Growing up in Bangalore, every Dussehra’s buzz was around the grandeur of Mysuru’s Dasara procession. On my bucket list since the travel bug bit me in adolescence, I was about to realise my dream of watching the royal procession in all its splendour, this year.
“I would really love to watch it as a commoner and not from a position of privilege”, I told my friend Ashwati, while we mulled over our possible purchase of the ‘Golden VIP tickets’.
Eager for adventure, she and I didn’t take long to negate the idea of being ostentatious guests of the Mysuru royal family. We wanted to feel the heat as we believed that the only way to learn from travelling was to be simple, local and organic with our choices.
Reserving tickets to and from Mysuru, we boarded the 7 am train and clutched our bags tightly to our bodies as we entered a bogey with an unanticipated volume of travellers.
It was all good till then. We smiled and made our way through to our seats.
Finding just enough space for ourselves on the long rectangular blue seats spilling with people, Ashwati assured that I needn’t worry about it for too long. “The TC (Ticket Collector) will handle it. They never entertain unticketed passengers”, she said giving my aching back some solace.
But two hours into the journey where our only respite from the littering and noise was Karnataka’s beautiful countryside, there was no TC insight. We only had an hour left to reach but we didn’t see any reduction in the number of people who hopped on to the train and arrogantly demanded that we make space for them on the seat we righteously paid for.
Adjust maadi, is universal and to be honest, Ashwati and I aren’t snobs who wouldn’t be accommodative in a situation of genuine need. But the entitlement with which, men and women alike, intimidated us into twisting our legs and backs for their unticketed tailbones, was extremely unpleasant, to say the least.
Finally, reaching hot and humid Mysuru, she and I weighed our options. Our backs were clicking with every step due to the unnatural acrobatics we forced it into. “Do they rent hotel rooms by the hour? I would really like nothing more than two hours of sleep”, Ashwati said blankly.
“But Ashu, we need to go to Chamundi Hills. That is where the pooja happens and it is going to end soon. We need to hurry”, I fumbled with panic while rapidly turning to find an empty auto.
We failed to catch a ride by ourselves and decided to walk towards the main road to find buses and other ways to get to our destination. As we walked under refreshing canopies, we saw at an interval of 10 metres, families and tourists were spreading mattresses on to the footpath and lodging themselves with their entire party on the coloured area as if demarcating the space as their own.
We realised that they were securing places for viewing the procession, surprising us with the commitment to do so just at 10 o’clock in the morning.
On our failure to find a ride with hand waves and broken Kannada, we booked a ride to Chamundi Hills through Ola. The chatty driver told us that he may have to ‘pay extra’ for the trip uphill and requested that we compensate him. I promised him that if anyone charged us for entering the area, we will take care of it and then began spending our time in his vehicle in awe of Mysore’s natural beauty.
Chamundi Hills didn’t look the same as I remembered from my first visit to Mysore with my family. A lot had changed and I couldn’t figure if that was good or bad.
On reaching the gates of the temple our driver demanded with utmost egotism that we give him Rs 50 over the fare amount, when he wasn’t charged anything additionally.
We tried reasoning first, but ended up bitterly getting off of his vehicle, upset over his audacity to call us ‘liars’, ‘loafers’, and ‘cheaters’.
I was still troubled because of the argument and it had only been a few seconds since we left him when I felt a fat hand pinch my backside. I looked up in horror and wondered for a second if I had imagined that. I turned to see if anyone was in sight but the entrance to the temple wasn’t crowded at all.
Looking at me being unusually quiet, Ashwati immediately probed my mood and craned her neck to see if she could find the offender.
Her eyes caught the sight of two men, hands around each other’s shoulders, sucking on their lower lips, narrowing their eyes to accompany it with a curt upward shake of the chin symbolising a nonchalant ‘what?’.
Not only had those men groped me outside a temple but they stood in our view to amuse themselves with our reactions of bewilderment and shock. I considered confrontation but the stance with which those rogues stood, I feared that I might be beaten black and blue for doing so. I merely held Ashwati’s hand and hurried our pace towards the temple at the top.
We reached the peak, but couldn’t get ourselves to appreciate anything that was in view. The horribly crowded train, the auto-driver’s attempt to extort, the men who groped and stood by to watch us silently leave, had disturbed both of us into silence. Not helping to make it any better, the locals who had thronged the temple for Vijayadashmi, were slut-shaming us with every glance.
Women scanned our full-length jeans and full-sleeved cotton-tees with disgust while most men fixed their gaze only below our collar bones. Regardless of whether we were talking with an official for understanding the procession’s route or the keeper of a sugarcane juice joint, we were only breasts to them.
Societies like these exist everywhere in this country, and even in this world for a fact. But in spite of being Indian women, who are naturally aware of the code of conduct in such situations, we were flabbergasted by Mysuru’s omnipresent misogyny – that shamed, gawked, taunted and molested.
An hour around the unpleasantness, that was the temple and its goers, we made our way towards the city, pooling our ride downhill with two aged men. It was desperation that made us resort to carpooling because none of the 3-wheeled-autos were ready to take us for anything less than Rs 800 and the public buses, for reasons unknown, were not plying.
The carpool ride was not half as bad as the rest of the day’s events. We only had to deal with an over-indulgent man who was talking inappropriately close to our faces and forcing us to share our personal numbers – a small price to pay and a more acceptable version of molestation.
We expressed our discomfort and refused to give him any details but the man relentlessly pursued his quest into the particulars of our lives, almost gaslighting us for not trusting him with our phone numbers.
When we reached our destination, he started to coerce us to join him for lunch and a tour. Despite our polite refusals followed by assertive ‘nos’, he followed us into the bylanes we took for finding a restaurant. In order to get rid of the ghost that he’d become, we quickly jumped into an auto and vanished from his view.
