a happy holi piece

you charged out and grabbed someone and covered their face, head, neck, whatever you could get hold of, in bright, powdery, bursting out of you fist, flying abeer. the coloured powder was vermilion red or marigold orange or wild mean yellow or deadly green, there was this deep cobaltish blue too. and a deeper purple. how can i forget the chutney pink.

the point was to put that colour on someone first before they did the same to you. of course, you’d be given a return colour blast and that was the whole point. it was holi.


more colour.

and don’t hold back, rub on some more colour, please.

a fine veil of colour hung in the air. everyone was a multi coloured, wild looking being. you could feel the colour on your tongue. the smell of it reached your mind. the colour on your lashes stung your eyes.

abeer, phag, gulal, the coloured powder had pretty names in bengali and hindi. funny, in english, i can’t find a word that gives it the zing it deserves. packets and packets of abeer would appear the evening before holi, plans of pichkaris and dunking drums filled with coloured water would get going. i remember we all had our own pichkaris, again in english no nice word, the best i can do is water spray. so, pichkari. we had brass ones, you got them in plastic too. thing was, everyone had to own one. you had to fill it up with coloured water and aim and splash your quarry with a forceful jet of pure liquid colour before they got you or ran away. i can almost feel a shot on my skin as i write this.

everyone played holi. kids, adults, parents, uncles, grandparents. you went from home to home and got seriously doused in colour and at some point you had to be thrown into a dunking drum of course. you ate loads of sweets. then at your uncle’s friend’s home in old delhi, you drank kanji.

it was pungent and sort of adult in taste but at thirteen you were practically an adult, weren’t you. this was long before the books for the “tweens” came out. you read mills and boon and agatha christie at thirteen, you even hid in the bathroom and flipped through the adventurer, then tried to look cool while reading it in front of your grandfather. and so, you enjoyed kanji, the fermented drink made of black carrot, beetroot, mustard seeds, and asafoetida with boondi floating on top.

after my youngest maternal uncle got married, my aunt, who was from u.p., introduced bhang to our holi. she’d make this sweet, milk based drink called thandai, with flavours of saffron, pepper, and who knows what else, with a touch of cannabis… bhang. i know that she would never encourage us to learn more about ways to consume cannabis but, like most people in india, bhang was perfectly acceptable to her. she’d very carefully add just a tiny teeny bit so we wouldn’t lose it. although I knew that I could always get more online (learn more), I didn’t tell her.

in the little company township where i grew up, everyone knew everyone and holi was a continuous party moving from house to house along the pretty lanes and roads. i have never thought of holi as a religious thing… just an outpouring of wondrous fun. at our place there were no pujas and prayers on this day and as i said, everyone played. hindu, sikh, jain, muslim, christian, buddhist, jew, as far as i can remember, everyone.

as a kid, i never realised, holi was a time to also get romantic. but nah, now that i think, there’s this age, when anything and everything is an opportunity to get romantic. unlike as i see in tv serials and movies, we never bothered to appear in only white for the colour fest. you wore your old and ragged clothes, because nothing would be redeemable post the madness. that was the whole point. this was not a fashion parade nor a chance to look fetching, this was the look bizarre and get close and laugh a lot and eat and get active ambushing each other with colour time. slightly primitive, something the heart and gut got, not so much the intellect. good thing.

the advent of spring, the legends and tales of krishna and radha, the burning of the demoness holika, the full moon that time of the year, the harvest, they all are part of holi. i get the feeling it’s essentially a harvest festival with pretty myths and lores getting woven into the happy times. in bengal, we call holi “dol” and the full moon is therefore “dol purnima”. though dol is supposed to be all about krishna, to us holi was just one thing.


and the essential intrinsic off the charts fun of it.

and so it remained. as we grew up. as slowly, i outgrew most festivals. as a nasty streak of eve teasing entered the celebrations of holi, as something changed as it always does.

even now, around holi time, a sudden drenching in the thoughts of that crazy fun comes by. sometimes i wish i could grab some abeer and run out and catch you and cover you in gruesome gulabi. and later, much later, after we’ve played and eaten till we’re groggy and have come back home and had a hot shower and not been able to get rid of the red on the arms or the purple on the face but are too sleepy to care and are falling into a deep long slumber, through half closed eyes i look at my hands and something shines back at me.

abhra. i think, trying to smile as sleep gets me. they’d mix finely powdered mica into the colour so it sparkled on your skin.

indrani’s index

holi was a big song op in hindi films. here are some that flash before the eye and chuck a handful of abeer at me.

videos credit uploaders

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  • Reply
    lalita arya
    March 13, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks. Indi. this piece brought back so many memories of early Guyana mornings being awakened by the sounds of the dholak & dhol as ‘phagwah’ & ‘abeer’ covered friends paraded around the village lanes singing phagwah songs. now later in years having same kind of experiences all the way here in India. All three songs you posted are being played all day along with ‘hawa may bhang’. I was trying to hide away in my bedroom, but with HOLI HAI cries one cannot escape. Even the tiny kids are running around looking for clean victims whom they could color. Hope you have a good one wherever you are …also Rhea, Aarwen, Durga & others.

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      March 14, 2017 at 8:01 am

      hi lalita, thank you and happy holi. in assam, we had many biharis working, some were called madesia (you familiar with that term?), and i remembered “phagwah” as i read it in your comment. you call it abeer too? oooh lovely. the strangest of things give me goosebumps these days. this must be what old age is all about and i am loving it, ha. am thinking, you were in guyana, me in assam… thanks to perhaps the same thing that invaded our common history. colonialism. such strange colours touch us and make our lives what they are 🙂 so glad you could not escape the holi hai cries…. hahhahaha “kids running around looking for clean victims”…

  • Reply
    Bengu from Turkey
    March 14, 2017 at 4:33 am

    Hello Indi, your writing always touches my heart. And today made me – a self-appointed honorary Desi- wish that we had Holi in my country. It would be a wonderful way to create unforgettable childhood memories and a community that practices true meaning of love and respect for everyone regardless of differences of class, ethnicity or religion.
    I wish all followers of Hindu faith and everybody else a very happy Holi.

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      March 14, 2017 at 7:48 am

      hi bengu 🙂 been missing you. thank you so much for reading. my dear desi girl, that’s such a lovely comment. yeah, holi was a whole lot of fun. my husband, who’s jewish, was remembering the mounds of colour at the market and once as kids scaring a bus full of foreigners with wild cries and a playful charge. the bus driver had tried to make them stand quietly while the tourists took some shots. make a bunch of thirty kids stand quietly in the midst of their holi revelry? who did the bus driver think he was? superman? arnav singh raizada? thank you so much for your wishes. there are good and bad sides to all things, even holi. but as i looked at the pictures of my friends having fun, i realised, a lot of the good real holi is still out there. nice.

  • Reply
    rhea sinha
    March 19, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    I didn’t celebrate holi this year what with one thing and another.. or is it just excuses.. i wonder.. loved your selection of Holi songs and who wears white haha? We wore old clothes too in the mornings when we played with wet colours. In the evening we would dress up and put a little gulal on elders’ feet for ashirwad. Haha smiled reading indi di having bhang.. For us food was an elaborate ritual on this day. Mutton cooked for hours on the fire outside.. Sigh reading this am going to force myself to make Holi feel like Holi next year Indi di..

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