As I got into a local bus heading towards Dauji temple in Mathura, I wondered whether I was prepared to go witness the Huranga Holi. Most articles I had read online had asked solo women travellers to stay away from Mathura and Vrindavan during Holi because some people in the crowd usually get nasty and molestations were a common occurrence. Yet, I was there on my own.
I took a seat in the bus, paid for my ticket and thought about why I had travelled so far. I had wanted to experience Holi in Mathura ever since a friend told me about the festivities being a great photo opportunity. I’m no photographer — the only camera I use is on my old phone — but I believe that anything worth capturing on camera is also worth witnessing with the naked eye.
I checked Google Maps to see how much more time it would take to reach my destination, making sure no one saw me do so. As a woman travelling alone to a place that many people had warned me about, I needed to put on a brave face and not look like an outsider who did not know the place and was vulnerable.
Ideally, I would’ve liked company on this trip, but the frustration of coordinating with many people led to the decision of going solo. I had an open flight ticket which meant I could travel on any date provided seats were available. With no real plan of any kind, I went to the airport in Pune. Soon, I found myself on a flight to Delhi, then on a train to Agra and, the next morning, a bus to Mathura, all the while wondering if I was being foolhardy.
“This is where you have to get off for Dauji temple”, said a stranger who looked like he was in his early twenties as he got down from the bus; I followed suit. “Have you come to watch the Huranga?” he asked. I felt a tad apprehensive, but my internal alarm bells didn’t go off so I replied in the affirmative and walked on towards the temple.
The stranger walked alongside me and tried to strike up a conversation, so I too asked him a few questions. I learnt where Mukesh was from, what he did, etc. He said he had come to visit his aunt who stayed near the Dauji temple and to play Huranga. Only locals are allowed to do so, but he would be permitted as he had family there.
As we entered the temple, I checked the time. It was not even 8:30 but already, there was a huge crowd of photographers sitting on the first floor equipped with their cameras and large lenses guarded with waterproof covers. “I don’t think I’m going to find a place to sit,” I said. “Me neither”, he replied as he led me up the flight of stairs to the first floor. With some difficulty, we found a spot where I could stand behind a row of people seated on the parapet. With more people expected to come in, I knew this was not going to get any more comfortable.
Mukesh left to meet his aunt. As I stood there, my eyes searched the crowd for women. To my relief, there were a few. None of them looked like they had travelled alone, but at least I’m not the only one, I thought to myself.
After some 30 minutes of inactivity, a group of travellers arrived. One of them, a woman who was carrying a big camera just like all the other photographers, came and stood next to me. She wasn’t too tall and from where she stood, she didn’t have a good view. I’m not particularly tall myself, but my vantage point was a tad better, so she asked me if we could swap places and I agreed, since I didn’t feel I’d miss out on much and wasn’t planning to click too many pictures. We ended up striking a nice conversation. It was only when she handed me an energy bar that I realised how hungry I was; I finished the bar in no time.
Huranga celebrations started at 11. As expected, a big crowd had gathered and there was a lot of pushing and shoving. I had my bag on the back so that no one from behind could ‘fall on me’ with an intention of feeling me up. Everything was fine until I felt an arm from the back pinch my hips. I initially pushed the hand away assuming it was unintentional. But, it happened again. In that crowd, there was almost no way of knowing whose hand it was. I had a split second to make a choice. I could either push the hand away again and hope it wouldn’t happen a third time, or I could confront the person. Somehow, I managed to grab hold of the person’s hand, turn around and shout with anger and a lot of self-confidence, “Whose hand is this?” The man jerked his hand out of my grip. I didn’t know who he was or what he looked like. But there was no more touching after that incident. I’m glad I felt bold enough at the time to handle the situation the way I did.
After the festivities were over, I waited for the crowds to disperse and then started walking towards the bus stop. Once again, I bumped into Mukesh. He asked me if I wanted to grab something to eat before heading back. I said yes, and he took me to some famous chaat shops where we both ate till our stomachs were full.
We walked to the bus stop and waited for the bus to arrive. I was headed back to my hostel in Agra; Mukesh, to his home close to Vrindavan. I asked him if it would be possible for me to visit the Janmasthan temple in Mathura and reach Agra before dusk. “It is possible, but jiji, you really shouldn’t have come to UP alone,” he said, visibly concerned. “If you want to go and don’t mind me coming along, I could take you there. I am from this area and know the route. And I would request you to not travel around here alone.”
I didn’t want to cause him any trouble but he insisted on me not going there on my own, sounding like an elder brother even though he was at least five years younger. So, a bus ride, a shared auto ride and a walk later, we reached the temple. We also went to a few other famous temples nearby. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to see all those places so quickly without this young local guide.
We went to the bus stop and, after thanking him for all the help, I took a bus to Agra. More than an hour later, I reached the stop closest to my hostel, which was a further 10 km away. It was dark already. I crossed the highway where the bus had dropped me and asked the only auto driver I could see whether he would drop me to my hostel. He said, “That’s not where I want to go. But you are like my daughter and I wouldn’t want you to stand here alone waiting for an auto in the dark. So I’ll drop you.” I thanked him.
I reached my hostel and sat in bed thinking about the day. I had probably taken unnecessary risks. I had travelled alone to a place that is known to have notorious men who could be a threat to women, I had trusted a complete stranger and gone to various places with him, I got back to Agra a lot later than I had initially intended to and could have been stuck somewhere on the highway at night. “Not cool at all,” I scolded myself for my immaturity and bad judgement.
But then, my fears were a result of all that I had heard or read about this place. Yes, those articles are true and are very disturbing. But since I had only been listening to or reading negative stories, I had only been exposed to one side of the story. Consequently, I had almost lost all hope in people.
Yes, I did encounter a person who tried to take advantage of me during the Huranga celebrations. But I also met the helpful auto driver, the sweet lady and Mukesh. Maybe I got lucky this time. But these three people have rekindled my faith in humanity. They made me believe again that there are genuinely nice people in this world, even in Uttar Pradesh. And now, from my own experience, I understand the ‘dangers of a single story’.
PS: Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk called ‘The danger of a single story’ was an inspiration to write this post.
Thanks Kaushik for the edits.