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Colorful Memories: Indian Americans Share Stories of Holi From Their Childhood in India

Colorful Memories: Indian Americans Share Stories of Holi From Their Childhood in India

  • Holi may be a personal affair for most of us this year of pandemic, but the celebrations within our families will surely be making many more memories.

Every year Holi, the festival of colors, transports me back to my childhood in India and the fun we had as a family. The colors, the running after each other with loaded pichakarees (water guns), the aroma of scrumptious gujjia’s, maal puas and dahi bade (all traditional Indian delicacies) wafting through my mother’s kitchen come alive as if not a single day has passed since.

Every year, my brother, who had the advantage of being an early riser would wake me up, horribly agitated, by smearing wet color on my face. It was the kind of dark, blue- black metallic paint that would just not come off, even if you scrubbed till your skin peeled off. And that was almost a declaration of war for me. By end of day, we would all be colored in various shades of blue, black and red, drenched in water, our clothes looking like the art project of a preschooler. A deluge of guests and an indulgent lunch later, tired, we slept like there was no tomorrow. 

Shreya Mehta and her family in Holi colors. Top photo, the author with her husband, Ashish Srivastava.

Many Indian Americans will be celebrating Holi this year, too. Some of them shared their most cherished stories from their own childhood with us. 

“I was scared of Holi colors, especially the ones that take weeks to come out”, says Saumya Verma, Sr. Product Management Analyst from Bowie, Maryland. “I would hide in my room, but my cousins would drag me out and throw me in a tank full of water and color.”

For her husband, Bhaskar Hazarika, a Senior Data Integration Analyst, on the other hand, it was a most awaited festival — “I loved chasing my friends with water and color, a good break from playing cricket all day. The best part, however, was not going to school the next day because I would deliberately not take out the paint off my face”, he says.

“Holika Dahan, on the eve of Holi, where a pyre is lit and people dance around it in absolute merriment is my favorite memory, more than the actual play of colors. We had so much fun with the neighborhood kids. I also remember making fresh, home made colors with ‘palash’ flowers which bloom right before Holi in the Aravalli hills region,” says Aruna Hundi, a Data Analyst from New Jersey. 

Kathak teacher Latika Jethani from New Jersey remembers her Holi in her grandmother’s house fondly. “All my cousins, uncles and aunts got together at my nanima’s house who prepared homemade sweets like gujjia. My friends and I would, sneakily throw water balloons on the street kids.” She misses that in the U.S. though. “I never enjoyed Holi in America. It’s so cold here and you don’t feel the same way you feel back home”, she adds.

Shruti Iyer with friends.

Sasha Vyas from Cupertino, Calf., who has not been able to celebrate Holi with her family in India for over 15 years now, hopes to be able to do so soon. 

Realtor Sonia Banota from South Brunswick, N.J. remembers the hustle bustle of the kitchen and all the Holi specialties that would be prepared in her family. “Being from a traditional Agarwal family, Holi was a big celebration. Lots of goodies like dahi bhalla, Bhalla paani (fermented favored drink), Kaanji (fermented carrot drink), thandai and best of all, gujjia were prepared and we all made it together. Rolling out the gujjia dough, stuffing the filling, shaping it, frying and then eating them piping hot was just divine. I miss the kite flying on the terrace on my brother’s house”, she reminisces. Keeping up the traditions, she still makes the gujjias at home along with her children.

A childhood picture of the author with her grandparents and brother celebrating Holi

Festivals revolve around food and togetherness and that is remains a kindred common memory for all. 

And so it is for Risk Analyst, Sonali Pandey from Frisco, Texas. “A day before Holi my mom would make all possible sorts of pakodas and dahi bada with delicious tamarind and mint chutney. It is a custom in our house to make sweet maal pua and jackfruit curry. You couldn’t find it that fresh anywhere else.” Talking of the most important ritual in her home, she adds, “we wore new clothes in the evening and put ‘abir’ (dry color) on the feet of our elders to seek their blessings.”

Ashish Srivastava, a Digital Consulting Expert from New Jersey has some rather mischievous tales to share from his childhood Holi celebrations. “We used to crave for the mutton curry and Liver fry that my mother used to make and would pray that the guests would not eat too much. We would fill up balloons with color and throw them at passersby who would be donned in brand new clothes in the evening. It was wicked, but so much fun”, he chuckles with childlike ardor.

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Research Associate in Neuroscience and singer, songwriter, Shruti Iyer from Omaha, Nebraska grew up in Mumbai with the whole community getting together for Holika Dahan- “On rang panchami, the day of playing with colors, we would have a massive balloon fight with our neighboring building and by end of day, even in the hot month of March- April, we would be drenched and shivering. No Holi in Maharashtra is complete without ‘Puran Pohli. It was amazing.”

Her University organizes Holi celebrations that she loves to attend. “There is something about playing away from home. We have Bollywood music and biodegradable colors, even non desis join us”, she shares with a smile.

Water balloon fights is what Shreya Mehta, from New Jersey misses the most too – “My brother and I used to wake up early to fill up tubs full of balloons, making sure not even one is wasted. We would rub oil on our faces and body so that paint would not stick.”

Holi may be a slightly more personal affair for most of us this year, courtesy the pandemic, but the celebrations within our families will surely be making many more memories.

Nupur Bhatnagar is a lawyer by training, an entrepreneur and a storyteller. She is rationalist and an art enthusiast who is fascinated by history. She loves to read and watch historical dramas — sometimes even sees herself in them.  Nupur lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.

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  • Evokes strong nostalgia! Holi can never be a personal affair, nor can the pandemic dilute the joy attached with the festival. The bonhomie, the energy and the sweetness of the delicacies cooked up at Holi can only be experienced- not described!!
    Well written, as always, Nupur Bhatnagar!!!

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