(Retellings is a series of short stories inspired by real events that author, actor and child rights activist Nandana Sen is writing on HuffPost. These will deal with sensitive issues related to young adults that rarely receive adequate or appropriate attention in society. Please send any feedback for Nandana to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
"Oof, so hot!" grumbles Shibur Ma as she squats to wipe the floor. "Good day for Holi. What will you wear, Ria Didi? No, not that one, are you mad? Washed it only yesterday. How about this old red dress? Ah, it's missing a hook, I'll fix it now. Know what happened today when I was mending Shibu's shirt? That green one he got for Pujo?"
Shibur Ma is an unstoppable talker whose thoughts are never not in rapid transit. The only way to shut her up is to ask her what her name is. Then she halts mid-sentence, frowns at the floor, and tries to remember it (never with any success). When she was thirteen - exactly my age - she gave birth to Shibu, and everyone's called her "Shibur Ma" ever since.
"Well, the needle broke. It broke clean in half! That means serious bad luck," she rattles on. "Bindu's needle broke the day her husband got run over by the truck. Baap re, Bindu is so stingy! Yesterday I asked her for a tiny bit of jaggery . . ."
"Ugh, jaggery," I grimace, tuning her out as I chew my daily dose of raw turmeric with jaggery. Not my favourite. It tastes yucky but Ma insists it's good for glowing skin. The morning smells of soft spring heat. We had to write an essay on "My Favourite Season" this week, and of course I chose spring. Because it's hot enough to splash around in the rain, but not so hot that you get scalded (and darkened) if you step in the sun.
And Holi is by far my favourite holiday. Of course, it celebrates spring, youth, fertility and all that, but for us, Holi is all about having fun with your mates - yes, it's about colours, play, friends, pranks, laughter. Thamma says it's also about divine love. She knows all these songs by heart about how Krishna and Radha played Holi under the full moon, throwing petals and pollen at each other. (And made passionate love afterwards, I'm sure, though Thamma doesn't sing about that.) Frankly, I think making a grand mess with dyed dust and coloured water, like we do now, is way more exciting than waving flowers at one another.
I hated that dress when it was given to me two years ago, but now that it tightly hugs my body and ends six inches above my knees, I like it a lot.
Know why Holi is my favourite? Because you can break the rules without getting grounded. You can wear your rattiest clothes. You can take your singing lessons looking like a gaudy, graphic nightmare. You can hide in the balcony with gubaras filled with tinted water, and pick anyone on the street to attack. I love watching the little balloons burst on contact, spilling their gooey slush all over the victim's clothes. That's totally my favourite moment.
According to Ma, though, girls like me have to be careful on Holi. Only loose girls play colours with boys they don't know, she says, and boys can sometimes force unaccompanied girls to play Holi with them. The rowdy boys from the camp behind the station get drunk during Holi, and no girl is safe around them then.
I squeeze into my red dress. I hated that dress when it was given to me two years ago, but now that it tightly hugs my body and ends six inches above my knees, I like it a lot. (On any other day I wouldn't be allowed to go out in it, but today is different.) And red is my favourite colour. Actually, I'd never cared for red till my last birthday, when Ved gave me a red T-shirt, whispering, "Isn't red sexy?" I instantly fell in love with red. I'd fallen in love with Ved a long time ago.
I was the ugly Stepsister who cuts off her heel to fit the shoe; Cinderella was a twelve-year-old with rosy cheeks and an unquestionable bosom. Ved, of course, was the Prince.
I was ten and he thirteen, and we were part of the Cinderella play at school. I was the ugly Stepsister who cuts off her heel to fit the shoe; Cinderella was a twelve-year-old with rosy cheeks and an unquestionable bosom. Ved, of course, was the Prince. He lived down the street in a five-story house, not a flat like ours, and everyone knew that he was a wonder-boy. Always top in class, Junior Debate Champion, Finalist in the Under-Sixteen Tennis Tournament. He was also the best-looking boy I'd ever seen, with lashes all the way to Howrah Station. I worshipped him from a distance, and though I was on the debate team too, I never had the guts to speak to him. But as I was walking home after the first rehearsal, Ved stopped his bike to tell me he'd rather marry me than Cinderella.
You may have guessed this already but, yes, Ved Lahiri is my absolute favourite. I get to see a lot of him now, as this year he became President of Youth Connection, the boys' club in our neighbourhood. The boys plant trees, collect funds for Saraswati Pujo and on Saturday nights, take turns substituting for the nightwatchman (who guards us against thieves and camp rowdies), so he can have a night off. Ved and I don't "go out," of course. Nice thirteen-year-old girls don't do that, where I live. They wait. So I'm waiting. Ved hasn't mentioned marriage again, but I'm sure it'll crop up eventually.
The doorbell rings. Shompa and Nidhi walk in, arguing.
