THE BLOG

Mixing Colors

07/11/2014 10:31 am ET | Updated Sep 10, 2014

I enter through the side door wearing a pair of old, white shorts and a T-shirt. In the kitchen, scents of curry and chai waft through the air.

There are at least a dozen pairs of shoes lined against a wall.

One of my neighbors is stooped over the counter wearing a cotton sari. Its pallu runs the length of her long, loose hair. When she turns around, she has a wide smile, but her lips are pursed, as if keeping a secret.

"Where is everyone?" I ask.

Her hands fly up and sweep my face. A powdery substance cascades down my cheeks then spills onto my shirt. The blue and green grains resemble the color of the ocean on a clear, cloudless day.

"Happy Holi!" she shouts, squeezing my shoulders.

It is a baptism of colors. At 38 years old, I'm celebrating my very first Holi.

* * *

My father immigrated to El Paso, Texas, from Hyderabad, India in 1971. He married my mother, a half-Puerto Rican, half-Austrian in 1972, and I was born in Michigan, in 1973.

I spent much of my formative years in a small southern city in Tennessee where, with my Southern twang and big '80s hair, I identified far more with Madonna and McDonald's than mehndi and Carnatic music.

On trips to India, I'd beg my parents to let me wear T-shirts and jeans instead of salwar suits. I found the dishes too spicy, the streets too dusty, and the un-air-conditioned flats too stifling. While I loved visiting the Taj Mahal, building elaborate mosquito net tents with my cousins and playing carrom on the floor of my grandmother's living room, at the end of every vacation, I was relieved to return to my wholly American life.

* * *

Sunlight floods the back deck. An uncurled hose snakes along a patch of dormant grass, struggling to display the first signs of spring. Toddlers to teens huddle around a bucket, dipping their painted hands in water up to their elbows.

"Mama," calls my youngest, flashing me her orange palms. "Look at me." Her hair sticks up at odd angles. Cheetah-like spots dot her limbs. I'm grateful she's wearing a bathing suit.

Before I can return the greeting, I am deluged from behind with a bucket of dyed, ice-cold water. It stuns me like an electric shock and runs down my body in rivulets.

"Happy Holi!" my neighbor shouts.

Children squeal and surround me. My drenched shirt serves as their personal canvas.

Eventually, I get the hang of Holi. I cup copious amounts of colors, pour them onto my daughters' scalps then work them into the fabric of their clothes. When I manage to steal away the bucket, I douse a group of preteens.

I can't believe I waited this long, to know this kind of fun.

* * *

In the eighth grade, I had to create a pie chart utilizing any type of data I wished. I traced the circumference of a dinner plate and bisected it like the equator. I labeled one half "50 percent Indian" and divided the other into two equal pie slices -- "25 percent Puerto Rican" and "25 percent Austrian."

Embellishing the graph with brown scrambled lines for hair and adding a stick figure body, I completed a self-portrait representing my total ethnic make-up.

I wonder now, whether my teacher understood what the pie chart really represented-- a young girl grateful for her mixed heritage, but clueless how to integrate it.

* * *

There are theories, none too optimistic, about culturally blended families. When combined, the ethnicities, the religions, and the nuances of heritage fade away. Family rituals are abandoned. Younger generations don't learn enough of their languages of origin to pass them down to their progeny.

By my early 30s, what little I'd known about Indian culture from my childhood--the names of the Hindu gods and goddesses, the holidays, the South Indian cuisine-- I had all but forgotten.

But during the summer of 2007, I became reacquainted with my heritage. We moved from suburban Philadelphia to a predominantly Indian area in North Atlanta, replete with Indian restaurants, cultural programs, grocery stores and temples. All of the customs, traditions and dishes I had long forgotten, reappeared in my life at an age and time when I was open to embracing them.

Thankfully, culture isn't genetic or biological. It is a choice, an aspiration, a deep-seeded appreciation for what makes a person whole. It does not expire, nor is it conscious of ethnic percentages. I am fully Austrian, Puerto Rican and Indian, no matter how much or how little I express those cultures in my day-to-day life. The countries of my ancestors, no matter where I live, will always reside in the home of my soul.

* * *

The following spring, we lather sunscreen on cheeks, noses, and shoulders as the first butterflies of the season stretch open their wings. Verdant grasses carpet our bare feet and soaring temperatures mean getting wet will offer much-needed relief.

I am no longer new to Holi. Within minutes, I have stamped my handprints on dozens of bare arms and legs, and emulated Monet in graffiti on the concrete patio. The pigments cling to my hair, stain my fingernails and coat my clothes. Their various hues coalesce into a vibrant palate, much like the way cumin, coriander and cardamom unite to create savory garam masala.

When we are finished, when empty tubes scatter on the pavement and upturned buckets congregate near the swing-set, I find I'm in no rush to change out of my clothes. Instead, I settle on a step, face the bright blue sky, inhale the spirit of the celebration, and let the colors seep in.