To my family that may be reading this, let me warn you now, what I did today was ridiculously risky but I’m okay. I also want to let you know that it’s something that I will never do again because I understand the consequences and the danger entailed! So I ask, please don’t be worried or angry, just know that it happened, but it’s the first and last time.
It was just a normal day; we woke up, hung about, were fed lunch by our host here; a typical UP dish, the name of which I do not remember. Basically it was a stuffed puri (Indian puffed up bread) with a side of bygan bharta (mashed eggplants with other ingredients) as well as dal (lentils) and dahi (yougurt). It was all delicious and we were very grateful that they took the time to make it all for us. After lunch we were talking about what the plan for the rest of the day, because we thought that today we would be leaving the NGO field and going back to BHU (where we are staying while in Varanasi). It turns out that today is an Islamic festival, it’s the day the prophet Muhammad died or was killed. From what I was told, the whole city is pretty much taken over by a Muslim parade because they’re still angry that their prophet was killed. Now I don’t know how accurate of a translation this is about the whole festival, but we’ll come back to that later on. So instead of going back to BHU, which was the original plan, we were told that we can go to a craft fair nearby and leave tomorrow morning. So that’s exactly what we did. We were dropped off at the craft fair, where we walked around and looked through the stalls in a matter of half an hour. Nothing impressed us enough to want to buy or to linger around for longer, so we decided to head out to the local market right outside the walls. Again, nothing caught our interest so we were wondering what we could do to kill some more time. Coffee and tea were instantly mentioned, we wanted to sit in a café and relax and sip on something delicious but the only coffee shop we knew of was the one in the mall, and that was quite a distance away, and with the festival happening we didn’t know how to get there or if we even could. We asked a shopkeeper and he said that a rickshaw would take us there for about 30 rupees or so, but the cheapest we could get one down to was 60, so off we went. We travelled for about 10-15 minutes, increasingly getting excited about a delicious cup of coffee, not realizing what we were getting ourselves into.
At a crossway where we had to turn in order to get to the mall, the rickshaw driver turns and tells me that there is no way he can turn because there’s a huge build-up of traffic and no one is being let through. From what I could see, he was right and it also looked like there was a congregation of people standing around and watching something happen. I could assume one thing; the parade was travelling through and no one was allowed to pass until the parade moved along. So he told us to get off, and at the crossing turn left and the mall would be about five minutes away, sounds easy enough right? That’s what we naively assumed as well.
So walk we did. As soon as we turned, we stopped and asked a man sitting on his motorcycle on the side street if the mall was up ahead and he said yes. With directions also came a warning: “Walk on the side of the road and be careful!” At the time his words meant nothing to me so I thanked, but a little while later I realized that he was truly looking out for our safety. Onwards we went, taking the man’s advice and staying on the side of the road and keeping vigilant about what was happening around us. On the opposite side of the road barrier, the parade was in full swing and it made us all extremely nervous. The barrier between the roads along with the road were both packed with people. People shouting, people cheering, people running through holding swords, batons, clubs, big sticks and spears. I was so confused as to what was happening but immediately regretted the turn of events and my actions that led me to the situation. BUT did I turn around and go back the way I came? Unfortunately, no. Our destination was in sight and our focus was on that, and that only.
With our goal so close, I did not stop to think the situation over, to evaluate what I was doing, to consider the possibility that we were putting ourselves in a hazardous position. Onwards we went again, observing the people around us. Men, boys and children were running through the streets holding their choice of weaponry in a complete uproar, not only did I see, but I felt the anger radiating off of them. Still I did not understand the point of the festival. Still at this point, I did not think about turning around and staying as far away from the commotion as possible. The shopkeepers and those who were not part of the festival or the religion stayed on the side of the street, as far away from the parade as they could and that strange behaviour did not deter me from giving up on continuing forward. Onwards we went.
Further ahead we noticed we were approaching a massive crowd of people. There were hundreds of people congregated together around floats, some rushing in and through, others watching from the sides. So naturally we decided to go through the crowd because now more than ever our destination was right up ahead. Onwards we went.
