Holi brings out the worst in us, but a lot has changed

Atima Mankotia
Atima MankotiaMar 23, 2016 | 19:40

Holi brings out the worst in us, but a lot has changed

We stopped going to college about a month before Holi. There was rampant hooliganism with every cheap idiot believing that it was his right to molest girls travelling in university special buses, walking on the roads, and those attending classes inside their college campuses.

There was news that some teachers and the principal of a college were badly beaten up by a gang of uncouth rowdy boys for intervening when the gang was teasing and groping some girls sitting in the cafeteria inside their college campus.


Chanting "Bura Na Mano, Holi Hai" (don’t mind, it’s Holi) like a mantra, a certain section of men in the city acted like it was their fundamental right to do as they pleased because the festival sanctioned it.

This was Delhi in the 1970s and 1980s when girls became prisoners in their homes for a month before Holi and a few days after as well. In fact, colleges advised girls to stop attending classes during those days. We all just accepted it. We stayed home and kept ourselves "safe".

Unsafe colours

Nobody thought of protesting against this completely unfair state of affairs. No demonstrations or marches were organised. No candle light vigils demanding justice and shaming the miscreants were held. The media did not make it into a burning issue that needed to be highlighted and rectified.

Watch: Boy throwing balloons falls from balcony in Delhi

This was also the time when Holi meant bling.

There was a demand for shiny gulal mixed with large quantities of abeer, made of small crystals or paper-like chips of mica, to give it that extra bling. Chemical colours, often carcinogenic, silver paint, grease (yes, the same disgusting gooey black stuff we put on our car doors and motors) and garish purple and black colours were the norm rather than the exception.


Vibrant colours were overshadowed by darker hues that seemed to be replicating the original tradition arising from the burning of Holika, who tried to kill Prahlad by sitting with him in a burning pyre but was herself turned to cinders instead.

Next day, when the fire cooled, people smeared their foreheads with the ashes to celebrate. Over time, brightly coloured powders replaced the ashes. Although the ash-like colours made a comeback, the spirit of good's victory over evil was forgotten. In fact, many Hiranyakashipus roamed the streets then, perpetrating mischiefs, harassing the vulnerable, the women and the children - all under the garb of "celebrating Holi".

Schools, colleges and newspapers did not advise on the use of safer herbal colours. Nor did the resident welfare associations that organised Holi milans ban chemical colours, paints and other harmful dyes. Awareness campaigns against the use of dangerous chemicals that left many with skin and eye problems, including in some cases, loss of vision, was very low key, if at all.

 Bhang has become an excuse to get intoxicated and roam the streets creating mischief.

In fact, there was no collective action against the use of chemicals. Neither were herbal colours easily available, nor was there any question of buying those expensive options off the shelves. Also, Holi without copious amounts of water was unthinkable. The traditional metal (mostly brass) pichkaris to throw coloured water were replaced by brightly coloured plastic ones, many in the shapes of pistols, guns or machine guns turning Holi into a war game. In addition, there were the water balloons which were used as torpedos!


It was a gang war

More often than not, many youngsters treated Holi more like a gang war, and their weapon of choice was the water balloons. One young man had the brilliant idea of putting water filled balloons in the freezer overnight and when he threw those rock-hard frozen balloons, they hit a young child on the head. Result: the child not only suffered a nasty gash that needed many stitches but also fell unconscious due to the unbearable, potentially lethal impact.

She was of course rushed to the doctor, got stitches and bandaged. Nobody filed a police complaint despite the fact that the miscreant was almost an adult. The whole affair was simply accepted as a small accident during Holi. In fact, everyone seemed thankful that the damage was not much. To top it all, the boy who threw the ice balloons was actually heard boasting about his innovative technique to others and encouraging them to use the same next year.

The spirit of Holi that also signifies the arrival of spring, a thanksgiving for a good harvest, a time to forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships, was somehow lost in translation. Instead of breaking down barriers, the festival brought them to the surface with traditional water fights being used to settle scores.

No country for natural colours

Of course, there were some voices of dissent who favoured natural colours and their sources such as turmeric, neem, dhak and kumkum. There were teachers in schools and colleges who advised against chemical colours and throwing of water balloons but the impact was very low.

My parents, too, were believers in natural colours. They would make dry colours with a mixture of kumkum and turmeric with no shiny mica, much to our dismay. They would boil tesu flowers in water to make a fragrant deep yellow colour which they told us had medicinal properties to prevent skin problems. This was what we were given to play Holi with as opposed to the purple and magenta chemical colours our friends bought and used.

