I rode pillion with my sister Sneha who wore a sturdy helmet and a scarf modelled as a hijab underneath it to shield the lower half of her face from flying insects and the harsh wind. I sat behind enjoying the the light drizzle and soaking in the view. It was a Friday, Aug 11, 2012. The day of the ‘Dahi Handi’ this year as per the Hindu calendar. Read more about the ‘Dahi Handi’ or Govinda as it is also referred to, here.
|Image source: Stutzfamily.com
It was the festival of Janmastami – the birthday of Lord Krishna, the revered Hindu deity. The previous day, Mother and I had spent time together preparing traditional sweets and snacks. Using rice flour, she had etched a beautiful rangoli outside our house and as all of us had joined in in the puja that morning, a very serene feeling had overcome me, one that reminded me of my childhood days. It had been seven years since I had been in the city during the ‘Dahi Handi’, two years since I had witnessed such festivity because I had been in Mumbai during the Lord Ganesha pujas in 2010, but more about that later. All around us, incredible hand painted, colourful ‘Handis’ – clay pots filled with butter, ghee and yoghurt among other items were being tied to poles of outrageous heights, or being raised by cranes ornately decorated with orange marigold flower garlands from start to end. In some cases, both sides of the rope holding the clay pot had gifts tied to them as well. Shirt boxes, cloth pieces, packets of money to be won. Huge posters and banners were put up all around, political parties boasting of prize money to be given away to the group which would succeed in building a human pyramid tall enough to reach the pot and break it. Along our route, prize money ranged from Rs. 1,00,000 to Rs 33,00,000 but I had also heard that in certain areas of the city, they were as high as Rs. 10,000,000, maybe even higher. Multiple political parties also announced various ranges of prize money at the same ‘Handi’ location – the higher the prize money, the higher their clout, the higher their probability of obtaining votes in the upcoming elections.
Truckloads of enthusiastic participants, mostly teenage boys with a handful of middle-aged men and some children thrown in drove by, each truck characterised by the huge poster it donned at the back – typically to promote a political party and more specifically by the colour of the T-Shirts worn by the men in the back of the truck. Each T-Shirt also promoted the political party at the back of the shirt. Each time the truck pulled up at a traffic light, the men would cheer and leer, catcalls and yell outs were in plenty mostly directed at female motorists. Crowds mingled about, video cameras and cell phones being used extensively to film the proceedings.
Vashi, Navi Mumbai
|Image source: Indiatoday.Indiatoday.in
I met my husband on his way back from work. Walking back from the temple, the two of us thought we would spend some time, have dinner together before I stayed at Mom’s for a week. We had assumed that, like it used to happen back in those days, the festivities would have ended by 4:00 PM and the roads would be relatively peaceful. Imagine our surprise and consternation when the roads were jam packed not with vehicles but with people! Crowds that milled about and mobs that had gathered to watch the Handi participants have a go at winning the prize, held the roads and traffic to ransom. Prior slow moving traffic had come to a complete stand-still. Commuters in public transport craned their necks to get a better view of the show. The scene unfolding before us was very similar to the crowds you would encounter at a beach or at a rally.
Political leaders and the like gave speeches in Marathi on raised podiums and huge stages that had been erected for this very cause. Tall water sprinklers were on in full force giving an effect of the rains, considering that the monsoon had been elusive so far. Scores of men with un-shaven beards and scraggly hair danced underneath the fake rain, some of them sporting toddlers on their shoulders. Cartons of beer and beer bottles lay around. A group of boys took swigs alternately from a bottle, chewing on chicken meat on the side, while an elderly couple shook their heads and walked by in disbelief. I was sure some found it abhorring as meat was considered taboo on auspicious days. A 20-something guy wearing a monster mask ran around scaring people for fun. Up on the dias, the presenter introduced group after group as they built a pyramid and the kid on top waved to the rooting crowd. The group would then disembark and the next-in-line team would carry on the show. It was nearing 7 PM and the ‘contest’ had not even begun. We walked from location to location, but at all the three that we visited, we saw the same reel being spun. Elsewhere, Bollywood celebrities entertained the masses as they gyrated to item numbers. I wondered why the ‘contest’ times had been shifted from late afternoons to dusk, but I found the answer in my question. After all, wasn’t the show being put on for the people? It being a working day, most working class folks would only have time to attend the merriment at the end of the day and what fun is it to build 60 feet pyramids with only a handful watching?
As we walked on towards the restaurant, I noticed lads on both sides of the sidewalk, some in a drunken stupor, whistle and cast disgusting looks on the ladies walking by. I had to agree with my husband’s statement that ‘Too much commercialization of functions and rituals gives such people a licence to be rowdy, to be cheap’. We watched for a while, standing in the crowd to try and understand what exactly everyone was looking at because for the past one hour we had not seen any change in status. Hordes of people continued to dance as if they were in an intoxicated torpor and others continued to watch. There are small scale handis, celebrated in colonies and co-operative housing societies that bring families and friends together. I have been to some and I have friends who participate in some. Those are rather peaceful ones built to promote togetherness. And then there are these, serving a whole different purpose. I am no party pooper, I am not a very devout person either, but why use a religious excuse to justify such behaviour? Anyway, we decided to move on to the restaurant. In the midst of all this, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat saddened because Lord Sri Krishna and his devotees were nowhere to be seen.
I would love to hear your views!