Holi, for me as for almost every one of you, brings back fond memories. Right from the innocent days when girls and boys together would take a holy dip into the friendly neighborhood under-construction house’s not-so-deep tank and splash around for hours. To the riot at college, when you would tie knots on your torn T shirt and whack everyone within vicinity (irrespective of his size) a reddening blow on his bare back, while the better species among our classmates would look on at this spectacle with (what I guess was) some amusement.
Somewhere on this pattern of memories, as colorful as my face and as indefinable as the shape of my T Shirt on any one of those Holi days, lies a particular brush stroke of fate . One spot, which is indelible for the rest of my life.
I was in class IX at that time. In an age when mischief has not started taking altogether new dimensions. And among other things, I had one unique favorite hobby – setting things on fire.
We lived on the outskirts of Ajmer, just at the edge of the town. The colony was perched atop a plateau and overlooked some of the higher of the peaks of Aravalis in the district. Just beyond the colony started the thorn – forested hills. The colony itself had a lot of vacant plots, on which wild, mostly thorny plants grew. This whole setting provided an ideal backdrop for a number of my hobbies. Among which, of course, was my insatiable desire of setting things on fire.
I had once set my dad’s garden compost dump on fire. One of my favorite evening activities on no-cricket days was to gather a bunch of kids, go to the jungle nearby, collect some firewood and have a bon fire. Even on a lot of cricket days, we would collect some firewood lying here and there on the playground and set it on fire and sit around it and discuss the day’s play and leofy each other.
The ‘Ravanas’ that I made on Dussera consisted of a heap of firewood. Some kids would gather in their curiosity as I would set it ablaze. And these were big, roaring fires. I remember on one Dushera two girls hugging each other in fright that the Ravana kind of scared them.
But the Holika I had never ventured to make.
There used to be a ‘Vikas Samiti’ of the colony. Some of the residents had had differences with the people running this Samiti and as a result they had rebelled and floated their own parallel Samiti. There was a mutual one-upmanship between these two committees. The rebels had had their own temple constructed. They even had their own Holika Dehen. The members of the two groups did not go to each others’ Mandir or Holika Dehen. We kids, though, were exempted from this unwritten, unspoken rule.
The Holika Dehen used to be a sort of a show of strength of the two warring factions. Whoever had the higher Holika, or the larger crowd in attendance, naturally scored a psychological point over the other. I think this was one of the major reasons behind people making Holika with so much zeal.
It was in this background, that in class IX I decided that enough had been enough. That groups could continue fighting and politicizing the Holika. But this time there will at least be one Holika free of politics and guided by the noble principles of good triumphing over evil burning bright in this colony. And that that would be mine.
(Truth be told, I decided that my instincts of making a high heap of firewood and the pleasure of setting it on fire will no longer be stifled by colony politics. I will be making one. And I don’t care if others make higher. As long as I set on fire mine.)
So a few days before Holika Dehen, I set about making my Holika. There were two large plots vacant between our and our nearest neighbours, the Khoslas’ home. That was chosen as the venue. Alongwith a friend of mine, who used to do domestic work for the Khoslas, I collected firewood. Wood was in inexhaustible supply from the nearby thorn jungles and from the vacant plots of the colony. But handling it was tricky. These weren’t straight logs of wood, but thorny bushes. Curved, twisted, and well, full of thorns. However much you cut the branches, you really could not have a straight ‘log’ of wood. Therefore, the irregular shaped bushes were all that we had to make do with. We dug a small pit, inserted the base of the thorny branches inside and firmly filled the pit with earth and water. This now looked like a proper cone, a giant 10-12 feet high flowerpot actually, rather than the inverted cone that Holikas are supposed to be like. To give it a more proper structure, we put branches around its sides. Twigs and hay were brought in. Finally, the Holika started looking somewhat like a bucket.
All this hadn’t been done without any political intervention from the powers that be of the colony. I had assumed that the exemption granted to the kids in visiting Mandirs and Holikas of the other group extended to even actually building a Holika. Thinking along the same lines, my parents had only hesitatingly given their permission. But we had been mistaken. There had been an intervention and taunts by some people of the opposing camp while we were making the Holika. There were some murmurings in the colony suggesting that ‘that’ side was preparing two Holikas instead of one this time around as a show of their strength, and that they had stooped down to the level of involving their children to pass it off as a ‘children’s game’ so that nobody could raise a finger. These were stray voices, but they were there. Nevertheless, most people were happy with our effort.
On Holika dehen day, a dozen odd people turned up to watch our Holika burn.
And luck, or lack of skill would have to have it. On the Holi day, the Holika did not burn.
