Phagwa: the colours of spring

Growing up in a small east Trinidad village, Natasha Ramnauth wasn’t allowed to join Phagwa celebrations. Maybe this year she’ll finally experience the colourful Hindu festival

Growing up in east Trinidad was always interesting, to say the least. My family was a handful of Muslims living in the midst of a largely Hindu community, and Grandma ran the village shop, so of course it was hard to be anonymous. Everyone knew my siblings and me, so there were limits to what we got up to: news travels fast, and didn’t we know it.

If you’re like me, and have an Indian surname of Hindu origin, it is generally assumed that you know something about the various Hindu festivals on the calendar, with all their associated traditions. No such luck. My knowledge is largely second-hand, garnered as it was from my view above my grandmother’s shop.

This wasn’t because we weren’t actively encouraged by my grandparents to join in — quite the contrary. I admit, I was quite shy as a child (never mind what my brother might say). Let’s say I had a healthy fear of making a fool of myself, so I spent a lot of time with my nose buried in a book, preferably perched in one of the many fruit trees that populated our yard.

I wish now I’d managed to conquer the fear and join in more often. I have fond memories of watching the neighbours down the street “leepay” their tapia house — I just wasn’t about to stick my hands into the leepay material, whatever it might be made of! Divali was a beautiful time — I still remember the faces shining in the lights from the deyas — but what I most suffered from was serious Phagwa envy.

At first I was confused — all I knew was it looked like a lot of people singing and then tossing this coloured liquid all over the place. When I was old enough to question, I went to the source of all my knowledge: the Uncles. I had seven of them, and they all seemed so much older and wiser. They, in their superiority, fobbed me off with an odd explanation: didn’t I know it was the celebration of spring?

Well, now, I’d been going to school for a while, I knew what the four seasons were supposed to be, but last I’d seen, Trinidad only got wet or dry. What was this thing about spring?

Back to the oracles. Oh, spring in India! But what did people throwing coloured dye here in Trinidad have to do with spring in India, a place I only knew from the movies and Kipling stories?

Up till then, thanks to heavy doses of Enid Blyton, I’d only associated spring with temperate climes, people who had afternoon tea, and teddy bears picnicking. Clearly some investigation was necessary. I was saved by a school project on India that soon set things right. Countless National Geographics sacrificed their lives for the cause, and Granddad’s encyclopedias were plundered — no Internet then. One particular issue of National Geographic had pictures of Phagwa being celebrated in India. Imagine my wonderment when I realised that something so far-removed could look so familiar.

Now this was something I knew about. I saw it every year when the neighbourhood schools got together and had their Phagwa celebrations. Not attending any of those schools, I got to watch only on the rare occasion when I was at home, but it sure looked like fun.

If you’re waiting to hear that I threw caution to the winds, evaded Granny, and went off with the other kids to do the do, well, sorry. I kept watching from afar, and time went by. High school brought with it new challenges and new friends, including Mary and Cherise (names have been changed to protect the innocent). I shared many experiences with them, and went to Mary’s for Divali every year, and yet I seemed to miss out on Phagwa. My mum just wouldn’t say yes, mainly because abeer — the coloured dye — didn’t wash out for days. Mary and Cherise, normally two rather conservative dressers, flaunted their blue and purple hair, fingertips lightly stained to match, while I, ever the rebel with a cause (I can’t quite remember what), had to make do with boring brown hair. This sad state of affairs persisted right up until I’d left school, having done pretty much whatever else I could.

Years later, I ended up working for a community television house that produced a weekly magazine programme covering all things Trinidadian — from Orisha festivals to modern dance recitals. I found out about things I’d never even heard of before. Then Phagwa came around. Surely this was my big chance to be something more than a spectator.
We can all dream. Let’s just say the closest I came to Phagwa was logging the tape shot by the film crew. No abeer for me.

But who knows, maybe this year, as you read these words, I may find myself working up the courage to celebrate, however messily, the arrival of spring.