The Holi Memories
In this deeply moving personal essay, Shalini Kala narrates her Holi memories that live on in the mind. In it we come across the author’s mother, a loving and lovable woman embracing life with all its colours.
That year at a pre-Holi singing session that she’d organised at home, mum suffered a brain stroke. Her mouth was still moving in singing action even as her eyes closed and head tilted to one side. She was surrounded by friends from her singing group none of who could figure out what might be happening to her. She was rushed to the hospital in her small hill town, the general physician was summoned from his home but in about half hour the second stroke ended her 73 years long earthly stint.
Twelve hours later I saw her lifeless body, chided her lifeless self for not taking better care of her health, cursed myself for rescheduling my trip home to two months later, cursed myself again for blaming mum for her passing away; I watched in horror and confusion my pain of losing her transforming into anger and more confusion. It is not as if I wasn’t aware of this eventuality. In fact a few years before when she crossed 70, I had started to prepare myself. But still. She was fit, reading voraciously, cooking to her heart’s content, traveling, singing and playing music regularly along with navigating a very busy social calendar. How could she do this to us so suddenly?!
Later in the day I found two boxes full of Gujiya, her Holi special, in the kitchen. She was going to courier some to us siblings. Another painful stab as realisation dawned that these are the last of her Gujiyas that I will savour. I tried holding closely all the Holi memories that came out rushing at this point, fearing I would somehow lose them.
In the cold climes of Uttarakhand hills Holi is less about coloured water dips, baths and sprays and more about smearing faces with dry colour mostly derived from aromatic organic sources such as dried flower petals, leaves, turmeric, etc. And like in some other parts of the country, Holi is also much more about weeks of collective singing, eating and drinking sessions.
In the big city that we grew up in, dad’s village mates, most of who were related to each other by blood, operated like a close knit family. Weekends, holidays, festivals especially Holi, were spent together with much celebration and cheer all around along with only a little dry colour powder. On these occasions we kids grouped into a gang and contributed mainly by eating. Dad’s village boasts of its own Holi compositions created by some well-known ancestors. These were sung with great vigour congregating at homes of different uncles each evening for 7-10 days till the day of Holi. Since, mum was a naturally gifted singer she would be asked to join the more melodious male voices of dad’s relatives in rendering the lilting village melodies.
We kids looked forward to these fun filled evenings every year. For one, these were extended parties where none of the adults had time to monitor us, and secondly these involved a lot of eating; gujiya, urad dal pakodi, namak paare, shakkar paare, and at times, the non-hilly but popular in the city, dahi vadas. And all this apart from dinner. Since, male adults showed more keenness for rum and other such alcohol laced sundries, this meant that we could dominate the eating bit. That the songs and the singing were making a space in the back of our young minds, I realised only later in life – I am humming one of them as I write this piece.
Our participation in these sessions continued till we reached higher classes in school when Holi was invariably close to or right in the middle of exams and we were busy showing off our hard work – some of us were really sincere students but most of us would rather enjoy the Holi party and the eating that came with it. For the adults these sessions were sacrosanct, followed religiously, even if a child at home was about to cross an important milestone in her educational journey. Once I tried displaying my irritation by locking myself up in the bathroom to study!
Mum and dad continued the ritual with greater fervour after dad’s retirement when they moved back to the hills. The community of interested revellers, singers, and listeners increased manifold. Dad’s village is close by, relatives would drop in for the Holi singing parties at home, mum and dad would trek to his village for gatherings there. Mum was great at hosting singing sessions, being a good cook and musician helped. Each time I visited, I would roll my eyes at the expanding number of her uninvited guests and each time she would laugh it off as if it was a blessing not a problem that had to be managed. She enjoyed it all – the singing, the feeding, and the chaos even if she knew that by the end of it all she was going to be super exhausted or as we now say jokingly sometimes, “dead tired”.
It has taken me some time to reconcile with the fact that mum passed away doing what she enjoyed the most and in the manner she wanted to – quickly, without anybody able to make any fuss. And though I miss her and her Gujiyas, I tell myself frequently that it is a blessing she moved on according to her wishes. Holi is always going to be about celebrating her life, her singing and the happy memories she left us with.
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Shalini learnt to enjoy cooking at a mature age by which time she had gained many other experiences particularly through her work in agriculture and rural development. Her writing is an attempt to mix lessons from her cooking experiments with those from life in general.
Shalini , it is a beautiful and emotional piece. I can relate to it. Taiji, as I used to address, your mom , was my idol – a secret I shared with her in a phone call from Mumbai when she was visiting my mom in Delhi. I told her how much I used to like her smile, her way of dressing and her positive attitude. She passed away in her most treasured earthly moment. Rare individuals get this chance. I am sure wherever she is, she is showering her blessings on you and to us.
Holi’s collective singing, in our houses, is something we can’t forget. Yesterday only I talked to my father and got some songs recorded. Want to carry this culture and ritual forward. I sang one song we used to hear in those sessions, yesterday in my place. Felt extremely satisfied. Went back to my childhood. This time I was the one singing..
So glad that this took you back our childhood. You know she loved you very much. I hope she shared that with you, you the sincere one. 💕💕
Beautiful and poignant memories shared in similar strain by you. For those like me who knew only a little of your mom , the gujia recipe and its backdrop are a window to her life – one lived gracefully and joyfully.