Trigger warning: This story contains mention of sexual violence.
“Oof, so hot!” grumbles Shibur Ma as she squats to wipe the floor. “Good day for Holi. What will you wear, Ria Didi? Not that one, no, are you mad? Washed it only yesterday! How about this old red dress? Ah, it’s missing a hook, I’ll fix it now. Know what happened today when I was mending Shibu’s shirt? That green one he got for Pujo?”
Shibur Ma is an unbeatable talker whose thoughts are never not in rapid transit. The only way to shut her up is to ask her what her name is. Then she halts mid-sentence, frowns at the floor, and tries to remember it. When she was fourteen – exactly my age – she gave birth to Shibu, and everyone has called her “Shibur Ma” ever since.
“Well, the needle broke. It broke clean in half! That means serious bad luck,” she rattles on. “Bindu’s needle broke the day her husband got run over by the truck. Baap re, Bindu is so stingy! Yesterday I asked her for a tiny bit of jaggery…”
“Ugh, jaggery,” I grimace, tuning her out as I chew my daily dose of raw turmeric with jaggery. Not my favourite. It tastes yucky but Ma insists that it’s good for glowing skin. The morning smells of soft spring heat. We had to write an essay on “My Favourite Season” this week, and of course I chose spring. Because it’s hot enough to splash around in the rain, but not so hot that you get scalded (and tanned) if you step into the sun.
And Holi is by far my favourite holiday. Of course it celebrates spring, youth, fertility and all that, but for us, Holi is all about playing with your mates – yes, it’s about colours, pranks, friends, fun, laughter. Thamma says it’s also about divine love. She knows all these songs by heart about how Krishna and Radha played Holi under the full moon, throwing petals and pollen at each other. (And made passionate love afterwards, I’m sure, though Thamma doesn’t sing about that.) Frankly, I think making a grand mess with dyed dust and coloured water, like we do now, is way more exciting than waving flowers at one another in moonlight.
Do you know why Holi is my favourite? Because you can break the rules without getting grounded. You can wear your rattiest clothes. You can take your singing lessons looking like a gaudy, graphic nightmare. You can hide in the balcony with gubaras filled with tinted water, and pick anyone on the street to attack. I love watching the little balloons burst on contact, spilling their gooey slush all over the victim’s clothes. That’s totally my favourite moment.
According to Ma, though, girls like me have to be careful on Holi. Only loose girls play colours with boys they don’t know, she says, and boys can sometimes force unaccompanied girls to play Holi with them. The rowdy boys from the camp behind the station get drunk during Holi, and no girl is safe around them then, says Ma.
I squeeze into my red dress. I hated that dress when it was given to me two years ago, but now that it tightly hugs my body and ends six inches above my knees, it’s my favourite. On any other day I wouldn’t be allowed to go out in it, but today is different. And red is my favourite colour too. Actually, I’d never cared for red till my last birthday, when Ved gave me a red T-shirt, whispering, “Isn’t red sexy?” I instantly fell in love with red. I’d fallen in love with Ved a long time ago.
I was ten and he thirteen, and we were doing the Cinderella play at school. I was the ugly stepsister who cuts off her heel to fit the shoe; Cinderella was a twelve-year-old with rosy cheeks and an unquestionable bosom. Ved, of course, was the Prince. He lived down the street in a five-story house, not a flat like ours, and everyone knew that he was a wonder-boy. Always top in class, Junior Debate Champion, Finalist in the Under-Sixteen Tennis Tournament. He was also the best-looking boy I’d ever seen, with a smile that shone solidly from miles away, like Howrah Bridge. I worshipped him from a distance, and though I was on the debate team too, I never had the guts to speak to him. But as I was walking home after the first rehearsal, Ved stopped his bike to tell me he’d rather marry me than Cinderella.
You may have guessed this already but, yes: Ved Lahiri is my absolute favourite. I get to see a lot of him now, as this year he became President of Youth Connection, the Boys’ Club in our neighbourhood. The boys plant trees, collect funds for Saraswati Puja, and on Saturday nights, take turns substituting for the Night Watchman (who guards us against the camp rowdies), so he can have a night off. Ved and I don’t “go out,” of course. Nice fourteen-year-old girls don’t do that, where I live. They wait. So I’m waiting. Ved hasn’t mentioned marriage again, but I’m sure it’ll crop up again one day.
The doorbell rings. Shompa and Nidhi walk in, arguing.
“She can’t come. Impossible. What will people think of us?”
“I know, but I couldn’t…”
“I can’t believe she had the nerve to ask… Can we please just hurry and leave before she arrives?”
We got a problem. Bharati stopped by Nidhi’s house this morning to say she’d like to play Holi with us. Nidhi said we didn’t have enough aabirfor four people, but Bharati said no problem, she’d bring her own colours. She’d finish her work at the Boses’ and come right on over to my place.
