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When a child is witness to a rape

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All-out Paint War or Is It?

The Festival of Holi – aka an all-out paint war!

For most Indians, it is the biggest festival of the year. In Bengal the festival has several glorified names such as ‘Dol Yatra’ and ‘Boshonto Utsob.’ It symbolises the advent of Spring – the season of colours and blossoming love. Quite naturally, it is the favourite festival of many. It used to be my favourite too – I simply loved the madness of the festival. Chasing everyone with packets of that dry powdered paint or abeer, splashing each other with neon bright coloured water using spraying guns called pichkari and getting drenched in random colours. It’s really freaking fun!

The significance of Dol Yatra, like any other festival, is victory of good over evil, to symbolise colours of love, amongst not only soul-mates but the entire family and friends. It’s a time for people to play, laugh, make friends and forget about their worries or enmities.Well, as we all know, Holi is not only about colours, foods, parades and concerts. The event is not free of intoxication and the side effects. Most people get intoxicated and high by consuming Bhang, which is a regular drink made out of leaves and flower tops of cannabis during Holi. People can remain stoned for hours by drinking bhang.

But, these crazy all-out paint war and everyone stoned out of their minds, remind me of a horrendous incident from my childhood. When I was young, I used to sometimes visit my paternal uncle and aunt’s house in the outskirts of Kolkata, which was a kind of ancestral home for our family. People thronged to that house during Holi in large numbers. It was more so because my cousin brothers and sisters, who were pretty older than me, had several friends, who in turn brought their friends to celebrate the festival together and with grandeur. I was a little girl of nine or ten and all the cousins and friends of my age group played under the supervision of our mothers. We were ordered to finish off our share of playing colours by twelve noon, wash ourselves and have our lunch in time. I had to follow the rules although I was always eager to play longer. We kiddos had our grand lunch and went upstairs in our rooms to rest. Most of the cousins were knocked out as soon as they hit the bed as they were but naturally tired. My eyelids were heavy too and was almost shutting down when I was distracted by some commotion in the backyard. I tried not to pay attention and covered my ears with a pillow and tried my best to sleep. But the voices were raising gradually and the noise completely woke me up. I carefully crept out of bed, went near the window, twitched the corner of the long curtain and peeked through. I found a group of about five or six young lads arguing about something. They were all covered with colours, hence were not recognisable. On top of that they were all swooning this way or that and could not stand still. I supposed it was the impact of bhang. They were blabbing away to convince each other on something they wanted to undertake that afternoon furtively. They were too much intoxicated to speak clearly. But one thing I could make out distinctly, which they repeatedly said, "Meye ta ke niye aaye taratari....." (Bring the girl quickly). They all agreed on this and brought out a young girl of probably fifteen or sixteen, from the small store-room near the boundary of the house yard. She looked like a gypsy dancer to me. She was blind-folded, mouth taped, hands tied at her back. The lads one by one used the back gate to sneak out of the boundary and ended up in an abandoned and unnoticed farmland, which I could overlook from the window upstairs, unfortunately. They pushed the girl into that farmland and hurled her onto a bed of old straws, which was piled up in a neglected corner of the land. Then the boys freed the girl of all her bondages except her hands, which were still tied. They forced her to drink something from a dark bottle, which I had no idea what it could be. The girl refused but nobody cared. The girl was fighting to escape but the boys grabbed her as tightly as possible. They gradually took off her lose clothings like her scarf and an embroidered little koti (small sleeveless jacket). They also tore the jasmine garland she wore to decorate her braided hair. The girl was resisting but was unable to battle the boys. Her screams were drowned by the loud cheers of the lads at their exploration of her attractive private parts. They groped her mouth and ripped open her blouse. Two other lads laughed like monsters and started to press her bosom mercilessly. Others attacked her from her legs, pulling and tearing her long-beaded skirt to show are olive, fleshy thighs. Somebody splattered some colours on her bare abdomen and tried to pull down the waistband of the skirt to expose her perfectly shaped waist and the pretty bellybutton. The shaky and trembling hands of the lads were working in and out of the girl’s underpants. They were moaning and drooling all over her body while she was yelling her lungs out, her tears washing away the kohl in her eyes, flowing over her cheeks, nose and mouth. 

But the entire neighbourhood was so much engrossed in the celebration, merriment and laughter, that her shrieks did not reach anybody’s ears. My innocent mind had no clue why the boys were torturing the girl, but could only make out that what was happening was completely wrong! I was baffled, did not know what to do. My eyes were gaped, jaws were hung and body was thoroughly transfixed in horror. I was that much dumbstruck that I could not fathom that one of the guys was noticing me from the incident location and trying to recognize my face. By the time I realised, they left the girl, battered, shattered and wounded, physically and cerebrally, and fled the spot.

The gala evening get-together was yet to begin in the house. I was intensely terrified and speechless since I witnessed the heinous episode. It was extremely disturbing especially for me, as I was always very quiet, submissive, peace-loving and entirely non-violent as a child. Compared to other children of my age, I was more naive and less worldly. Hence watching that atrocious scene absolutely petrified me and stormed my brain with a huge amount of wrathful curiosities, which I was unable to share with anybody. The pleasant smile from my face totally disappeared. My mother helped me to dress up in a very pretty frilly frock for the evening function. She hugged and kissed me and said, “Karur nojor nalage...” (No evil eye gazes you). I suddenly became aware of my female form, physically.

After my mother left the room, I watched myself in the mirror. I watched my female parts carefully. I do not match the physique of the other girls of my age. Rather I was taller and more or less similar to the girl who was tormented in the farmland that afternoon, although my face looked much younger than my body. Was that the reason why mother was always extra vigilant about my whereabouts? Was that the reason why she was scared of evil eyes? I was gradually drowning in a pool of questions and reasonings when abruptly I jumped by a tap on my shoulder. It was my eldest cousin brother in that house. He smiled at me in an unfamiliar fashion. I already began to feel uncomfortable by any male presence and touch, due to the impact of my experience. My brother was running his fingers around my face, and told me in our language, “Wipe off everything from your memory about this afternoon, alright sis? Otherwise, you will suffer the same consequence. You are an intelligent girl, so remember my words, okay?” He was about to cuddle me, when I freed myself from him and sped to disappear from his sight. 

I could never express my plight to anybody at that tender age, but I made sure never to visit my ancestral home in future to celebrate ‘Holi’ – an all-out paint war – aka an all-out existence war!!

Niladri Paul is a talented, versatile and eminent painter, from Bengal, now based in Delhi. He works with contemporary figurative abstract art and  has won accolades nationally and internationally.