“I felt reduced to a vagina,” Swara Bhaskar’s words echoed in my ears in the few hours I spent at Nandgaon in Uttar Pradesh. That’s exactly what the festivity surrounding Holi in the revered city reduced me to, and I can also safely say it for the other women present that day.
Barsana-Nandgaon Holi has caught the attention of the world, so much so, that increasingly, there are more photographers and tourists than locals celebrating Holi. How the crowd is mismanaged and the administration ill-prepared to deal with it is another story for another time.
Hindu legend has it that Lord Krishna was chased away by the women of Barsana, the native village of Radha, having taken offence to his mischief. Keeping this tradition alive as ‘Holi celebration’, men from the neighbouring village of Nandgaon visit Barsana every year where they are greeted by women holding sticks or lathis, followed by men from Barsana visiting Nandgaon the next day – and a similar scene is played out by the women there.
However, what really plays out on the way to the temple (and in the temple) are women’s specific body parts being targeted with pichkaris (water guns). No points for guessing which body parts – breasts, vagina and buttocks. My male companion’s repeated remark of how it is just women who are targeted and how he became a target only when trying to shield me, reinforced the normalisation of sexual violence in the garb of the festival.
Having lived in North India for the most part of my life, sexual violence and being blamed for being in the wrong place, in a wrong outfit and at the wrong time is another normalisation we are forced to live with, how much ever we protest and object to it. Every time I tried to fight an offender that day in Nandgaon, I faced the same retort. At one point, I got so pissed that I snatched a man’s pichkari as he targeted my breasts so close that he brushed them. Targeting his penis with his very own pichkari, I tried to emphasise how his behaviour towards women may feel like. The somewhat baffled response was, of course, toh kya, so what?
For many years, Holi in Barsana and Nandgaon has been on my bucket list. And I was aware of the dark side of the celebrations recounted by the travel photographer Deepti Asthana, the writer Meghana Sanka and friends. However, what I was not prepared for was being molested by male children, aged between 7-8 to about 14-15 years, who targeted my said body parts as I walked to the temple, in the temple and towards the ground where Lathmar Holi was to be played in the evening. As they targeted me, I could not help but wonder what kind of early sexualisation and ideas of masculinity we are exposing and pushing these children towards. When we bay for the blood of a young person for rape, saying if you are old enough to rape, you are old enough to be hanged, do we ever pause to check where and how we went wrong as a society in raising the young?
The proud expressions of manhood on the faces of young boys and adult men, while they carefully located their pichkaris on their pelvic girdle and made the gesture of shagging as they pumped it, was not just disgusting but equally disturbing. The young boys’ attitude throughout the day, in most spaces in Nandgaon, was one of seeking a female target. Copying the behaviour of adult men, the pride on their faces and the body language with which they displayed it, begged to be noticed. How are we then, as a society, to question the same behaviour on other days after legitimising and celebrating it with pomp and show on the day we are commemorating a much-worshipped deity?
With the unfortunate incident of Jyoti Singh’s rape and fatal assault in 2012, the entire country bayed for the blood of the juvenile offender. The BJP government cashed on these sentiments and changed the juvenile justice law in the country, lowering the age of juveniles accused of heinous crimes from 18 to 16 years for trial. The state of Maharashtra has gone a step further, seeking to lower the juvenile age to 15 years to check heinous crimes.
Isn’t it time we stop treating children committing crimes in isolation of how we are raising our children in the first place? If patriarchal behavioural structures centred around the display of masculinity through horrid sexual violence on women and the sexualisation of male children along those lines (in the garb of tradition) are permissible, so should be the rapes and crimes by these very children. But if those rapes and crimes by young boys make us uncomfortable, so should this normalisation of sexual violence and pushing for violent masculinity in the garb of culture and tradition.
Until then, myriad women will continue to be stung by statements like samajhti kya hai tu apne aap ko (who do you think you are?) and be attacked from all quarters, to be shown our rightful place for having objected to the objectification and being reduced to just their vaginas, breasts and buttocks. As a consolation, we will continue to target some unfortunate child in some part of the country as an isolated case and satisfy our failed collective conscience by pushing him to the dungeon.