Josna Rege

103. Holi, Water Play, Rites of Spring

In 1960s, 1990s, Childhood, Greece, India, Stories on March 17, 2011 at 4:10 pm

During the long summers as a child in Athens I joined the other children—mainly boys—in the streets of our neighborhood playing with cheap, brightly-colored plastic water pistols. They held less than a cup of water, sprayed only a short distance, and had to be refilled frequently—from where I don’t remember, probably our mothers’ kitchen taps. Despite having only two moving parts they still broke frequently, but that was part of the fun, too—running to the kiosk at the bottom of the hill clutching a handful of small change, selecting the color of a brand-new model, and racing back to join the fray. Running about joyfully, shouting and screaming, and getting wet: this was the point of it all.

As a girl in Kharagpur I remember hiding under the bed on the day of Holi, the spring festival of colors, as a noisy, exuberant crowd of my father’s students marched inexorably towards our bungalow. It was exhilarating but frightening, that day when everyone abandoned their customary restraint and soaked each other from head to toe with colored water. Our hair and skin were stained with the powerful dyes for days afterward and people who had only one or two changes of  clothes had to wear the brightly stained garments all year. Everything was all right once the students actually arrived and my mother had plied them with sweets; it was listening to the drumming and the wild shouts and cries of the approaching mob (or so it felt to me) that was so terrifying. Wearing my oldest clothes, I too went out with my friends, doing the rounds of the neighborhood with our buckets of colored water and plastic water squirters, delighting in spraying as many people as we possibly could while getting drenched ourselves.

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During the half-year we lived in India when Nikhil was eight, we were living in Pune when Holi came around. In the days leading up to it, while my kaki and cousins  prepared modaks and other seasonal delicacies, Andrew and Nikhil ventured into the Tulsibag market on a quest for the traditional piston-like water squirters, or pichkaris. One afternoon, when I had woken up from my afternoon nap and was having a quiet cup of tea with my cousin, they returned with their arms full of parcels, grinning from ear to ear. Besides several packages of water balloons, they had found two gorgeous specimens, antique pichkaris made of heavy brass, which they promptly proceeded to take apart, put together again, and test out on anyone within range. That Holi they stationed themselves on the roof with their new pichkaris,  several buckets of colored water, and dozens of water balloons at the ready. I must admit that I hid out for much of the mayhem, but Nikhil and Andrew entered fully into the carnivalesque spirit of the day. The blistering heat of summer came on cue immediately after Holi and poor Nikhil was stricken with a dangerously high fever for the next week, which I still l blame on the amount of dirty water he must have swallowed inadvertently. But I suspect that if you asked him he would say that it was all worth it.

Back in the United States super soakers had come into fashion. No longer simple little water pistols with reservoirs no bigger than a tea-cup, these were massive, multi-barreled, and powerful. They were to the puny plastic water pistols we played with in Greece what machine guns are to single-shot pistols. Nikhil and his friends would have summer parties featuring super soakers where they  broke into two teams and raced around the yard getting each other and themselves as wet as possible, pausing only to fill their reservoirs from a 55-gallon drum. My father purchased a super soaker for the sole purpose of scaring the squirrels off his bird-feeder. When I went over to with Nikhil, Dad would call Nikhil aside conspiratorially and take him into the bathroom, where they would fill the bright-yellow plastic contraption and he would station Nikhil just inside the house, ready to take aim through the sliding doors if he spotted a troublemaking squirrel climbing up the trumpet-vine to the bird-feeder.

Thankfully, Nikhil was no longer interested in such things by the time Paintball came on the scene, although he enjoyed playing Laser Tag for a short period in his adolescence (probably because it involved a trip to the mall with a group of his friends). Somehow Paintball crossed a line for me and I found it—still find it—disturbing. It’s too much like hunting down a human being. Why is it that people seem to become jaded with simple pleasures? Why keep upping the ante, moving on to play that requires ever-bigger and more menacing paraphernalia? As a child, it didn’t even occur to me to think of our water pistols as weapons but, for me at least, Laser Tag and Paintball are too closely associated with war games ever to be just harmless play.

In recent years people in India have become more aware of the toxicity of the artificial dyes used at Holi and are urging the use of environmentally-friendly ones, which is entirely a good thing. Holi, traditionally a holiday that gives people a once-a-year license to let loose, can become threatening, especially for women and in large crowds. Harmless play can suddenly turn to violence, and many people opt to stay indoors, as I found myself doing instinctively when I hid under the bed as a young girl. But while there’s always a fine line between joyful abandon and dangerous loss of control, every society needs its rites of Spring. To echo today’s greeting from an old classmate of mine on Facebook, I wish everyone a happy, colorful and safe Holi!

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  1. I saw a photo today — in the NYT??? — showing a child surrounded by bowls of brilliantly colored dyes. I wouldn’t have known about it at all without your piece on Holi Water. What does Holi mean, or what is it celebrating?

    • Sarah, as it is with just about everything in India, there are many different explanations of Holi’s origins. It’s chiefly a spring festival, but there are other stories attached to it. See this Times of India story:

  2. I have always enjoyed Holi and never really cared for paintball or laser tag; I do however understand the thrill behind the act of shooting somebody with a paint ball gun. I think human beings love to fight (or compete) as it’s a natural biological instinct – but as one grows older it’s gets harder and harder to beat somebody up and manage to get away from the law after doing so. Paint ball is an honourable alternative. As Jung said, we never really get over our childhood. Almost all sports play on that very same state of mind and the adrenaline ambrosia which comes of victory. I love to fence, hunt and competitively spar – so I really can’t complain much about Paint ball or Laser tag; it would be a case of the kettle calling the pot black or vice versa.

    • Thanks for your comments, Pinu. I appreciate that sports can function as a less violent, more socially acceptable outlet for our violent and competitive instincts (although I would like to see us work at evolving beyond them). What I was bemoaning in the story was the seeming trend toward extremes in every sport—greater speed, greater violence, more expensive paraphernalia— as if we have become so jaded that we can no longer enjoy a simple game. It’s fine if you want to spar, but must you jump out of a plane?! x J

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