Gujiyas, Steel Pichkaris & Tesu Ke Phool: A Plea to Bring Back Holi Like It Used to Be

Culture

Gujiyas, Steel Pichkaris & Tesu Ke Phool: A Plea to Bring Back Holi Like It Used to Be

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

“You’re coming for Holi, right? There’s going to be rain dance and a DJ,” announced my neighbour, who gets too friendly around festivals. It made me cringe but before I could say a curt no she persisted. “We’ll carry some beer.”

I don’t quite qualify as a Holi party pooper, but the truth is, I don’t really fit in as a rain-dance enthusiast either, who runs around a manicured garden armed with some ghastly silver and gold packets of colour and bhang tumblers, dancing to “Balam Pichkari”. My idea of Holi is old-school Bollywood – pristine white kurtas, do chutki wale rangon ki thaali, and homemade gujiyas with kanji. No synthetic colours, just some good old gulaal. No DJwale babus, but a few neighbourhood women singing folk songs.  

Growing up in the early ’80s in Varanasi, our family had a little tradition: We’d all assemble at our ancestral house not too far from the old city. My family would all make the trip back home. Call it a middle-class practice or a small-town quirk, a whole bunch of relatives would come to receive us at the railway station, all squeezed inside the family Fiat Padmini. As the station swung into view and the Kashi Vishwanath Express screeched to a halt, a silly surge of excitement would overpower me, as I’d watch a group of cousins and uncles waiting at the platform to welcome us. Thereafter, despite the milling crowds, we’d have an emotional reunion filled with warm embraces and wonder how tall I had grown in the past couple of months.

And with this, the weeklong Holi celebrations would commence with my grandparents, chachas, chachis, and cousins all in the mood for some mauj-masti.

Once home, I’d just run to the dining room where the table would be laid out with our staple breakfast of kachoris and samosas from the nearby halwai. As we gorged on the namkeen, dadi magically churned out piping hot puris with black chana ghughri. After the pet puja, we’d all huddle together in the sprawling courtyard to make gujiyas, mathris, kanji, and laddoos. As the women of the house stuffed the gujiyas and moulded the ladoos, mama was updated with all the gossip; we children conspired how to steal the goodies.

My father would soak tesu flowers in huge steel drums and by Holi day, we’d have tonnes of natural wet colour to play with

After a good afternoon nap, it was time for Holi shopping around the Dasaswamedh Ghat and Vishwanath Gali. There are few joys that match the thrill of just walking through the serpentine lanes of Benaras, where you lose a sense of time and self. Post Mahashivratri, shops are stocked with Shiva’s favourite herbs and seeds. The elders would stop by for a glass of bhang-laced thandai, while my cousins and I would continue pestering them for a sip or two.

The ancient city is dotted with temples, mosques, and Sufi shrines. The kiosks outside would be laden with riotous clusters of marigold, jasmine, rose petals, and spirals of betel leaves. My father would soak tesu flowers in huge steel drums and by Holi day, we’d have tonnes of natural wet colour to play with. We children would begin cleaning our pichkaris. They were nothing like huge plastic bazookas that city kids carry on their backs these days. Our weapons of mass destruction were steel pichkaris that were removed from the storage, cleaned, and made to sparkle before Holi. I still remember, the year I turned 14, and I was gifted my own steel pichkari – it was a rite of passage. I was now old enough and would no longer have to run behind my cousins as they went around spraying water on the kids in the neighbourhood.  

While our water games started the day we came to Varanasi, the Holi festival officially began with Rang Pashi, three days before the full moon. I remember grandma sprinkling sandalwood powder and itr on everyone at home. On Holika Dahan, we’d have a field day, scrounging around town for broken branches and twigs that we could add to the pile of wood. It would then be set on fire with an effigy of Holika at night. My cousins and I would dance around the bonfire – our family album is filled with dark images of us posing next to the fire.

After a late night of singing and dancing, we’d wake up early on Rangpanchami to a yummy, and rare breakfast of doodh-jalebi. And in no time we’d find ourselves wrestling with each other, smearing gulaal and playing catch. There were no deadlines on Holi day, we’d run around in the gullies and go from one home to another with our steel pichkaris in tow.

But the best part came after the fun and games, when all of us jumped together in a water tank with a mighty splash. This was the Varanasi version of the rain dance and I loved every bit of it.   

In the ’90s, when we moved to Delhi; the steel pichkaris were left behind and the fragrance of tesu disappeared. Our apartment life gave a very different colour to Holi. The week-long celebrations were reduced to a four-hour affair as sprawling aangans were replaced by narrow staircases.

As the years went by, I outgrew Holi. Today, we order Paper Boat thandai and worry about what clever tweet to post on the occasion. But there’s still one thing that has remained unchanged from the days of my Varanasi Holi – gorging on gujiyas without guilt.

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