We tried our best. We put a torch this way and that. Some stray twigs did burn. At times, the flame seemed to have just about reached the tipping point. But reach it did not. Tried this way and that, we could not make it catch fire. Nobody around had kerosene in their home. And my parents would not allow any petrol/ diesel being handled. So after about 15-20 minutes of futile trying, we gave up. The neighbors who had come to watch the Holika too went away with some words of encouragement. I went home, dejected.
The next day was Holi. We played with colors to our hearts’ content. And after coming back, washed up and slept off. Nobody paid any attention to the Unburned, somewhat blackened Holika. In the evening, as people came out for the evening stroll, many noticed the unburned Holika. Evidence of a failed effort doesn’t look good. I decided to dismantle it the other day.
From the next day was school, the usual routine of school-home-homework-cricket started, and I sort of kept putting off dismantling the Holika as I had intended. People had been coming for strolls on the road in front of my house, as was usual. People had been noticing the Holika. After a few days, some people had started complaining to my parents that an unburned Holika was inauspicious and should be removed immediately. That evening, as I came from the playground, my parents firmly told me to remove it. The next day was a holiday, and I promised that I would remove it the first thing that day. People were superstitious and will get upset. The situation was already quite politicized as it was. Better have the end of it soon.
The next morning, I woke up to the sounds of some confusion. A neighbor was in the dining room, talking to my mom. From my bed itself, I strained to hear what the conversation was about.
What I heard made me jump up. I went to the door and listened. I could give no reaction. What I had first overheard had been right.
The neighboring aunty, the old Mrs. Khosla who lived in the other house adjacent to the plots where we had made the Holika, had all of a sudden passed away.
Before anyone else could pass by to go to their house or before even the incident set in and the mourning started, I crept out of our house, went to the adjoining plots between the two houses and dismantled the Holika.
I did not, and still do not have much respect for the modernity of the Ajmer people. People were superstitious to the core, and some people were always looking for excuses to bitch about each other. People had already been talking about the inauspicious Holika that did not burn. I was dead afraid that sometime, someone somewhere might say something connecting the unburned Holika to Mrs. Khosla’s death. And that that might open a Pandora’s box. But I never got to hear a word about it. It seemed to me that this thought had never crossed my parents’ mind. Or maybe they did a very good job of hiding it. Same goes for my neighbors the Khoslas. They remained as genuinely sweet and affectionate as they had been earlier.
Maybe that was how things were to be. Maybe I was being paranoid when I thought that people might connect the two things. But I cannot believe that this thought never came to people’s minds – my neighborhood aunties had kept fasts whenever any snake was killed nearby. I had known people to put Totkas on the roads in their wish to have a son. And everybody else believing in them and not touching them, no matter what. I never knew a single family buying anything made of iron on a Saturday. And you could never find a single barber shop open on a Tuesday anywhere in the city.
Still, maybe the people were so broadminded that in this case any connection between the death and the Holika did not occur to them.
Or maybe this thought did come to people’s mind. That the inauspicious Holika was in some way responsible for Mrs. Khosla’s death. But that they had then rationalized. And came to the conclusion that that couldn’t be true.
Or, that they had had an idea somewhere that the two issues were related but then they had thought of me. That what had happened had happened and any loose talk about it could severely impact my young, delicate mind.
All these require a level of rationality which I cannot give my neighborhood people credit for. I know all people could not have been like that.
Another possible explanation could be that maybe people were just so taken aback and aggrieved for aunty’s death that this thought never crossed their mind.
Perhaps the fact that Mrs. Khosla was kinda old (65 around) but appeared much older saved the day for me. That people just took her death for a natural one. And that because of this, the Holika never came to their thoughts.
These theories are again highly disputable. For the most part, I believe that people did connect by Holika with the death. At least some of them did. And that some of them did talk about it. But not many did that. And whoever did, maintained a level of propriety so as not to say such things in front of children or my immediate neighbors or people known to me.
What ever the case is, I’ll never get to know the truth now.
I lived in some stress for a few days; until the death itself got kinda erased from conscious public memory. I never told about this to anyone. The stress was not high, as I was too broadminded enough to have any feeling of guilt or shame about it. But the fear that some fool some day might point fingers at me, and that might make things unpleasant for the Khoslas, people I liked a lot, or my parents. But nothing of that kind ever happened and slowly, time layered everything over.
Two years later, I left Ajmer. I suppose I am no longer in conscious public memory of that place now. I forgot about this whole incidence. Except when I saw Holikas.
This is no longer a sad memory. Time has turned it into just another memory for me now. It comes every Holi. May Mrs. Khosla rest in peace forever.