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Rumjhum Biswas devoted herself to writing more than a decade ago from her earlier profession as a copywriter. She is currently based in Chennai and writes fiction and poetry. Biswas's short stories have previously been published in Gowanus, Amarillo Bay, Lily Literary Review and several issues of The Paumanok Review. Her poetry has appeared in Poems Niederngasse and Unlikely Stories. "Miz Tiga Does Not Play Holi" has been previously published in volume 4, number 1, issue 13 of The Paumanok Review, 2003.

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Miz Tiga watched the girls from the window of her tiny parlor. They were shouting and giggling, pushing and jostling, with an abandon that only a bunch of giddy schoolgirls could possess. Miz Tiga adjusted the steel rimmed spectacles on her nose. She gave the girls one last stern look before returning to the kitchenette behind her parlor. The girls were excited because the next three days were school holidays. None of them would be going home for the weekend though. They would rather stay back for this particular long weekend, because of the Holi festival.

Miz Tiga did not like Holi. She did not like giggly schoolgirls either. But the combination of giggly schoolgirls and Holi (which was the messiest festival, worse than Diwali, in her opinion!) gave Miz Tiga a headache. The other teachers at the school knew she did not play Holi, so they left her in peace, apart from sending over a plate or two of sweetmeats. The girls knew Miz Tiga did not approve of scatter-brained girls in full Holi regalia (color sodden clothes and faces “monkeyed” with Gulal!) so they usually stayed away from her portion of the teachers’ quarters.

The teachers’ quarters were made up of two rows of red-tiled single and double bed-roomed cottages at one end of the vast school compound. Each cottage had its own small patch of garden, separated from one another and the school compound as well by hibiscus hedges trimmed low. These dwarf borders gave one a clear view of the wide graveled path that ran between the two rows of cottages, and also of any person, who happened to be on that path, just as the cluster of girls were, on that bright and clear, late spring evening.

Dusk was still a long way off. And, the birds were still busy going about their business; the evening chatter of homing birds would not commence until another hour or so. The school was in that lull between the end of classes and the gong for dinner, when the girls were free to loiter around the grounds. Miz Tiga savored this hour when she could make herself a cup of sweet milky tea in her kitchenette and drink it in the quiet comfort of her double bed-sized front porch. She did not the want the chattering girls nearby when she drank her tea slowly, sip by savored sip, as she rocked gently in her cane rocking chair. But a habit is a habit. And a bunch of giddy girls were not going to keep Miz Tiga away from her cup of tea.

Miz Tiga placed her cup on the cane side table. It was actually a more of a coffee mug than a teacup, made from heavy lily china, and now crisscrossed with age. It had a rotund figure line drawn in black with the legend MRS on it. There was another just like it, except for the legend that said MR, stashed away in the cupboard behind her dining table in one corner of her parlor. She had bought the pair years ago, when she was a young wife, when Mr. Tiga shared her quiet evening tea.

Now she sipped her tea, looking covertly from under her glasses. The girls were still there, gathered in front of Mrs. Bose’s gate. Mrs. Bose, thin as a reed and ready to burst into fits of giggles just like her charges, was obviously the most favorite teacher. Her popularity increased before Holi, since it was she who was in charge of getting the girls organized for the festival. The girls were probably trying to find out how much of Gulal and how many packets of color for the colored water each of them would be allotted. They would not be told, no matter how much they begged and cajoled Mrs. Bose. But undeterred they would debate about the ration of colors both wet and dry, and try to include Mrs. Bose in their debate, in the childish hope that she would let slip some vital information. Mrs. Bose knew the game and she played along, much to Miz Tiga’s disgust. A stern, “come back tomorrow girls!” would have cut this unseemly cacophony down immediately. But Mrs. Bose seemed to enjoy the whole business.