The jump into the auto was a futile attempt to get anywhere as most roads were being blocked to make way for the procession. Ashwati and I had to deboard from the black and yellow three-wheeler and walk using our phones to find any place that served food. But we were only met with disappointing shutters.
Google Maps on our phones was leading us out of the suburb into the main road where we believed restaurants promising food and a toilet to relieve ourselves, stood. Taking fast and long strides, we were nearing the horizon where we could see the main road but also hear a lot of noise. Coming closer, we spotted a large crowd at the crossroad.
“Come, we’ll push through and make it to the restaurant”, I said as I held Ashwati’s hand but little did I know that we had entered a black hole of sorts – the area that fell on the route of the procession.
“Excuse me, oops, please give us some space”, we muttered using the ‘right mannerism’ our privileged education had taught us.
However, in a mob like that – predominantly masculine and drunk, our manners had little value and our bodies were prizes meant to be grabbed and groped.
From our hair to our necks, shoulders, breasts, waists, hips and feet, nothing was left alone. When our faces were out of reach, our feet were stamped upon and our reactions of pain were enjoyed.
They pushed each other around and almost started a stampede around the spot were 10-15 women with their infants and kids were seated on a tattered vinyl. I frantically helped a woman with a toddler, up on her feet as she was sandwiched by the mob. And while I had almost pulled her upright, a man scooped me away, holding me at my breasts and turning my entire body around as he liked. Amidst the drunken deliberate pandemonium, at my most vulnerable, with my hands occupied helping a mother stand, he found the window to sexually assault me.
He whispered into my ear, “Don’t worry sister I am here to help”, as he held the entirety of my breasts in his palms while the mob around us hit, yelled, screamed and trampled a few.
What pained me the most was my helplessness and the cruel oblivion of the police who were standing just next to the barricades that had cordoned the footpaths we were stuck in. Women screamed for their attention but the ‘security’ personnel only angled themselves further away to allowing every cry for help fall into a vacuum, facilitating the mob molestation themselves.
After what seemed like an hour, the mob simmered its temper and was standing as tightly as it could. I lost the count of how many times I felt my hips being pinched. My friend was going through the same trauma a step away, and both of us were only staring at each other, telling the other of her misery.
Disgruntled to my very core, waiting for that living nightmare to end, I felt a hand slipping stealthily inside my jeans. In a quick reflex, a caught the wrist and pulled the hand in sight to trace it to its body. Unsurprisingly it was a man, who thought he could get away with an act of such demonic violation.
Violence doesn’t come to me naturally but after everything that I had already gone through, in a split second, I banged my fisted hand on his forehead sending him a few steps back. He was shocked by my reaction and seemed disoriented for a bit, but on gaining cognizance he came charging towards me the next second.
I feared a blue eye socket but a man appeared between and stopped the raging bull from knocking me over with his toxic masculinity. The man who conjured up as a good Samaritan stood behind me after ensuring that the potential rapist leaves. I turned away from the sickening scene when he put his hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Don’t worry sister I am here to help.”
My forehead broke into a cold sweat despite the excruciating heat. A voice in my head screamed as it recognised the hand to be the same that had held my breasts for an indefinite time when the stampede was ongoing; the hushed words were also the same that were whispered into my ear with wicked irony.
Fighting the spirits on my shoulders – one which asked me to refrain from reacting due to lack of information and evidence and the other which asked me to save my dignity from who was probably the most dangerous molester of all, I was on the verge of an outbreak.
Unabashed, he stood by my side the entire time, breathing by my neck. I didn’t have an inch of space to move my toes due to the overcrowding at the spot, and he rested his shoulder on my back pretending to be a victim of the same problem.
He touched me at every chance available, referred to me as ‘sister’ and manifested his sadist desires under the garb of being a vigil.
Every passing minute made it harder to breathe, every second that he touched me was mortifying.
I despised myself for not taking justice in my own hands but also later realised how numb my senses were amidst all the nastiness and chaos.
The royal family passed us as a part of the procession and the crowd went wild with cheer. The two women and men mounted on their horses were surrounded by over a hundred armed men – some on horses, some with guns, and some in armoured jeeps.
The police clapped with joy and looked mesmerised at that display of wealth and power but I couldn’t appreciate any of it as I was only filled with bitter anger for the unbelievable degree of administrative negligence and intentional lapse of security.
After the deity, which was placed on a painted elephant who also seemed tortured into walking, passed us, it all came to an end but the harassment ensued in the form of cheap plastic blow horns that almost every man had caught hold of.
They relentlessly blew into those plastic toys, essentially meant for little children, created a deafening cacophony of honking noise that was amplified every time a woman was sighted in the crowd overwhelmingly dominated by men.
“Child, these men are very bad”, an aged woman holding her grandchild to her bosom said, hoping to alleviate the absolute terror on my face. She did manage to absolve that look but it only melted into a look of sad empathy. Old, young, rich, poor or alike, we were all abused.
The blogs, articles and politicians who romanticise the Dasara procession will never tell you the grim petrifying truth that haunts its female attendees.
The blind eyes the policemen gave us as we extended our hands for help, was a rude slap on the face and an unsettling understanding that even the government and its institutions did not care.
To prevent women from attending these festive celebrations is not any solution. Public festivities are for everybody in the community and not exclusive platforms for men to revel and abuse beings of other genders and kind.
Making these celebrations safe with a sensitised and empowered security force is a step towards maintaining the sanctity of the festival.
We went with a heart that revered Mysuru’s 200-year-old tradition, but came back rudely awakened about the deplorable position of women who dared attend the fest.