Those who attend festivities regularly, would tell you that there are several constants in the partly maddening, partly magical, mostly incense-heavy experience of the world inside a puja pandal.
There are three things you will, at some point, face. One, a sudden rush brought on by the heady mix of the towering Durga idol with vedic mantras in the background; two, an intense craving for every food item on display; and three, that omnipresent hand sliding across your butt or your breasts from somewhere in the stifling horde come to pay their ‘respects’ to the goddess.
No matter how much Austen decries this Frankenstein-sation of her famous opening line, we must say this: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a female in possession of a body has at some point been groped. Yes, even at places of worship.
Not all harassment at puja pandals are sexual. Some are just too annoying, some too creepy to forget. Most of the harassment is, however, in a country where men confuse public functions as an invitation to ogle, and attract attention by exasperating the females within reach, hard to ignore.
Samata Biswas, a professor with a reputed girls college in Kolkata, blames this culture of ‘casual harassment’ on the warped ideas of romance sold in films. It is not uncommon for the ‘Ashtami anjali’ to become a meeting ground for lovers in Bengali cinema. Boy meets girl, and is so enamoured that instead of offering flowers to the goddess, he showers them on the girl. Cue aaws? Siliguri-based author Sumana Roy agrees, recalling how the near-stalkerish behaviour of some of the men during anjali would make her afraid.
Before there were dating apps, cultural and religious festival celebrations were the meeting ground where men would move around in droves, copping a feel where they could, dropping a sexist comment where they couldn’t.
Two decades ago, harassment was even more rampant and the environment even more toxic, says disability and gender rights activist Shampa Sengupta. “People would keep groping you. It was like a free-for-all. I think that is still the same. Because the pandals are so crowded, more often than not, you don’t even know who your harassers are,” says Sengupta. It is not uncommon for women to hear lewd and personal comments about their clothes, and deal with jeering at pandals, she says. “Imagine you have planned your look for days. Spent an inordinate amount of time designing your blouse and some random men in the pandal start talking about the blouse fitting. It’s something we have learnt to turn a deaf-ear to, but how dehumanising is that experience?,” asks Sengupta.
Explaining how some have found ‘innovative’ ways of harassment, she said, “I remember visiting a pandal in north Kolkata where the guys were commenting on the idols too. They were loudly saying ‘check out the (goddess’) breasts and looked at me for a reaction. I couldn’t say anything.”
Times may have changed, but for women, things have gotten better only infinitesimally.
“Groping and touching in crowded pandals is something quite common in Kolkata. Like in all public places, we brace ourselves for it. But what is more frustrating is that these men brush themselves against you on the pretext of checking out the pandal or showing obeisance to the idol. That is just wrong,” says Parama Ghosh, a lawyer, who also runs the popular clothing brand, Parama.
Sonali Kokra, a journalist based out of Mumbai, says this sort of behaviour is so common, women just tend to brush it aside. “In these crowded puja pandals, you’re not safe anywhere, including in the VIP seating section. Men of all socio-economic classes won’t pass the opportunity to cop a feel if they think they can get away with it,” she says. Recounting her experience at a Ganpati pandal five-six years ago, she said, “A group of young men, who were so drunk you could smell the booze on them, entered the pandal, creating a scene inside. They even forcefully smeared gulaal on some women near them. I have stopped going to puja pandals since. Organisers cannot guarantee even basic safety in places of worship, nor do they control these unruly elements, who are often their friends, so why should I go to pandals?”, she asks.
In 2015, a woman filed an FIR against an organiser at a puja pandal in Deshapriya Park puja pandal for physically grabbing her over an argument over mismanagement of the crowd. But such cases are the exception, not the norm yet.
Most stories of harassment within pandals don’t culminate into official complaints. In a crowd, how do you spot the person who touched you inappropriately and immediately disappeared? And even in cases where you do catch the perpetrator, to find the nearest policeman or to call one and then register a complaint while ensuring you have the harasser nearby, or at least his details, requires effort most women are not willing to take. “During this year’s Ganpati festival, my street had a whole lot of barricades, making it mandatory for me to walk at least 100 meters to reach home. Something I dread to do since it always leads to untoward incidents. I had a drunk man ‘fall’ on me this year, while another pinched my butt despite the presence of a cop nearby. I screamed at both, but what else can you possibly do? You can’t run to the police station to file an FIR every time someone cops a feel. There are so many bigger fights, that we let go of this sort of harassment,” says Sonali.
It was, till recently, rare for women to raise an alarm over the many forms of sexual harassment they’ve been facing. It is courtesy the #MeToo campaign that’s currently raging on social media, that women finally have a platform to openly talk about their own stories of sexual harassment. Perhaps it is a tad too optimistic to hope that conversations surrounding the movement would lead to a change in mindset, or at least force people to check their behaviour. For the noise surrounding the movement is still too urban and too restricted to the bigger cities, to have the sort of impact required for social change.
And yet, there’s still that persistent hope that the light at the end of the tunnel is the #MeToo train, powering down on predators, as it chugs away towards a slightly more equal society.