Miz Tiga listened with half an ear to the girls’ chatter, punctuated by Mrs. Bose’s cackling laugh. She laughed like a hyena, thought Miz Tiga irritably. This was not really true, but “laugh like a hyena” was a favorite expression of Miz Tiga’s, especially when she reprimanded the girls about their uncontrollable sense of humor. She had other favorite expressions in her arsenal, which she used indiscriminately on the girls; but when she flung it at an unwary teacher, usually the younger and more inexperienced ones, she did condescend to exercise a pinch of tact. Few teachers crossed words with her, as she was one of the oldest teachers in the school. Miz Tiga had been teaching Hindi and Moral Science for more than thirty years. Nobody remembered Miz Tiga as a young woman, though thirty years ago she certainly had been young, and contentedly

married to Mr. Tiga. She did not live in her cottage on the school grounds then. She came to school in a Morris Minor car, driven by Mr. Tiga, who regularly dropped his wife at her school before on his way to office.

“But Miz Tiga doesn’t play Holi!”

The thin bird-like voice, probably Navjit’s, who could never stop herself from saying the wrong thing at the right place and the right thing at the wrong time, rose above the chatter, and an awkward silence descended immediately. The girls and Mrs. Bose knew that Miz Tiga was sitting there on her porch and drinking her tea, as usual.

Miz Tiga stiffened. Her glasses caught the setting sun’s rays and glowed red.

“Now girls! Everybody doesn’t have to get wet and covered with from head to toe in Gulal in order to enjoy Holi. Some of us like to watch…”

“But Miss, she wouldn’t like us to go to her. I mean like we come to you and the other teachers for sweets an’ all. I mean…” This was said in a low voice.

“Probably Dipti, the most outspoken of the lot,” thought Miz Tiga grimly. She had stopped rocking and was listening keenly.

“Now girls!” said Mrs. Bose again. This time she tried to make her voice a bit sterner. “You must respect your teachers and other seniors and do your part. Doesn’t Miz Tiga distribute cakes during Christmas? You must wish her “Happy Holi”. Okay? Now run along. You don’t want to be late for dinner. You have to wash up first you know!”

With that she shooed the girls away and walked quickly inside, but not before Dipti had piped up with, “but miss we are never here during Christmas!”

The girls dispersed. Their disgruntled chatter wafted towards Miz Tiga in muffled tones. She did not have to hear the exact words to know what they were grumbling about. Everybody in the school knew that not only did Miz Tiga not play Holi; she disapproved of any activity that involved mess and grime and shouting and screaming. She did not like hysterical girls. She had no patience with teachers who could not instill discipline among the students. She was especially strict with the Christian girls, who habitually incurred her wrath for sundry offences that ranged from long nails and stray curls to not knowing the Bible as well as they ought. Miz Tiga knew that she was not popular with the girls. She also knew that they cracked many jokes and mimicked her rudely behind her back.

Miz Tiga got up from her comfortable position and walked down to the wooden gate that separated her cottage from the path.

“Girls!” She barked. “Come here!”

The girls froze. They slowly retraced their steps till they were standing between her cottage and that of Mrs. Bose’s.

“Yes, Miss?” They said in a united whisper, huddling like frightened chicks.

“Tomorrow, in the evening, after you have finished playing and cleaned yourselves, you may come to wish me Happy Holi. Okay?”

“Yes Miss,” they said in unison again and started to flee towards the main school building; all the girls, except one.

This was none other than Navjit of the thin bird-like voice. The rest of her matched her voice, for she was a thin small child with two long thin braids, and grazed elbows and knobby knees.

“Why Miss?” She asked, not rudely, though the choice of words was wrong, while a gasp of shock shuddered through the rest of the girls.

“According to the traditional rules of Holi, you play with your friends, but pay respect to elders by putting a bit of Gulal on their feet!” she said. “And elders give sweets,” she added, squeezing back a smile that had timidly started out at the corner of her thin lips.

Navjit looked at her wide-eyed. “Yes Miss,” she replied with saucer eyes.

The rest of the girls said nothing. They could barely suppress their giggles. They walked quickly back the way they had come, their giggles growing bolder as the distance between them and Miz Tiga increased.

“And, elders give sweets,” mimicked Sudha, instantly provoking peals of laughter from the rest.