We reached the brink of the mass and were not sure how we were going to get through them all. At this point I knew the danger was imminent and again instead of turning it away, I invited it in. Do not ask me what was going through my head, because I can tell you that it was fear, but even fear was not enough to deter this journey. Perhaps it was the fear that kept me going, kept telling me “just a little further and you’ll be away from all this, safely inside. A little more jeopardy before sanctuary. Onwards we went.
Upon reaching the gathering, it was a bit sparse and there was room for us to walk through without everyone pushing in on us, that lasted all of two minutes. We walked a bit further and I have no idea where everyone came from, but people just started pouring into the streets from the sides, enveloping us inside a cocoon of turmoil, celebration and from what I sensed, rage. The best solution we came up with at that point was to hold hands and make a line and go through the crowd that way. Again, not thinking to turn back around, not taking into account that if anything were to happen, there was no one there to help us, no one there to stop it, no one there to notice. Onwards we went.
The girls, trying to not to attract attention had their scarves around their head so only their eyes were exposed. In my mind, doing that could have been registered in two ways; one (the option we hoped) was that people indeed would not take notice of the two white girls walking through the crowd because enough of them was covered for them to remain “hidden”. The second option (the one I was praying against) was that someone would realize that they were not Muslim and take serious offense to it and that would lead to some type of altercation. I thought we were so lucky because no one was harassing us, or bothering us, but that thought came too soon. Caelen who was walking behind me suddenly latches onto my body trying to distance herself and tells me that someone fully grabbed her ass in the crowd. At this point there was nothing we could do because we were right in the middle, there was no way of knowing who did it, and even if we had known, to tell him off, or slap him or curse him would have put us in a worse off situation. So onwards we went.
Against all odds, we made it out of the throng, but before continuing, I had to take a picture of what we had just experienced. I tried to take a picture with my iphone but that wasn’t working so well, so Alex pulled out her camera and tried taking one for me. She was standing just a little bit ahead of us and taking the picture when I saw two guys walk right beside her, and as if in slow motion, I witnessed the one closest to her just grab her ass and keep walking! I honestly don’t know whether I was surprised or not, perhaps a little bit of both. I wanted to punch him but walk away at the same time, but I’m sure Alex wanted to hurt him more than I did. The fact is that there was no way we could have done that without attracting the attention of the horde of people a few feet away from us and making it out of there unharmed. I knew, and the guys knew that they could do something like that and completely get away with it, because let’s face it, who cares if a couple of girls get groped if they, according to their own will, showed up at a place like that? Instead, onwards we went.
After stubbornly marching towards our destination, we finally made it safely! It felt great to be somewhere known and relatively secure, but after what we had just faced our nerves were still hyperactive and wouldn’t calm down. We sat down and had a drink, grabbed some food, but I still couldn’t silence the feeling of unrest and unease that I felt. I knew that we all wanted to leave and be safe and secure in the guest house, but I also knew that there was no way of leaving at that time and finding an auto or a rickshaw to take us all the way back, without having to get out into that crowd again. So we waited it out for a couple of hours, until Caelen started feeling sick and then we knew it was time to go. So we were back on the road with a different destination this time and we were hoping to get there safely this time. The whole ride back home in the auto I felt discomfort, only because there were still people on the road as after-effects of the parade, so nothing was going to take that feeling away until we were out of them.
We did indeed reach safe and sound (I might have given the ending away at the beginning), but though we were all safe, we ended up with some sort of food poisoning and we were throwing up all night. This is why instead of posting this blog the same night as the festival happened, I’m posting it a few days later. I started the blog, but the nausea hit midway and didn’t stop!
I apologize again that this blog was so long, but it was like word vomit that needed to come out for me to feel better (which led to real vomit that did not feel so good!) I don’t know why, but it was just a very uncomfortable situation. I hope that no one has to ever feel like that, and it really upsets me that there is a festival that people take part in that is just fuelled by hate and rage and perhaps vengeance. Again, I will repeat that I do not know the true meaning of this festival or what purpose it serves, but from what I experienced, it had nothing to do with celebration or joy and I never want to experience it again!