"She can't come. Impossible. What will people think of us?"
"I know, but I couldn't . . ."
"I can't believe she had the nerve to ask... Please let's hurry and leave before she arrives."
We got a problem. Bharati stopped by Nidhi's house to say she'd like to play Holi with us. Nidhi said we didn't have enough abir for four people, but Bharati said no problem, she'd bring her own abir. She'd finish her work at the Boses' and come right on over to my place.
When we were little, Bharati was in our group and we'd all play together. Bharati's mother Kelor Bou was a good cook and a Brahmin and used to work for Nidhi's family. Everyone knew that Kelo had left her the morning after their wedding, so Nidhi's mother had kept her on for many years - until she found out that Kelor Bou was living with a low-caste sweeper. Shibur Ma says that Kelor Bou had worn sindoor every day for twenty years, like a good wife. Then she met her street-sweeper and scrubbed her sindoor off with a dishrag.
Bharati was utterly fearless, didn't have to go to school, could eat very hot green chillies like they were grapes, and ran faster than all of us. We accepted her because she was better than us. In fact, she was my favourite. One time, when a bone got stuck in Lallu's throat and he started to gag and growl, we got very scared - we all loved him, but he was a street dog after all. Bharati's hand had disappeared inside Lallu's mouth as she pried open his jaw and pulled the bone out. And when we got locked into Shompa's chilekotha by mistake, Bharati climbed out of the window, tiptoed along the rainwater pipe, jumped off the water tank and unlocked the door for all of us. But all that was a very long time ago. Now she scrubs floors and dishes every day for the Boses, the Mukherjees, and the Singhs. How can she play Holi with us?
The doorbell rings. "Ved Babu is here!" announces Shibur Ma. Shompa and Nidhi wink at each other and vanish, as I feel my heart bouncing around somewhere inside my tummy, like on a trampoline. Ved goes to the kitchen first and puts abir on Ma's feet, as she makes malpuas. Then he strides into my study - and just looks at me. At my legs, my arms, the dress clinging to my body. I drown in a flood of delicious panic as he walks up to me slowly and puts a scorching red sun in the middle of my forehead. Just like sindoor. Super gently, like he's touching something that could break so easily. At this moment, I feel sure that I'm precious beyond words and incomparably beautiful. With trembling fingers, I put an uneven patch of green on his forehead. Ved's hand rests on my cheek for a moment. Then he's gone.
"Let's GO, Mrs. Lahiri!" yells Shompa as soon as Ved is out of earshot. The day passes in no time, like in a dream. Nidhi and Shompa tell all our friends that Ved has "married" me this morning. We eat so many sweets that we have to skip lunch. We shoot everybody with our water pistols, all except a few cranky grown-ups. We cover with shocking-pink abir the faces of every kid we meet who's smaller than us. We steal ice-lollies from the cart and spray the ice cream man with purple water when he chases us. From the window in the study, we throw gubaras at fifty-seven persons and miss only six times. An amazing day. My favourite Holi ever.
After the girls go home, I step into the balcony to look at the colour-splashed road below. When I shut my eyes, all I can see is colour. Opening them slowly, still in a trance, I see the unrecognizable faces of familiar people laugh and shout. Everyone looks happy. There's a girl standing right below our building whose face is covered with black abir, a kind I've never seen before. She must have got some of it in her eyes too, for she's rubbing them hard. Her dress is dripping wet and incredibly messy, just like ours had been, and has a gaping tear through which you can see most of her back. She must be very cold, for her back is trembling. I hear muffled sobs - wait, is she crying? The girl looks around quickly to make sure no one has noticed her tears, and then she looks up. It's Bharati.
She was utterly fearless, didn't have to go to school, could eat very hot green chillies like they were grapes, and ran faster than all of us. We accepted her because she was better than us.
At night, as Shibur Ma rubs coconut oil into my shampooed hair to get the last grains of abir out, I tell her that I saw Bharati crying. "Well, don't tell your Ma I'm telling you this," she says, rolling her eyes. She gets my word of honour and starts braiding my hair. "The boys jumped on Bharati, and threw her on the ground. They ripped her dress off and splattered her with mud and grease and . . . Well, she should never have gone near them. A fine training that Kelor Bou has given her daughter . . ."
The boys from the camp have always looked so... helpless. Somehow I never really believed that they were dangerous. Or that something like this could happen to someone I know. Even Bharati. I shut my eyes. All I can see is colour. Enormous gubaras are bombarding me, the colours clotting into sticky words - "spring" . . . "youth" . . . "love" . . . "friends"... "play" . . .
"I ... I never thought those boys from the camp could do such a thing..." I whisper.
"Oh no, not them." Shibur Ma stirs sugar into my glass of warm milk. "The boys down the street. You know, Ved Babu and his lot. Well, she should know that boys will be boys, shouldn't she?"
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