“My God, Miz Tiga’s sweets!” Said Dipti. She turned to her companions.

“Remember what she gave us last year?”

“Yeah! Stone hard sesame laddus,” said Sudha.

“And, they were old too,” said Elizabeth, wrinkling her nose at the memory.

“She brought them out from a rusty ol’ Nespray tin! Yuck!” Said Dipti.

“I think we should go,” said Navjit seriously.

“Yes, chumchy, you go!”

“As if toadying to ol’ Tiga’s going be of any use!”

Navjit took the jibes in her stride. Something in Miz Tiga’s manner had caught at a chord in her heart. But she knew confiding in her friends would make them taunt her more. Meanwhile, Miz Tiga hurried inside. She would be up early tomorrow. The girls had no idea how much one had to prepare if one wanted to celebrate Holi properly. They did not know that Holi was not just about getting dirty and gorging on sweets. But how could they? Times have changed, she told herself as she rolled out the two chapattis she made for her dinner everyday. Miz Tiga looked up, cocked her head and nearly smiled. She could almost hear Mr. Tiga stirring the big pot of milk on the stove in preparation for the Bhang-laced sherbet for Holi.

Mr. Tiga did not drink or smoke. Miz Tiga would never have agreed to the match if he had. Most of his friends were not averse to drinking. But Mr. Tiga restricted his drinking to that sip of communion wine at Sunday church, and the solitary glass of brandy before Christmas dinner. But Bhang was something he drank ritually during every Holi. Miz Tiga did not mind. It had never occurred to her not to participate in this Hindu festival. Her parents had always joined in the mirth and merriment of Holi, just as their Hindu friends never forgot to call on them during Christmas. And, Bhang was such an integral part of Holi!

“Miz Tiga,” she heard him say, as she got ready for bed. “Miz Tiga, make sure the pistachios are well ground for my special Bhang.” Mr. Tiga always called her Miz Tiga, never Susan Mary. And, she always called him Mr. Tiga, never by his first name, which was Thomas. They were both up and awake by dawn on the day of Holi; Mr. Tiga softly humming to himself as he made coffee for them both, Miz Tiga bustling around the kitchen as she made her preparations for the morning. There would be a mound of laddoos and mawa barfis and some savory snacks to be made. And, of course the Bhang sherbet had to be kept ready and chilled in a large earthen pitcher that was brought out from the storeroom before Holi every year.

She also needed to make the lunch ready before hand. That part was easy though. Because after consuming so many sweetmeats, there would be little room for anything more than a bit of fried vegetables and Khichri. But she would not stint on the quantity, because on Holi day, you never knew how many people would be having lunch at your place. And, Mr. Tiga had a large circle of friends, not necessarily Ranchi Christians like themselves for the town where Mr. Tiga lived was a very cosmopolitan town. And, most of their friends worked at the same factory as Mr. Tiga.

Miz Tiga watched Mr. Tiga as he ambled out of the house in his white pajama and matching white kurta. He looked like a child with his favorite toy, never mind the silver strands sneaking up to catch the sun on his head. He filled the brass bucket with water and tested the brass syringe that he would use to spray colored water on his friends. The girls in the school used flimsy plastic ones, thought Miz Tiga disdainfully, as she poured the batter into the cake tin. Miz Tiga’s fruitcakes were famous. She usually made several batches for Christmas, but this time for want of condiments in her house for making Bhang sherbet and laddoos, she had decided to bake a cake.

Mr. Tiga would have welcomed her cake, but of course he would have made sure the other sweets were there too. Mr. Tiga was never one to stint on the table. All his friends said that. And, Miz Tiga, once she learned of her husband’s weakness for a well-laid table, did her part with a zeal that earned her the loud appreciation of Mr. Tiga’s friends and the silent envy of their spouses.

“Miz Tiga!” He called. “Miz Tiga, are you going to spend Holi in the kitchen? Then you better watch out! Here they are now, all ready to come in!”

