Reminiscent musings on an Indian Holi

As USC celebrates Holi on campus, Tannistha Sinha recalls childhood and university days in India, full of colorful merriment with family and friends.

Students celebrating Holi at McCarthy Quad.

The day of Holi was always special to me. I would wake up earlier than most days, not needing my grandmother’s usual gentle nudges and playful rebukes. As she prepared our morning tea, I would mischievously tell her she better watch out for my colors that day as my palms pressed against my mouth, barely able to contain my giggles.

She would always say, “Don’t you dare!” but when the festivities began, she would make no attempts to hide. My parents, however, would do their best to run from me but would eventually give up and I would take the opportunity to put color on them. They would plead with me to put just a “tika” or a dot on their forehead, but I would never listen.

Holi is a Hindu festival, celebrated in spring with colors. It symbolizes the triumph of good over evil and is celebrated across the world among the South Asian diaspora. A mythological background to the story behind Holi is the love shared between Radha and Krishna, deities worshiped by Hindus. Popular myths suggest Krishna’s skin was blue because a demon tried to poison him when he was a child and he was worried Radha would not like him because of this. Krishna’s mother, Yashoda, as a playful gesture, told him to put some colored powder on Radha’s face. When he did, they fell in love.

Holi was always an off day from school. Before parting ways for the holiday, my friends and I would earnestly discuss our plans, though ours would never include the fancy water guns the rich kids talked about. These are essential to Holi — toys designed to spray jets of colored water on people during Holi. I would secretly plan to convince my parents to buy one for me.

I always played Holi with friends from my apartment complex, the ones I grew up with and who watched me grow. That is the beauty of childhood friends; they know exactly who you are, without pretense, even with faces beyond recognition smeared with various colors. They are ones with whom you can laugh the loudest, on this day and others, running until you are giddy with happiness, being chased with a big bucket of colored water, the stress of homework a distant thought for once.

Before heading up to the roof to play Holi, there was much preparation that was needed. Any Indian kid knows exactly what “Holi clothes” are: an old T-shirt or your most worn out pair of shorts, because friends can attack from any hidden corner with a bucket filled with colored water. It would be stupid to wear an expensive shirt. Still, a crisp white salwar or kurta is preferable at times, like when the festival is celebrated only with “abir” or “gulaal” — the traditional name for powdered colors, to bring out the richness of the reds, greens, yellows and pinks.

After a long day of playing Holi in the sun, with the cool colored water leaving vibrant stains on our skin, it would be time to scratch the color away before my teachers at school punished me for walking in looking like a “silly buffoon” (their words, not mine). Coming down the stairs of my building, the smell of mutton curry would hit my nostrils, and I would rush to the bathroom in a greedy frenzy, trying to scrub away the adventures of the day.

Before long, we grew up and adulthood brought with it the highs and lows of falling in love. Playing Holi dramatically with our partners became the norm. We would imagine we were Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor in the 2013 film “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani,” dancing to “Balam Pichkari” (“Imagine” being the operative word).

When I first arrived on campus at one of the most prestigious universities in India for my undergraduate degree, I dreaded Holi. I worried about celebrating Holi in a new environment, particularly since my professors told us there would be class the day before. Would I be making a fool of myself if I bought a pack of colored powder to class? But my concerns were soon alleviated. As I walked into campus, I saw so many vendors outside the gate selling colors. They had organic varieties of the worst, the most indelible but also the most coveted colors alongside clown wigs and, to my horror, even eggs.

The pond outside our classroom building was suspiciously colorful, and in a few minutes, I knew why. Students were picking their friends up and swinging them into the pond. That day was beautiful — setting the precedent for four more years of the wildest Holis I ever played. My friends and I would bring buckets for water, storage bags for our phones and wallets, small bags and jars of color for throwing, as well as lots of sweets to share after the fun. By the end of the day, it was hard to tell who was behind the thick layer of color.

Sadly, the pandemic changed everything. Two consecutive Holis went by, and the only way we could express our longing to play with colors was through dry, polite Whatsapp messages to our friends and relatives. Facebook memories kept reminding me of the thrill of seeing my campus adorned with colors and the joy of sharing a cool glass of thandai after a long day in the sun.

When I came to USC, I barely expected to find Holi celebrations on campus — the Association of Indian Students (AIS) had other plans. They organized celebrations with colors, food and Bollywood music. Even before anyone entered the campus on March 26, strains of “Rang Barse” from the 1981 film “Silsila” drifted through the air from McCarthy Quad, pumping excitement into the hearts of the Indian students who have long been away from home.

The celebrations were a sight to behold. Hundreds of students danced to popular Bollywood Holi songs, faces smeared with colors contrasted with their grinning white teeth, greeting friends with fistfuls of colored powder.

“This is the most Indian thing I have done ever since I came here,” said Shreya Puranik, an MBA student at USC. “This gives me home energy, throwing color and dancing to awesome music with such a great DJ.”

Even though Holi is considered a Hindu festival, it stands as a testament to the inclusion of other religions. After all, everyone deserves to have fun on Holi, regardless of whether they are Hindu or not. Some students at USC echoed that thought.

“I didn’t celebrate Holi at home. I come from a Muslim family but I love intercultural events like these and wanted to participate in the celebrations,” said Rumaisa Islam, a sophomore majoring in cognitive science.

The AIS has always wanted to do something like this, said Charvi Pathak, a member of the organizing committee. They had expected 750 to 1,000 students to turn up, but much to their surprise, even more joined in the festivities.

Students and staff of many different nationalities were spotted playing with colors and partaking in the merriment. As childhood memories flooded my mind, it warmed my heart to see Holi being played on USC grounds. I felt included in a larger group of Indian students, united in our love for colors and good food on a joyous day made even better by the presence of friends to share it with.

I quickly called my grandmother. “Don’t think I won’t spray color on you this year just because I am miles away!” I said. Through the phone, I could hear her toothless laughter, and for a second, I became that mischievous kid standing next to her, eagerly waiting to sip tea and talk about school and Holi together.