I stepped out of our hotel, the pristine, perfectly air-conditioned Taj Bengal, to the sticky humidity. Already, my hair puffed up around my face. In front of the sleek glass doors, the weather was bearable, but I knew that, after a minute, the dusty heat would overtake me.
It was Holi, the festival of colors and spring in Kolkata, India. My mother and I, having called a cab to take to my relatives’ house, slipped inside as the bellhops saw us off. “Enjoy your day, ma’am,” one trilled towards me, tilting his head slightly. I, a sixteen year old girl, was just thrilled to be called ma’am.
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The hotel’s driveway ended at a metal gate covered in chipped teal paint. A guard opened it and we set out on Belvedere road. Numerous stalls crowded the edges of the street. On any other day, these would be packed with vendors selling coconuts, soda, fruit, whatever refreshment one might need. On Holi, however, they were eerily deserted. Nevertheless, there were a few motorists around me rushing to celebrations, although most of the morning festivities, in which friends doused each other with vats of colorful paint, had passed. The characteristic Indian driving scared me a bit, as usual.
As congestion on the main highway forced us to slow, people began to scurry by my cab. I scanned them for any sign of Holi paint. I was disappointed, as I had never been in India for the holiday and seemed to have missed everything already. Still, I was excited to spot remnants splashed across almost everything. Purple stains marred the concrete. Otherwise respectable men in formerly white polo shirts were entirely pink. A woman clung to her husband on a motorcycle. Despite the fact that she was wearing an elegant sari, an embroidered silk piece wrapped around her entire body, she was covered in green paint. As we stopped at a traffic light amidst a chorus of honking cars, I noticed a man’s hand sticking out the window of the taxi next to us. The hand was magenta, and held a cigarette with just a wisp of smoke trailing up from it. Suddenly, the color of the smoking hand and everything else seemed dirty and unmanageable. I couldn’t imagine why these people ruined their nice clothes in one morning. I was no longer sure if I would have wanted to participate in the morning’s paint throwing, though I was still sad not to have seen it.
We had decided to stop by Ganguram Sweets for syrupy rosogollas. In front of the shop, I saw a man selling bright powders; mixed with water, they would become Holi paint, the color of poppies or turmeric. I yearned to buy some, but our hotel staff had warned that such powders could burn skin. I turned away and walked inside the shop. There was no door, no central air. I waited while my mother ordered in quick Bengali. I observed the stickiness of the floor, the twenty or thirty flies swooping around me. As soon as I shooed them away, they would settle again.
Then, I looked out past the entryway, where I saw young men tossing around colored powder they had just bought. They were laughing, grabbing at each other’s shoulders, just as my friends back home might. One reached out, pulled at his companion’s shorts by the waistband and poured the powder down them. They all roared with laughter, slapping each other’s backs. I couldn’t help but smile; while the men had not noticed me, I had finally witnessed Holi.
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