Laughing, wiping her hands on the old sari worn especially for the colorful onslaught of Holi, Miz Tiga emerged. Her half-hearted, feeble protests were ignored and within minutes she had acquired green hair and a red and yellow face. Mr. Tiga grinning back at her with a face that seemed dusted with the colors of the rainbow, his pristine white pajama-kurta dyed a motley shade. Some one brought out a ‘dholak’, some one else brought out a harmonium, and lusty songs were sung interrupted with shouts of “Holi hai! Holi hai!” The pitcher of Bhang was brought out. Steel tumblers passed around. Plates of sweets served. The men danced. The women broke out in uncontrollable giggles. Friends came and friends went. The sun climbed higher in the sky, perhaps to get a better view of this raucously happy scene below. Nobody felt the heat. They were wet and cool, drenched from head to toe with colored water.

Later on, when the shadows had started to grow long, the Tigas went laughing to the Singh’s house or to the Tobias’s house or to the Roy’s house, with their pressure cooker of khichri and Tiffin box of fried vegetables; their contribution for an impromptu potluck lunch. Nobody seemed to mind that the khichri was cold, the fried vegetables soggy. The Tigas did not mind eating limp purees and congealed dum alu. And, after that, tired and bleary eyed, they returned home to bathe and freshen up for the evening. For Holi had not yet ended. It would end only after they joined their friends at the club where an old Hindi movie was screened and the club cook served up a hot dinner. And, after that, Mr. and Miz Tiga returned home to the quarters of the company where Mr. Tiga worked, the house in darkness because Miz Tiga for once had forgotten to switch on the porch light.

Miz Tiga sighed as she switched on the porch light. Fireflies were puncturing little holes in the violet sheet of dusk as they flitted about. The sounds of girls giggling reached out to her from what seemed to be an unbridgeable distance. This part of the school compound was the most silent. Mrs. Bose was still with the girls, as were most of the other teachers and their families.

Miz Tiga lit a couple of mosquito-coils. The smoke made her eyes water, but that was better than the buzzing little rascals. She sat on her rocker, her tea long grown cold beside her. The cake neatly sliced into thin squares lying quietly on the dining table inside.

“Miz Tiga?”

“Who is that?” said Miz Tiga squinting in the gloaming.

“It’s me, Navjit, Miz Tiga.”

“So you’ve come now! It’s past dinner time, unless they are serving dinner late today!”

“They are serving dinner late today, because it’s Holi, miss,” said the girl, inching timidly forward. “Miss?”

“Yes, Navjit?”

“Happy Holi miss.”

Miz Tiga got up and looked at the child. She was so thin and small; you could hardly believe that she was thirteen years old.

“So you were the only one to remember your Miz Tiga, eh?”

“Yes miss. I mean no miss. The other girls are a little busy miss. I

thought I’d come first, miss.”

“Hmmf. No need to give excuses for those girls. I know all you girls like the back of my palm! Anyway, you come inside. I have something for you.”

Miz Tiga walked inside without bothering to see if the girl had followed. She put two slices of cake on a quarter plate and poured a glass of orange squash into a tumbler.

“Come to the dining table and eat this,” she said gruffly.

The girl meekly sat down and ate with her head bowed. Miz Tiga watched her for a while. Then she packed the rest of the slices into a large steel Tiffin box.

“Here,” she said. “You take these back with you to the dining hall. Distribute them among the girls. Okay? Don’t eat them by yourself.”

Navjit blinked. “Yes Miss.”

She stood there awkwardly, holding the Tiffin box in her hand. Her thin frame trembled a little as she struggled to say something.


“Yes, what is it?”

“Miss, you are really very sweet, miss!” blurted Navjit.

Miz Tiga looked at Navjit for what seemed to be a very long time.

Navjit was already wishing she had never opened her mouth.

“Hmmf! You remember to bring back my Tiffin box tomorrow morning. Mr. Tiga used to take his lunch in that.”

“Yes miss. Thank you miss,” said Navjit as she started to run back to her friends. “Happy Holi again, Miz Tiga!”

“Happy Holi to all of you,” said Miz Tiga. But she said the words so softly, Navjit did not hear.


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