We are allowed to have complex relationships with festivals.
To me, festivals are dramatic. They easily seem like choreographed performances acting out in mini versions in each household, which is repeated year after year. And if the festival belongs to the majority community, the macro version takes place in the entire nation, as a public spectacle. Often this involves the reducing history to regressive rituals, if not hooliganism, in the name of fun, the pleasure of reducing women to their assigned roles while we symbolically pedestalise them or worship them, so no one can notice the violence that undercuts it. Festivals are just an amalgamation of all these; a top notch game, favorites of all players; a drama enacted in several acts, throughout one’s life.
It is the festival of Holi and I have been ushered home, as usual, for the frolics. I am supposed to do household work until the event, and facilitate decorating the house, feeding the guests, and look celebratory on the event. Yes, this last part is an important constituent: each of your clothes are discreetly analysed, and judgment is passed. “This doesn’t look shiny enough” “Wear something in your ears” “Umm, why is your neck so bare?” “Red nail polish? Do you want to scare someone?” “Are you going to leave your hair like that? Ew!”
Basically, we are actors in supporting roles. We help lay out the set, and then are part of the performing team. Our dialogues are reserved: “Namaste! How have you been? It’s been so long. I am well. No, I have not grown thinner. Yes, still a PhD. Yes, Jamia Millia Islamia” *pause* Ignore. Next. “Namaste.”
You clasp your hands, as taught since a very young age. You bow down and touch the feet, and the elders say a few words for your wellness and success. A laid-out script. An act so overperformed that we are masters at it, though the feeling of having to perform it each time still outdoes our mastery. On second thought, we may not be perfect at this particular art after all, since it bothers us. Not indoctrinated enough.
And then the big day. The jury is laid out, with their raised eyebrows and piercing gazes: they are all of them, they are all of us. And the audience, the visitors, are equally smiling, equally performing. Pulling their pallus back up every time it falls, as if frustrated by the laws of gravity. Why can the Universe not help out in maintaining just this piece of patriarchy within me? This is all I ask.
Some are better skilled. Their pallus are held by bobby pins. They defied the laws and made some of their own. They are the true heroes — the ones that prove that there is a way out of every hindrance, back into captivity. Back to subordination, to surrender.
The pallu must stay because that is the only way out of violence — our compliance. The pallu must stay because often, there are very few choices for people with pallus, and the safest, the shortest and the quietest takes precedence.
And then the crew of actors — all of us. Smiling so hard our mouths and hearts both hurt. Feeling so lost, broken and alone that this was not how a festival was supposed to be felt: quite the opposite, actually. While the Kapellmeister, the Chief Conductor swings their wands at the stage, we dance to their tunes. We move our bodies and egos and feelings according to their sticks, raptured to their rhythm, We are schooled well, the Kepellmeisters schooled us and now direct us. Oh, our saviours! Protected us from the chaos that could have been this world. That could have been innocence. Shown us the order. Killed us right at our childhood and rebirthed us as early adults who are confused, yet hustling. They are our cicerones, our Samaritans, our Pied Pipers.
And we, as women, have two pathways: act well or be eliminated. See, we are the bearers of everything emotional in the theater. We must uphold the burden of happiness, of celebration, of luxury, of abundance, of joy, of thrill, of giving. Of the true festive spirit. We carry it like generations of our parents and grandparents’ kind carried water to homes: as a duty, as devotion, as our genders intertwined to our bodies. We carry our performers within us. We are constantly told we are our characters and we battle our own selves that squeals that we aren’t. How blurry is the division! How close the lines are drawn! How we had to make homes on the margins and survive as if it’s a fortunate living.
And the prize? The clap at the end. Oh, the clap! The loud, roaring clap. Ghar ki Lakshmi! Sati Savitri! The audience claps for us for a minute and thirty seconds. And the directors smirk. Then there is pack-up, and everyone turns to leave. And the women are left on the stage: puzzled, baffled, let down.
We are left on the stage all our lives, standing there alone, running around, asking each other questions. Sometimes we conspire on newer productions, on self-direction, on turning the tide. Sometimes we wait, in our bewilderment, unless the next festivities take place and we are assigned newer roles.
Featured image source: TheWire.in