Is Holi really the festival of colours? Well, in some imaginative, idealistic notions, it must be. However, as a non-participant on Holi festivities, yesterday I saw less of an iridescent display of colours, and more of black faces, muddy water and police patrol-plus-barricading, enough to give a feel of an imminent curfew. Is that what the festival of Holi has come to mean and symbolise?
Within the comfort of my house, I smeared colours on the faces of a handful of neighbours. Not for once did I feel like stepping out. Not alone, at any cost. Why? Because Holi has come to mean a threat to me and my body. I am sure a lot of girls would agree with what I am trying to convey here. There are so many outstation girl students I know, who, if devoid of a large and protective friends’ circle, lock themselves up in their rooms, too scared to venture out till late afternoon, when the Holi festivities have subsided. What kind of a festival is it which restricts a girl’s mobility or makes her feel unsafe ?
It doesn’t start (or end) on the Holi day. It begins much before. A week in advance, suddenly, the guys of your city get a free licence to accost your bodies with water-balloons, often also filled with colour dyes. Now, I am not saying that girls are their only target, but perhaps my exposure has only been limited to that aspect of their festive mischiefs. An innovation I recently came to know off, via troubled rantings of a college friend is stuffing water balloons with eggs and then using them as a harmless Holi weapon. How cool? Right? No. It is not. It is harassment, to say the least. On our way from college to an all-girl’s market trip, I and two other friends of mine were hit by two water balloons in a moving auto. I know the pain and the impact it created on my arm, and can only imagine how my other friend, who was hit on the cheek, would have felt. All this in the name of festival fun. Needlessly said, the girl’s day out had to be cut short, for who would want to roam around in market places with wet clothes, clinging to one’s body. The world is not short of ogling men now, is it? Oh, and it was not some innocent five year-olds who had played Holi with us in their own twisted way, but lanky teenaged lads. I wonder where do they adopt this tradition from, if it can be called that. One more water-balloon assault later, I decided to stay away from travelling to college till Holi gets over.
What perhaps I have dictated is a minor ordeal, if one may even call it that. The pain my arm experienced subsided in no time. There are, however, many hideous tales of Holi molestations I have heard from here and there, which stay on to pain girls till years later. Holi is a licence for men to touch, run and even maul a female body. Have you ever felt a male hand touching you at inappropriate places under the pretext of colouring you up because that is what the tradition demands? Have you ever seen men, ostensibly your family members, first drench you in front of a crowd, and then admire the shape of your body as the intoxication of bhang strengthens? I am not claiming this is the rule. I am only saying that this happens too. I have been lucky it never did with me. But many of my acquaintances have not been so fortunate. Even worse, many, I am sure, are not aware how an excuse of Holi is used by men to intrude into what is their space, the threshold of which should only be crossed upon gaining consent.
All these thoughts came running to my head after I saw a large gang fight break out in a slum dwelling visible from my house. All faces were painted black, the only difference perceivable being in the shape of bodies distinguishing men from women. Intoxication and loud music perhaps gave a fillip to whatever the argument was about and fight of the muddied faces kept on getting stronger. What caught my attention in this madness was a woman caught in the exchange of blows, who could only manage to wriggle free when she was thrown outside the fighting group to land on her haunches on the wet ground. The next I noticed was a police van hauling up the ruffians (that’s how they all looked) and dead silence returning to the field of frenzied celebrations.
May be this is not the way the civil classes celebrate Holi. They have their other civil ways of making this a festival of fun, amusement and entertainment. Holi is said to be the festival which is a great leveller. All faces, coloured in similar hues, are made free of distinctions of caste and class. The one distinction that does remain, however is that of gender. Perhaps that is the reason why a DU girls’ hostel had to seek a ban on a Holi procession, alleging obscenity in the all-male parade taken out in Delhi University’s North Campus every year. The girl residents claim that crude remarks and indecent gestures made by those boys amount to harassment, and this despite being accompanied by police each year. This is the condition of our education eden, infiltrated, of course, by some who are labelled ‘anti-social elements’.
Amid all these harrowing feelings about Holi, what gives me pleasure is the soft touch of my ten-year old nephew’s fingers applying variegated hues of gulal on my face. It gives me pleasure to see sweet gujias being exchanged among neighbours and relatives who scarce find an opportunity to meet in their otherwise hectic schedules. It also gives me pleasure to see the sweet playfulness dissolve and dissipate, for one day, hierarchies within families. And the best piece of news I heard was from Benaras, where the widows this year celebrated a floral Holi. Radha and Krishna, whose Holi celebrations shade our legends and folk songs, would be happy to see a dash of colour in the lives of those consigned to colourlessness. It were the sufi peers who saw Holi as the coming together of communities and smearing on each other not just gulal, but love. I wonder where the spirit of Radha Krishna, of the sufi traditions of Holi is lost.
Still, I do hope you all had a wonderful Holi, which was safe, vibrant and full of mirth!
Image Source - Photographs by the hugely talented Snigdha Manoli Menda. Used with permission.