For years, I have not ‘celebrated’ Diwali in the sense it has come to mean. No crackers, no bombs. Nothing noisier than a pair of sprinklers that go zzzzzzzzz and a couple of flowerpots that go whoosh.
But I have celebrated it in other ways. Spent time with the whole family – parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. Went out, met friends. Wore my new clothes, gifted others theirs. And my biggest contribution by far?
I’d stopped bursting crackers.
I’d stopped when I realized how terrified Brownie and Bush were of the noise and smoke and the smells that permeated the world around them. They were lucky, in a way. There were sound-diluting corners of the house they could retreat to. And it was Trivandrum, a beautiful city that celebrated its Diwali in a typically restrained way, dwelling more on the light than the sound. I dread the coming Diwali in Bengaluru because we have a puppy who’s too young to know that the amplified sounds won’t hurt us (at least, in the short run) and too attached to run for cover leaving us behind.
Lest the knives come out, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not AGAINST Diwali, or celebrating it. I simply disagree with what it has come to mean now. It is no longer the festival of lights – it has now become a week-long contest of my-bang-is-louder-than-yours. It’s not about celebrating what we have; it’s about flushing money down the toilet to the tanks of an industry that’s notorious for labour exploitation and poor safety standards. Oh, and now we have Chinese crackers to worry about too.
To those who assume that Diwali merely marks the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya, it isn’t. The significance of Diwali goes much deeper, and in a much more ‘secular’ manner. Just as there is for every festival, celebration or ‘religious’ diktat of Hinduism (many of which, unfortunately, have been lost to show-me-proof idiots who’ve never asked for a DNA test, ‘rationalists’ looking for a reason to denigrate Hindu practices or people who don’t care as long as they have a reason to quaff or show off), there is a reason behind Diwali.
Diwali marks the transition of autumn to winter, and thus once again calls for a change in diet and lifestyle. The days are shorter, ergo the lights. Diwali, in its original avatar, was a celebration not only of a King/God’s return, but also of a public exercise of raising hope – that as bad as the coming winter could be, there would be a spring/harvest season not too far behind. The lights, so essential for heat during the cold nights, needed to be brought out of storage and prepared – what better reason to do this than to celebrate the lights themselves then?
Sweets, rich in ghee and helpful in adding fatty layers of insulation to the bodies of those who relied on physical labour, were exchanged. Home-made sweets, I should hasten to add, without artificial coloring or chemical substitutes. Richer foods for the winter, transitioned to slowly over a week, from the leaner foods more appropriate for wet monsoon season.
And the clothes, of course. The reason people have been gifting clothes is simple – the monsoon that typically precedes Diwali would have taken its toll both on the health and the wealth of a citizenry. Clothes carried over from that period would tend to be thinner, since they would have to dry out in what little sunshine was spared by the stormy clouds, and perhaps even carrying the remnants of germs and bacteria that would thrive in the lethargic winter. New clothes, often gifted by the King or a landlord to the vassals, was a way of ensuring that people had enough to keep themselves warm. Calling it a gift enforced that sense of obligation between the giver and the receiver; calling it charity would have demeaned the latter.
Over hundreds of years, this meaning was lost to us. Diwali became an exercise in consumerism. You go on vacations to places that have never heard of Diwali. You buy televisions and mobile phones and thank your stars for the festive season’s deals. You one-up your neighbor because you bought the 1500-unit cracker against his 1000-unit cracker. Your clothes are more expensive than your neighbor’s.
That’s not Diwali anymore. Sub out the crackers, and it might just as well be any of the other festivals where we indulge ourselves. It’s no longer a festival of hope or of goodness – it is simply one of goodies. Just as Bakrid, meant as a festival of gratitude, has now become a contest to see which family can slaughter the most bakris, or Xmas-eve a last-minute rush to get something for those who are sure to give you gifts in return, Diwali needs us to return to it its meaningfulness.
Start with a simple pledge. Repeat, every time you have this urge to buy a cracker, that Diwali is the festival of lights. Buy a sparkler. Or a chakra.
And make sure you buy from a brand that is known to use only adult, unbonded labour. It’s rather hypocritical of us to cheer Kailash Satyarthi for his Nobel while we indulge an industry that’s known for its preference of underpaid, underage labour.
And halve your budget for crackers, and do something else with that money that would make your God smile a little wider. Help out someone in need. Gift a child a jacket to shield him/her from the cold. Gift a child a book to read under the warmth of a blanket. Or gift a blanket itself. You don’t need to save the world, but to someone, even a little gesture of yours might mean it. Make His job easier, and if you believe in that divine quid pro quo, He’ll make yours.
You don’t combat the forces of evil in today’s world – the pseudo-secularists who want to dilute every practice of a Hindu’s way of life, or mock it in some way – by pointing to the other religions and call Diwali your own revenge for the thousands of bakris or turkeys killed to propitiate their Gods. If you are serious about living Diwali the way it was meant to be, then you celebrate it by setting an example. You take that first step.
You be the candle that lights the first sprinker of a chain.