The village I was born in and where I lived till completing school formed part of an area of 24 Parganas district where Vaishnavism was a dominant belief. The area abounded with temples of Lord Krishna, each having an idol with a different name. For instance, the idol of our village temple was named Shyamsundara. Similarly, there were temples dedicated to Radhaballhava, Gopinath, Madanmohana and so on.
The festival of Holi was celebrated with great fervour throughout the area when fairs, puppet shows, exhibitions, etc. were organised centring round the temples. Another speciality of Holi in the area was that it was celebrated on different days for each idol, beginning from the full moon day. Thus we had our Holi on the second day from the fullmoon while Radhaballhava had it on the fifth day.
The holiday for Holi was, however, observed in all schools as per the official calendar. This created a problem for us for we had either to bunk school on the day of our Holi or forgo the celebration in favour of school. An attempt was once made to persuade the school authority into keeping the school closed on our Holi day. Our confidence came from the fact that as many as three teachers of the school were residents of our village including the Headmaster himself who was my uncle. Of the other two, one was Ishan Babu, a stern and reserved man, older than my uncle and held in high regard by him.
A week ahead of Holi that year, boys from our village floated the idea in the school and tried to muster support of both the students and that section of the teachers who were friendly with us. Although nobody disliked the idea of having an extra holiday, none offered any help in the matter either.
Finally, five of us went to the Headmaster’s room and placed our proposal to him. He asked for the ground on which we were making the demand and sent us back to our classes assuring that he would think over it. Next day, we were informed that our demand could not be met for it would result in more holidays in the school than permitted besides setting a bad precedent. Information reached us shortly afterwards that it was Ishan Babu who spiked our guns by advising the HM against the extra holiday.
From that moment, Ishan Babu turned into a traitor in our eyes and we resolved to avenge the betrayal by spraying an indelible black liquid on him when he would set out for school on Holi day. It was decided that one group would stop him and show respect by putting abir on his feet. Another group, coming from the rear, would toss a lot of abir up in the air to turn the place murky. Using this cover, the liquid colour would be sprayed on him from a big syringe. There would be a second shot of abir to facilitate the escape of the marksman while the group offering him respect would pretend innocence!
Next day in school, one of us innocently inquired from a teacher how black liquid could me made indelible. The teacher in jest suggested that coal tar be diluted in methylated spirit and kerosene oil added to it to get the desired liquid. The concoction was prepared and on the day of our Holi, two groups lay in wait outside Ishan Babu’s house with the marksman hiding behind a tree. As he walked up the path, the operation began and was neatly executed. We fled the scene while he stood still for a few minutes, stunned and perplexed, his kurta wet and black. But instead of going back home, Ishan Babu proceeded to the school. We assembled in the local club, proud of our success. Some said that after this, the school would be forced to remain closed on our Holi day from the next year. Everything went on well till the afternoon when our uncle returned from school and informed our parents of what we had done. My cousin and I were subjected to repeated interrogation, all for the purpose of finding out who was involved in the mischief. Both of us denied having knowledge or involvement in the act but failed to convince anybody.
Next morning, uncle took us to Ishan Babu’s home holding each of us by the ear. He asked us to seek his mercy by falling at his feet. As we did so, Ishan Babu asked me who was responsible. I claimed ignorance as did my cousin. We learnt afterwards that everyone in the group was similarly questioned and that they all pleaded innocence. However, the marksman had to ultimately confess after a heavy beating at home when the secret was leaked. It remained a mystery who betrayed him.
Our family shifted to Kolkata once I finished school. My connection with the village gradually diminished and snapped completely after our share in the ancestral property was transferred. Many years later, while accompanying mother to the Kali temple located in that part, I saw a very old man sitting on the floor of the temple. Despite the ravages made by time, I didn’t mistake Ishan Babu and went up to him. He lifted his face and tried to recognise me as I touched his feet.
“Who is it?” he asked looking at me. His eyesight had failed and was leaner. I disclosed my identity and enquired about his health. He was so happy to meet me and embraced me with great affection. He talked to my mother also and quipped that she was bypassing Shyamsundara by paying visit to goddess Kali alone! He lamented that many families like ours had migrated from the village and none of the old boys visited the place any more.
Once the puja was over, we prepared to return home and sought leave from him. He gazed at me for some time with his dim blank eyes.
“Come to your village during the next Holi. We have no school now and you can spray as much colour on me as you wish! Bring your friends also. I wish to see all of them. Only, don’t use coal tar this time!” A faint smile played on his lips as he gently raised his hand, part by way blessing and part to bid us goodbye. I realised that after so many years the stain of the colour once thrown at him had stuck permanently on us while he had washed it out.