Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Holi, the Festival of Colors, and My First Shakespearean Moment

Happy Holi! Today, Indians welcome spring by celebrating the Festival of Colors. People gather on the streets, with their friends and neighbors, and engage in the largest paint fight game you can imagine. If you plan to step outside, you'd better wear old clothes you don't care about, because you'll soon get pelted with colored paint or powder.

In fact, one of my earliest memories involves the Holi festival. I was about three or four years old, and my family was staying at my grandparents' apartment in Calcutta. My grandmother and I leaned out their living room window and peered down at the streets below.

“There,” she said, “See those people? They're playing Holi.”

I did indeed see people below, even a few neighbors I recognized, swathed in a riot of dark colors. Their hair, their faces, their clothes, their hands and even their sandaled feet had all been coated in paint. They had been transformed into creatures I didn't recognize, demon-like creatures from the netherworlds.

When my grandparents and my sister cheerfully asked me to come out with them, I refused and hid behind my mother's sari. Why did my family want to venture out into that strange world of monster-like beings? My mother laughed and told me I didn't have to go, and so I stayed in the sunny haven of the apartment.

Not long later, my grandparents and sister returned, their faces too mutated by the colors. They had been taken by the disease! With wide smiles they asked me to join them, stretching out their purple, blue, and red demon fingers toward me.

Never! I shrieked and ran into the master bedroom, slamming the door behind me. My mother knocked and found me skulking behind the large four-poster bed.

“There's nothing to be scared of,” she told me, “It's just paint. It comes off. Don't you want to go out and play with your sister?”

I shook my head and refused to budge from the bedroom.

“Suit yourself.”

I sat there as the afternoon sun climbed higher and higher into the sky, gleaming through the single window. I hid in the safety of the shadows, wondering when this frightful day might end. A long time later, there came another knock on the door. My mother called at me through it. She was the only one I trusted—certainly not my grandparents or sister—so I ventured to open the door.

This was my first truly Shakespearean moment. My mother's lovely, fair skin had disappeared. In its place, a blue smear ran across her forehead. A patch of red grew around her right eye. And her cheeks, mouth, and chin were as green as the face of an evil witch.

Et tu, Brute?

My American elementary school teachers never could understand my strong aversion to finger painting.