A decade ago, during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, a group of us naively decided to go to Chowpatty beach in Mumbai to see the mammoth idols lined up for immersion. We eagerly stood at the edge of the crowd. Suddenly, the crowd shifted and descended upon us. Faceless hands groped at us girls from all sides. We yelled. We could see each other being attacked. When the crowd moved on, we tried to alleviate the trauma of being molested with jokes and the Indian philosophy that this happens all the time.
It is true: this happens all the time, but especially during public festivals. I stopped playing Holi on the streets long back, preferring enclosed compounds, as hooligans like to rub colour on you in ways that make you feel uncomfortable. Even the days preceding Holi aren’t safe. Two years ago, my sister and I had a glass bottle thrown at us from a posh residential building a day before the festival. Luckily, it landed next to our feet. On Gokul Ashtami in Mumbai, it is assumed that if a girl is found walking on the streets, the men returning in trucks after breaking the dahi handis are morally allowed to harass her. This year, the tabloid Mumbai Mirror asked a female reporter dressed in work clothes to roam the streets on this particular day to see if she would be harassed. She was subject to lewd remarks and objects ranging from leaves to mineral water bottles thrown at her.
This leaves me with a host of public holidays I don’t step out on and routes I must avoid. Since last week, the road leading to my house has been reserved for the Ganesh immersion processions. I plan my trips in and out of home accordingly.
The third and fifth day of immersion are alright because no mandals (large groups) have their immersions. On those days, I walk with my family’s Ganesh idol to the beach. But on later dates when the mandal crowds descend upon the beach, I wish I could break a few bones.
Religious festivals ought to be banned as public events. The real sentiment was lost long ago when loudspeakers and Bollywood songs took over group aartis, when political parties began funding them for cheap publicity. Devouts have been replaced by men who want a free rein. In a democracy of one billion, I know I don’t matter. But I’d like to walk home without fear.