It was not the first time I let instinct override logic, certainly not the last. I knew I could trust, that was my absolute truth in that moment, not that I could be wrong, but that I could trust. So I walked down that dark, dirty road with seven strangers, six of them men, trusting whole-heartedly my gut.
“We were in Barsana for lathmar holi,” she said taking off her bandana and dusting colours off her short bob, “it was horrible…had it not been for these guys, it would have been a lot worse.”
Together we walked through forlorn streets, the others and I, shops with closed shutters on both sides, the road now lit up by the occasional street-light, bestrewn with litter. The city lay limp and colourless like a dead body, drained of all blood.
“We were all inside the temple…it was so crowded that I had to stand on my toes the entire time…not a single local woman was there…suddenly, I felt a pair of hands grab me from behind, then another, and another…they were all taking turns…” Nostrils flaring, she paused to catch her breath caught in indignation. “No female traveler should ever come here!”
The air grew rancid with burning plastic. A man stole a peek at us from under his blanket, his bed made over a hand cart standing next to a vandalized public toilet. I gulped the pungent taste in my mouth and kept walking.
It was 12:30 AM when we finally reached a bungalow on a narrow street with open drains running on both sides. It was Lakhan’s house, one of the six in the group. He pushed open the metal gate and in we walked.
“बंदर जैसी शक्ले लेके आ गये?” A woman, short in stature, arms akimbo, greeted us with a taunt. It was Lakhan’s mother. She then switched tones and said, “तुम सब ने कुछ खाया है की नही? मु हाथ धोके आ जाओ सब, रोटियाँ बेल देती हूँ फटाफट, आलू की सब्ज़ी बन चुकी है।””
For the first time in several hours, I grew cognizant of the passage of my breath, felt the air as it travelled through my nose down the windpipe into the lungs. For the first time in several hours, the adrenaline in my blood ebbed.
By the time we all sat down for dinner, it was 1:15 AM. Happy to address my hunger of several hours, I tucked into a chapatti dripping with home-made ghee.
“I am going to leave for Pushkar tomorrow…” said one of them just as I swallowed my first bite.
“Yeah, I am going to make a move too…I have had enough…”
I heard them all, while devouring one bite after another, reveal their plan to leave the next day. I had assumed that we would all be travelling together henceforth. Friends at first and now strangers, my travel plans had searched for shoulders everywhere. I would have had better luck finding a travel partner on Tinder. Licking my greasy fingers, I decided, leave or stay, I would choose to, not for my company or lack thereof, but for reasons else.
Anxiety outwitted by fatigue, sleep came easy that night. Before it did, I decided I would stick to my plan of watching lathmar holi celebrations in Nandgaon the next day, a town in the outskirts of Mathura.
Next morning I woke up to an unexpected turn of events. Surya and Deepanshu from the group wanted to join me. As we prepared to leave, Lakhan’s mother pulled me to the side and said, “बेटा ध्यान रखना, लड़के होली की आड मे बहुत बदतमीज़ी करते वहाँ।” Holding her warning close to my chest, I left.
A train and a six-seater ride later, we got down on a road speckled with nearly three dozen policemen.
“लो, और तीन आ गये फोटो खींचने वाले!”
“खींचने वाली तो इंकी है!”
Their laughter behind us, we walked down the road until the barren land on both sides started making way for houses. Little boys, with पिचकारी in their hands, came running towards us. While they sprayed both men haphazardly, they only sprayed my butt. I shrugged off the first thought that came to my mind; depravity does not afflict the young, certainly not six-year-olds.
The road soon turned into a serpent slithering uphill. On both sides of it houses painted in neon colours stood right next to each other, arms touching, in absolute solidarity. On the roofs stood teenage boys and young men, drenching every woman in a specific order – first the breasts, then the butt. In a t-shirt four times my size that reached the knees and an equally oversized pair of trousers, carrying camera bag in front, I am sure I brought them grief. Nevertheless, they persevered. Some of them, stationed on the ground, would come forward and chant “राधे! राधे!” before smearing my face with colours, hands tracing my face in a slow crawl, mouth curled in a lecherous grin.
The further I walked, the more I saw of their abnormal, fiendish behaviour. They would call out to each other from rooftops every time one of them spotted a woman in tight clothes(they had a very specific hand signal for that), screaming and hooting and cavorting worse than a troop of chimps in mating heat as they scampered to reach a common meeting point on a roof from where they would then proceed to harass the woman in the guise of playing holi.
Having borne the weight of being a woman—an Indian woman no less—for as long as I have, I know the entire spectrum of libidinous men better than I do friends and family. Yet never have I felt as unsettled as I did then. This was not just a man or a group of men with sick minds, this was an entire town with a blunt end, an entire generation of men with minds like predators. No mask could filter air so toxic. No man could save my pride. I had to get out, there was no debate.
I turned around to see the point from where we had started walking, from where the only mode of transport, six-seaters, plied to the railway station four kilometers away. It was lost somewhere in that long walk through the sea of houses. The road behind us, heading downhill, now stood empty. Everyone had reached Nanda Temple atop the hill.
The temple bells were ringing. Holi celebrations were about to begin.
Surya and Deepanshu wanted to continue, and why wouldn’t they? Fear takes no shoulders. Should I go back alone? Should I ignore the possibility that a few local men could still be waiting in the shadows somewhere?
It was only going to get worse as holi celebrations reached their pinnacle later in the day. I could not fight a town full of starved men with a pepper spray. I looked back yet again, at the town sitting still. I looked in front, at Surya and Deepanshu as they walked away.
Sopping wet, face darkened by violent hues of blue and purple, against my instinct and wish, I followed them uphill, on road now flooded with water, fear throbbing in my ears. Ding-ding-ding!