It happened on a bright, sunny day in 2015 when the whole world was drowning in colours. The streets smelled of gulal and sweet lassi. I wanted to participate in the world outside and have some colours for myself. And I did. Except I received only hostility and snide remarks.
“What kind of girls come out to play Holi?”
“If you don’t want some colours from us, beautiful, you should have stayed home.”
“Hey, it’s only a water balloon. Don’t overreact.”
“I was only putting some gulal on you. You didn’t have to hit me for that. Bura na mano, holi hai.”
It was Holi. The festival of love. But I could only see hate.
Now, it’s Diwali. The festival of light. The celebration of good prevailing over evil. When we defeat our inherent darkness. So to speak!
Indian festivals always have history backing their popularity and their survival through centuries. And as the tale of Diwali goes, a certain Ram brings back Sita from the evil clutches of Ravan. The Demon. The people of India celebrated the day as the day of Diwali. But the story doesn’t end here. Just after celebrations for the returning prince of Ayodhya die down, Sita is questioned about her purity and honour until she self-immolates to prove it. Sounds familiar? This is the story of every daughter in India. Roop Kanwar is celebrated for her purity because she sits on her husband’s pyre and turns into ashes. Women are praised for being the symbol of self-sacrifice and perhaps for being disposable—on their husbands’ pyres or in the well into which once Queen Padmavati jumped.
We have had a long list of traditions like Sati or Jauhar to keep the concept of the self-sacrificing ‘ideal woman’ alive. And for a long time now it has been the tradition of staying silent. Even the best of us follow it, and we don’t notice. I have always walked on the street looking over my shoulder and I don’t complain. I will always have a pepper spray lying in my bag but I don’t speak about how I shouldn’t need to carry it in the first place. I clutch my keys tighter between my fingers every time I see a man look at my direction when walking by an isolated street. Because I am both used to and terrified of the stares I receive. I am used to squirming under the never faltering gaze too.
Sometimes I wish Sita had not proved anything to anyone and screamed her lungs out instead. Diwali would have been a thousand times safer if history were written with a different hand. Each year I wish my friends, and my family a safe Diwali, but I have never felt it myself. I have never felt safe anywhere, even when I am in my own apartment with the doors locked from inside, only because I have an identity that says ‘woman’. And that is why this time I wish for a safe Diwali for myself. Not just for a day but for every day that is to come after this. I wish for a safe Diwali for everyone who has never felt safe from the demons of various shapes and sizes. I wish for a light strong enough to burn everything that stands in the way of a safe world, for everyone; where Draupadi isn’t a pawn in a game; where Nirbhaya doesn’t exist; where I don’t carry a pepper spray in my bag all the time. I wish to achieve that world. And that is why I need #MeToo. Not for an ideology. I may not understand the meaning of it, but because I recognise wrong and I can separate it from right. What was done to Sita was wrong, what was done to Draupadi was wrong and the traditions we are unwittingly following are wrong. The fear I carry around with me is wrong. It’s time I celebrate the right things.
This time I will celebrate Diwali not because Ram rescued Sita, but because she prevailed in the face of all the darkness. Same as all the women who have started a movement, same as the men who have stood up against undue privileges, same as those braving the violence in Sabrimala for what is right. There are thousands who have spoken out against the unfairness and there will be a thousand more.
This Diwali when you light diyas in your courtyard take an oath to follow the same light. Take another oath to act against the tangible demons you have overlooked for so long. And maybe then, we will have a Diwali when we won’t have to wish for our loved ones’ and our own safety.