Memories of Holi

Author: Yugal SehgalOriginally published on March 10, 2020

At 6 am, the alarm rings. My brother and I have already been up but the alarm announces it. We have heavily oiled our hair and moisturised our faces. Hundreds of water balloons, a pichkari (water gun), pakka rang (strong dye), and a bucket await us at the terrace. We did those preparations last night.

This is the hour of labor and we get down to it. From a rusty old tap we fill our bucket, pour the rang in it, stir it with the pichkari to mix it, and start filling the balloons with the dyed water. I handle the pichkari and fill the balloons, he ties them up, one after the other, and puts them in the same bucket. The water in the bucket keeps the balloons afloat and they don't burst. We exchange our roles now and he fills the balloons while I tie them.

Tying a balloon is dull and painful work. Not to mention the many instances where the balloon would burst midway of your tying and you would be its unintended victim. Holi would begin, incidentally and often, with you wetting yourself like that. (Think purely, you devil!)

Drawn memory of the bucket and pichkari. ⓒ Yugal Sehgal

After amassing a satisfactory number of these water bombs, my brother and I take our strategic positions and await our prey. I take one end of the balcony, he takes the other. It starts.

One poor fellow after another, we rain fire on them, or shall I say water. If we are lucky and they are unlucky, one of our water bombs hits them right on top of the head. We immediately hide ourselves and they never find out who hit them.

What I fail to understand to this day is why would people venture out like that on the day of Holi? Don't they know what they're likely to encounter? Usually, our poor victims did not mind our fierce (but friendly) attacks, it being Holi after all, but there would always be an oddball among them who would curse us, or chase us. It would be frighteningly amusing.

Animated memory of water bomb hitting a person. ⓒ Yugal Sehgal

Holi is now in full swing. After exhausting our balloon supply, our terrace party is over. It's time to hit the streets and gang up with our Holi comrades. It's time for gulal, spray-paints, pichkaris, and lots more water bombs.

Collective play is on now. We tinge each other with gulal and set down on the path of a colorful assault. No passer-by is immune. We make sure of it. In the unlikely circumstance they get away unscathed, someone along the way drenches them in water, at least.

Some of our rival gangs from the other street take shots at us, throw water bombs at us. A few of them play dirty and throw rotten tomatoes, even eggs at us.

If you've been unfortunate enough to be hit by one of those, you know the pain.

We don't play dirty so we retaliate with more power, more water bombs, more pichkari pressure, and if all else fails, the empty spray-paint bottles.

But now is the time for the real spectacle. The glorious moments of Holi, probably only seen where I live. Biker gangs. Hundreds of dudes, young and old, in groups of 5-10 at a time, on rumbling bikes (and mopeds) without silencers, colored in all imaginable colors, spooky and rowdy, touring the city like they own it.

Some of them are covered in such a shameless shade of silver, it's offensive to robots.

We watch them from a distance because they carry polybags full of water bombs, eggs, and rotten tomatoes. They're the dirtiest players in the game, after all. Their numbers allow them to be rude and overbearing.

But it is quite a spectacle to watch them rally the city and spread the colors of Holi, making the spirit of the festival very palpable.

Drawn memory of one biker gang group. ⓒ Yugal Sehgal

The streets, the balconies, the terraces, they're all full of people celebrating. The distinctive sounds of the all too familiar Bollywood Holi songs, emanating from God knows which parts of the city, can be heard.

Something about those songs makes me cringe a bit,I don't know why, but in the spirit of the festival I let it pass.

This spectacular day is perhaps the only day in the city (and the country) that celebrates color and at the same time disregards it, welcoming openly everyone in rejoice.

These memories of mine are more than half a decade old. Things have changed now. Holi is celebrated a little differently these days, but some of the old practices are still commonplace.

Some remnants of the biker gangs still take the play to the streets, some balconies still see kids carry out their colorful assaults, and some terraces still host Bollywood-y celebrations, collectively embodying the essence of the festival that is Holi.

While I don't celebrate it like I used to (darn it growing up!), I do indulge in hitting a few water bombs here and there if I can manage. That adrenaline rush is just too strong to resist and Holi allows me to get away with it. But it was arguably more guilt-free back in the day.

Yugal Sehgal writes about life, mindfulness, and people. He lives in India. Follow him and @drawcuments on Instagram.