad streaks of colours now adorned her fair face, as she helplessly tried to wipe away the grime from her face with her forearm, and hopelessly managed to rub in the colours into her arms too. Happy to have done the customary anointing, the crowd faded away again into the streets. The couple, although rattled by the experience, felt good to have participated, if only symbolically, if they regretted anything, it was the loss of one good pair of dress which the colors had spoilt, and of course, the need to bathe again. Never again during their stay in Delhi would they ever have their bath so early in the morning on a ‘Holi’. Never.
Each new festival seemed to bring in new experiences to the Madrasi couple. The last ten months of stay in Delhi had showered them with varied surprises, the Raksha Bandan, the Lohri, the brightly lit Diwali and Durga puja, all brought with them, joys never experienced so far. Life seemed so different here in this northern city. The late night festivities of Delhi contrasted with the early morning hustle bustle in Madras. While it used to be a mad rush in the mornings to attend marriages in Madras, with some of them scheduled for as early as seven, the marriages in Delhi would be scheduled for the late hours of the evening. The New Year morning’s celebrations and gaiety in Madras, seems sadly absent, as all of Delhi seem to be relaxing in deep slumber till late in the noon, tired after the whole night celebrations of the previous night. After almost a year of stay in Delhi, Kuchalamba’s for the longing for her home grew with each passing day. Telephones were nonexistent in those days, the yearning to hear her mother’s voice, the comforting presence of her father, the smell of jasmine, the crowded lanes of T Nagar & Mylapore, the temple chariot and the utsavams, the beach visits and the Music Festivals all seemed to beckon her as she sat thinking about the day just past.
The memories of her first holi flashed in her mind now almost fifty years later as she sat in the balcony watching the roar of the revelers. Vishwa and Gomati had escaped to a movie hall, and she was left alone with her memories, some good and some heart wrenching, her soul searched for the meaning of it all, the years gone by, the experiences, the struggle, the pain, the joys of motherhood, and the achievements of life, finally culminating in this balcony all alone, like a solitary bird in the sky, looking for its salvation. She could not phantom her emotions. She scanned the horizon for some signs, but she got no answers, until a tiny voice exclaimed ‘HOLI HAI’, she slowly turned around to find a two year old in the balcony above holding a small spray gun in hand, trying to drench her with the tiny steam, from the small water gun. The few drops of water that touched her face gave her the answers, it was all about life, the unending cycle of birth and death, of the blooming flowers and wilting leaves, the new blades of grass, replacing the trampled older lot, bursting forth with new hope, new energy, to keep the cycle live, ‘HOLI HAI’, she exclaimed with the spirit of Holi rekindling her hopes again.