My first memory of Holi was sometimes back in 1986 or so. It was a hot March afternoon and Lucknow was still very much a sleepy town with hardly any cars. My neighbourhood had a few middle-class homes and they all got together to celebrate the festival.

There were many friends and family invited to the Holi revelry. Thandai (a popular drink made on Holi, usually mixed with cannabis) was offered to the adults and orange juice to the kids and pregnant women. Gujianamkeen and many varieties of delicious food were on offer. Their cooks and servants were rushing about, filling up trays and clearing used glasses and plates. They too had the customary gulaal (Holi powder) on their cheeks.

Everyone was rejoicing and as one of the youngest kids around in the party, I was armed with a little water gun and some colour. I enjoyed the festival I think, I just hated anyone rubbing colour into my teeth or ears. You see, I had the makings of a grumpy child.

As the adults became raucous , I found a corner to watch them engaged in a battle of colours – A melee of violent reds, pinks, purples and silvers soaked their faces and bodies. The famous Nawabi tehzeeb (refinement) was forgotten and everyone rushed to participate in the unrestrained debauchery of colours.

Then I watched with a growing fury as my mother was hauled by men who called her ‘bhabhi‘ (sister-in-law), and dunked her like a puppet into a big metal drum brimming with purple water. Everyone was laughing, but I saw that my mother who was not pleased at this manhandling. Wives who would otherwise skin their husbands for even looking at another woman were smiling as their men lifted a reluctant woman to throw into a tank of colour.

I remember not talking to those ‘uncles’ for a long time because they pushed my mother. Their sweets and various attempts to bribe me fell flat. This was not acceptable to me even at that age.

***

After I left home to work at the age of 22, I lived in Noida for a couple of years. Working night-shifts, it was impossible to remember the day of the week – let alone a festival! Living in a tiny flat in Sector 19, it was my first ever taste of freedom. One March afternoon, after a long shift, I woke up to  an empty fridge. There was no milk or tea to even make a much needed cuppa.

As there was a Mother Dairy conveniently located, I put on a white t-shirt and denims and walked down. The moment I left the apartment at 1 pm to get the groceries, I realized my mistake. I was wearing white and it was Holi! The realization led to dread as two men on a bike with faces in silver, pink and purple started to follow me. I tried unsuccessfully to hide behind parked cars and hope to heavens that those men give up and go home (or wherever). My behaviour ought to have made it clear that I was resolutely disinterested in partaking in the festivities of Holi, that too with strange men on the street.

But I had no such luck. I was cornered and colour was forcefully thrown on me – despite living in a “respectable society” and walking within society boundaries. I remained silent and still in fear as the men threw colour on me and laughed manically. No one came to my rescue, as it’s Holi. Bura na mano sexual harassment day hain! I stood still for what seemed like years after the men left to find another target. Eventually the fear left my body and I got the groceries and came home almost running.

***

Holi has become one of the premier festivals for predators and sexual harassment. It’s the one day in the year that gives a free pass in the name of celebration to harass. Seen as a day of transgressing social norms, anything is allowed, especially an even more flagrant disregard for the concept of consent. The harassment women are prone to do not just come from the streets but also from within our homes.

To curb these harassment, as always, the onus lies with women. We are told not to “step out” without a guardian, wear shorts or be women – basically, anything that will “invite” gangs of men on bikes to harass them. Two Delhi University colleges have banned women from stepping out on Holi. On a day that is supposed to celebrate the transgression of rigid social norms, women are once again asked to limit their engagement with public spaces for their safety. Clearly, this allowed transgression must only apply to men.

I think we need to reiterate the below message to all Roadside Romeos and gangs of men out on Holi:-

It’s not okay to harass women in the name of Holi.

It’s not okay to chase women who are not covered in colour to grab & forcefully apply colour.

It’s not okay to use alcohol or bhang as an excuse to sexually harass someone.

It’s not okay to throw water balloons at women from your balconies or terrace.

It’s not okay to drag someone who resists to throw them into coloured-water pools.

It’s never okay to use Holi as an excuse to feel up a woman’s chest.

Bura Na Mano Holi Hain.

Ab Bura Mano!

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