When we were little, Bharati was a part of our group and we’d all play together. Bharati’s mother Kelor Bou was a good cook and a Brahmin, and used to work for Nidhi’s family. Everyone knew that Kelo had left her the morning after their wedding, so Nidhi’s mother had kept her on for many years – until she found out that Kelor Bou was living with a low-caste sweeper. Shibur Ma says that Kelor Bou had worn sindoor every day for twenty years, like a good wife. Then she met her street-sweeper and scrubbed her sindoor off with a dishrag.
Bharati was utterly fearless, didn’t go to school, ate very hot green chillies like they were grapes, and ran faster than all of us. We accepted her because she was better than us. In fact, of all the girls my age, Bharati was my favourite. One time, when a bone got stuck in Lallu’s throat and he started to gag and growl, we got very scared – we all loved him, but he was a street dog after all. Bharati’s hand had disappeared inside Lallu’s mouth as she pried open his jaw and pulled the bone out. And when we got locked into Shompa’s room by mistake, Bharati climbed out of the window, tiptoed along the rainwater pipe, jumped off the water tank and unlocked the door for all of us. But all that was a very long time ago. Now she scrubs floors and dishes every day for the Boses, the Mukherjees, and the Singhs. How can she play Holi with us?
The doorbell rings. “Ved Babu is here!” announces Shibur Ma. Shompa and Nidhi wink at each other and vanish into the balcony. I feel my heart bouncing around somewhere inside my tummy, like it’s on a trampoline. Ved goes to the kitchen first and puts abir on Ma’s feet, as she makes malpuas. Then he strides into my study – and just looks at me. At my legs, my arms, the dress clinging to my body. I drown in a whirlpool of delicious panic as he walks up to me slowly and puts a scorching red sun right in the middle of my forehead. Just like sindoor. Super gently, like he’s touching something that could break so easily. At this moment, I feel sure that I’m precious beyond words and ridiculously beautiful. With trembling fingers, I put an uneven patch of green on his forehead. Ved’s hand rests on my cheek, just for a moment. Then he’s gone.
“Let’s GO, Mrs. Lahiri!” yells Shompa as soon as Ved is out of earshot. The day passes in no time, like in a dream. An amazing day all around. Nidhi and Shompa tell all our friends that Ved has “married” me this morning. We eat so many sweets that we have to skip lunch. We shoot everybody with our water pistols, all except a few notoriously cranky grown-ups. We cover with shocking-pink aabir the faces of every kid we meet who’s smaller than us. We steal ice-lollies from the cart and spray the icecream man with purple water when he chases us. From the window in the study, we throw gubaras at fifty-seven persons and miss only six times. Like I said, an amazing day. My favourite Holi ever.
After the girls go home, I step into the balcony to look at the colour-splashed road below. When I shut my eyes, all I can see is colour. Opening them slowly, still in a trance, I see the unrecognizable faces of familiar people laugh and shout. Everyone looks happy.
There’s a girl standing right below our building whose face is covered with black abir, a kind I’ve never seen before. She must have got some of it in her eyes too, for she’s rubbing them hard. Her dress is dripping wet and incredibly messy, just like ours had been, and has a gaping tear through which you can see most of her back. She must be very cold, for her back is trembling. I hear muffled sobs – wait, she isn’t crying, is she? The girl looks around quickly to make sure no one has noticed her tears, and then she looks up. It’s Bharati.
At night, as Shibur Ma rubs coconut oil into my shampooed hair to get the last grains of colour out, I tell her that I saw Bharati crying. “Well, don’t tell your Ma I’m telling you this,” she says, rolling her eyes. She gets my word of honour, and starts braiding my hair. “The boys jumped on Bharati, and threw her on the ground. They ripped her dress off and splattered her with mud and grease and . . . Well, she should never have gone near them. A fine training that Kelor Bou has given her daughter…”
The boys from the camp have always looked so…so poor and helpless, somehow. I never really believed that they were dangerous. Or that something like this could happen to someone I know. Even Bharati.
I shut my eyes. All I can see is colour, all mixed-up. Enormous gubaras are bombarding me, thick colours clotting into sticky words like blood – “friends” … “play”… “fun”… “love” … “spring”… “youth”…
“I… I never thought those boys from the camp could do such a thing…” I whisper.
“Oh no, not them.” Shibur Ma stirs sugar into my glass of warm milk. “The boys down the street – you know, Ved Babu and his lot. Well, she should know that boys will be boys, shouldn’t she?”
This story was first published in The Wire on July 30, 2016
Nandana Dev Sen is a writer, actor and child-rights activist. The author of six children‘s books, she fights to end child abuse and human trafficking. Nandana is Brand Ambassador, Child Protection, for Save the Children India.
Copyright © 2016 by Nandana Dev Sen