Growing up in cosmopolitan Bombay meant throwing yourself wholeheartedly into every festival that came your way. So as Holi approached, we stockpiled coloured powder wrapped up in newspaper from the neighbourhood store. We agonised over new designs of pichkaris and cleared space in the balcony for the buckets that would hold water balloons filled at dawn.
Holi itself was sheer delightful madness. A riot of colour and screams as water balloons were aimed at friends and neighbours. Most people gladly got pelted and soaked; it was a celebration in the true sense.
Childhood ends pretty quickly for most Indian women and mine took a rude shock when in the weeks leading up to Holi, water balloons found my teenage body with unerring accuracy. Walking to after-school tuitions, walking to the bus-stop, walking with a parent – there was no safety anymore. Balloons were thrown by strangers hiding behind the safety of their upper-floor homes. My clothes would be inevitably stained by the time I reached my destination, until I started hiring a rickshaw to get me there.
Chasing my career, I realised that public transport couldn’t protect me enough. Years later, in Mumbai, the claustrophobic women’s compartment in the local train would get even more stifling before Holi as the seasoned traveller began closing the windows and doors of train compartments in the run up to the festival. The women’s compartments become targets at Holi-time for another kind of malicious fun – children living along the railway tracks would throw plastic bags filled with dirty water, excreta, sometimes stones and chilli powder with unerring accuracy, knowing exactly at what point of the track the train would slow down enough for the bags to shatter and douse the travellers inside. Autorickshaws and buses aren’t spared either. Male commuters also get the brunt of this at times. Aimed high enough a plastic bag filled with water and a few stones can make a commuter lose his already precarious grip, his vision and sometimes, even his life.
What kind of a perverse pleasure is this, in harassing already weary commuters? What are we celebrating when we coerce people to join in when they don’t want to? Where do we draw the line between so-called fun and violence?
In the years since I moved out of Bombay, I miss much about the city. What I don’t miss is the constant groping and being touched, the being on high alert every time you cross a railway bridge or climb into a bus not knowing if one of your co-passengers or the conductor would brush against you or have roving hands and pretend that he had not done anything.
Now that Holi is here, stories from women around the country are pouring in – and they are all of the same colour. Groping, molestation, being chased by men and boys all in the name of “fun”. One can’t walk out of the house without risking a water balloon being aimed at you or colour being applied over your body. Did someone ask us if we wanted to play along? ‘Holi hai’ is enough permission for hands to touch you, for fingers to wander over your body in the guise of ‘harmless’ fun.
The question of consent is raised also when photographers and media personnel who stay on the fringes of cultural events are also assaulted. If you’re out, you’re fair game – that seems to be the motto of the male reveller. Delhi Police and other organisations have taken to social media to address the issue of consent. There are even helpful listicles that warn you of things to watch out at holi parties with your so-called friends. But will mere tweets and posts protect us from racous men who don’t seem to understand the complaint?
Young women are sparing no punches while sharing their experiences. They get trolled for saying that they want a safe holi, that they are too scared to leave home and join in the celebrations. The #ConsentbeforeColour hashtag is trending with more tales of violence and non-consensual festivities being shared each time you refresh the page.
I read the responses to the women’s stories of assault and they are uniformly defiant. And they are uniformly male voices who are the guardians of our festivals, denying the issue, pretending that there is no problem. The issue is with your friends and family, says one. Most women who have been attacked in public places at holi have been by strangers. The whole concept of “bura mat mano, holi hai (don’t feel bad; it’s Holi)” feeds off on the fear and helplessness of women who dare leave their homes and get on with their lives while the men want to have their fun.
What can be a deterrent to this blatant and open form of harassment? Section 152 of the Indian Railways Act 1982 recommends imprisonment for life for people who throw balloons at local trains. How the Railway Police enforces this remains to be seen. We need stricter punishments for “eve-teasers”, gropers and misbehaving men in general. Safe cities go beyond creating high mast illuminations or new pedestrian zones. Our neighbourhoods should allow us to walk when we want and where we want, without fear of assault. Will we see this happen this Holi?