Innovation in dark times

At the time when plastic pichkaris in the shape of guns were in vogue, my father, an engineer, who did not want to give us guns but still wanted us to have something new, created a version of pichkari at home using a glass bottle (mostly a broad alcohol bottle like an Old Monk) and a pump (purchased from our barber). He filled two bottles with warm tesu colour, fitted the pump on top and gave them to us to use as pichkaris. My brother and I were rather embarrassed with the contraptions thinking that our friends would bring fancy pichkaris. When we did venture out with our strange contraptions, we were in for a pleasant surprise.

Our new-age pichkaris received a lot of attention with everyone clamouring to use them. I felt like Tom Sawyer turning the chore of painting a wall into a fascinating activity that everyone wanted to try their hand at and even willing to give favours in return.

My friends happily agreed to let me use their commercially-made, menacing-looking guns, give me a packet of the indigo colour, or a whole lot of water balloons (which my parents refused to buy) in exchange for using my quaint pichkari just for a few minutes. My brother, too, was in the same happy boat.

That bhang connection

Obviously, bhang and Holi are inseparable. Bhang, an edible preparation of cannabis, is synonymous with Holi. A mixture of bhang with milk, ghee and spices makes a heavy drink called "thandai", a traditional Holi alternative to alcohol. Bhang is also mixed with ghee and sugar to make a purple halva, and into peppery, chewy little balls called golee (candy or pill) and even pakodas or vadas.

With its intoxicating effect, bhang is supposed to escalate the spirit of Holi, but it had become an excuse for men to get inebriated and roam the streets creating mischief. More and more men would get into all sort of fights, robbing, looting and of course indulge in their Holi favourite - eavesteasing, molesting and even raping.

Brawls and sexual assaults

During the 1970s and 80s, while I was growing up, it was common to hear about (of course we were not allowed to venture out of the gates of the colony we lived in) about bands of drunken hooligans roaming the streets on Holi day making a hash of law and order in the city. Yet, there was no talk of deploying special police to crowd control and manage such attacks on the city's peace and quiet.

No fines were imposed for drunk driving or uncouth behaviour. It was largely accepted as part of the festivities with the incidents of breaking of law and order considered as mere collateral damage. Though a few stray voices were raised, they were obviously ineffectual and did not even create a small murmur in the city's collective mind.

Change at last

The next two-and-a-half decades saw a change, first gradually but then snowballing into a big movement. It impacted the very social fabric of the city. Women became more vocal about their rights with tolerance for any offence against women decreasing, till a "no tolerance" policy was the only acceptable one.

Misdeeds against women may not have disappeared completely but they were now being highlighted by media with citizens raising their voices against such crimes. Government was forced to spring to action. Making Holi safe for women was a natural outcome of this rising awareness. Various measures by the government and citizen forums were taken to ensure no hooliganism on the streets of Delhi. Now women certainly do not have to stay indoors a month before Holi and are free to go about their daily lives.

Saying no to chemical colours gained momentum and is now acceptable and implementable everywhere. Schools and colleges propagate ban on chemical colours, allowing use of only herbal options. Certainly, there are no chemical or silver paints and grease being used by anyone any more. It is mandatory in all schools to counsel children against the hazards of chemical colours and the dangers of throwing water balloons.

Resident associations ensure that only herbal colours are used and many seem content to play only "dry Holi". Neighbours gather to wish each other with dry herbal colours, eat sweets and dance to music. Though this hasn't completely prevented the legendary "water wars", but certainly, there's more awareness and only limited liquid violence on Holi now.

More awareness

Social media, too, plays a big role. For instance, the past two days have seen a widely circulated video of a young boy falling off the balcony and gravely injuring himself while throwing water balloons. Surely, this acts as some kind of an alert to all parents and children, familiarising them about the lurking dangers.

Parents are now conscious of not giving their children machine-gun shaped pichkaris. Constant efforts by schools, supported by media campaigns, to propagate a culture of non-violence among children seem to have paid off.

Drunk driving is heavily fined and special police (comprising both men and women) is deployed to keep check on law and order on Holi. This has certainly put a dampener on all the macho men who want to roam the streets on their motorbikes and open jeeps after consuming bhang or alcohol as was the case earlier. If such groups are sighted, immediate action is supposed to be taken against them.

This is not to say that things are all hunky-dory and the city is free of all evils on Holi but there certainly is a difference. The difference is for the better. The festival of colour has literally risen from the ashes of harmful chemicals and hooliganism, striving towards colouring our whole world with beautiful hues.

Last updated: March 23, 2016 | 19:40
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