I had not celebrated Holi in years – and then I moved to Dubai

The festival of colours might as well be renamed the festival of camaraderie

Taking the customary selfie with friends at a Holi party in Dubai last year, even as the children wonder when they can go play some more. Photo: Rahul Saharia
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Holi was, unsurprisingly, my favourite festival as a child growing up in pre-Mumbai Bombay.

Buckets full of water balloons painstakingly filled and knotted overnight. Packets of colourful powders just waiting to be burst open, ready to be flung at will. Being allowed to head to the playground early, stay late and get as grubby as I liked. What’s not to love?

The night before Holi, my little suburban community would come together to light a bonfire packed with cow dung, its flames malodorous but mesmerising. Songs were chanted, deities and demons appeased, sweetmeats passed around.

The odd water balloon was thrown from a rooftop in vain attempts to extinguish the fire by anonymous miscreants. It was all taken in good spirits, though – at least among us children, if not the unsuspecting adults. The cantankerous aunties (the ones who didn’t return cricket balls that crashed through their windows) got the worst of it, much to our juvenile glee.

We celebrated with dozens of neighbours who brought water guns that got fancier with each passing year

In the 1990s, it was not uncommon to start playing days in advance, or to go Holi-hopping all around town as various friends and family invited us over to celebrate.

My favourite childhood memory remains making a beeline for “nani house”, the phrase that represents the special bond many children share with their maternal grandparents. Water and colours aside, there was always sticky gheeyar to eat and kharchi envelopes to pocket.

The party itself was held on the lawn of the high-rise my grandparents lived in, with dozens of neighbours and their various relatives in attendance. They brought water guns that got fancier with each passing year, and bathing tubs filled with coloured water to dunk people in. Community living at its coolest, at least from a tween’s point of view.

And then something changed.

Childhood friends moved away or moved apart. The festival lost its lustre as hard-to-wash “chemical” colours flooded the market. And eggs and tomatoes began making the rounds at increasingly rowdy celebrations. As a teenager, I was not as keen on triple-shampooing my (oh, the irony) chemically straightened hair.

So eventually, I stopped playing and celebrating for more than a decade.

When I moved to Dubai in 2012, at the ripe old age of 29, a friend invited me to her annual Holi bash. It’s the perfect opportunity to meet others from the Indian community, she insisted. And so I went.

That first time, as I mingled with strangers in this most casual yet intimate of settings of splashing water and applying coloured powder, my reservations evaporated. I returned home with a long list of numbers on my phone, some of whom are now on my speed-dial.

Since then, I’ve attended Holi parties in the UAE every single year, both commercial and homebound. I was at the one in Meydan that had famed Indian performers Kanika Kapoor and DJ Nucleya, as well as the one at JA Beach Hotel, with its makeshift Holi pool, 10 times the size of the tubs I’d jump into in another time and place.

Last year, I took my four-year-old daughter for a Holi-themed party to a friend’s house. It was at once delightful and nostalgic seeing her douse intimidating strangers with a water pistol nearly as broad as she is tall. A shy girl usually, she didn’t think twice before chasing children and grown-ups she had only just met – powder-dunked fingers outstretched to make palm imprints on their already colour-soaked clothes. Mini-me much?

So memories of my own childhood shenanigans came flooding back and I found myself reaching out to friends from back home, to exchange “happy Holi” greetings and plan long-overdue catch-ups.

The festival of colours might well be renamed the festival of camaraderie.

Published: March 22, 2024, 6:02 PM