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The contradiction that is Diwali

Ranjona BanerjiHalf the people I’ve spoken to say the noise this Diwali has been unbearable so far. The other half think that things are much better than they were a few years ago, before all the noise pollution rules and awareness campaigns about child labour in Sivakasi began.

The thing is, when your heart jumps out of your body when a thunderous blast rips through the night you don’t always remember that it’s better than it used to be. But perhaps it is. Friends in Mumbai say their dogs are not quite as jumpy as usually are. Friends in Dehra Dun say that they can’t remember the last time they woke up to silence on Diwali morning like they did yesterday.

Fireworks
Safe pleasures: It would be sensible to have public fireworks displays, planned and executed by experts

But there is something sad when for so many people Diwali has become all about saving yourselves from other people celebrating. What used to be a shared experience for most Indians — in spite of its religious core, Diwali is our most syncretic of festivals — has now become a battle between activists, sufferers and celebrants. Shopping is now a global pastime and is such an integral part of human recreation that railing against it seems daftly anachronistic. And let’s face it, Diwali was always about money. The annual Indian buying fiesta — though of course we now buy all the time, regardless of time and space and even inflation, recession and prophesies of doom and gloom from various economists.

The shopping, the eating, the gambling, the new things, the bonuses, the sweets, the prayers, the nuts and dried fruits, the flowers, the diyas —now of course replaced by tea lights — are the fun part of Diwali. The lights celebrate the time when India falls into darkness much earlier and since this is at its heart an ancient harvest festival, it tells us that we are now into our short but enjoyable autumn, ready for the few months — all right, weeks — of colder weather that we may receive. And of course, different parts of India give this time their own interpretation from Kali puja to the burning of Narakasura.

The problem is that the fight between good and evil that Diwali signifies has come down to one area — the fireworks. The noisy ones are unbearable and seem to exist only to annoy everyone else. In what is still essentially a country full of have-nots, burning up money seems like profligate waste. Safety precautions are never taken seriously in India so accidents are frequent, devastating and inevitable. Not to mention the human rights abuses on those who make the firecrackers — a massive fire in the fireworks hub of Sivakasi a couple of months ago once again brought home the callousness of the industry and the terrible conditions in which people live and work.

But to be good and politically correct can sometimes be a tragedy and it is one for me. I hate the noise and the pollution makes me reach for my antihistamines but I miss the fun of fireworks. It was always my favourite festival, even though I have no religion, just so that I could watch those sparkles of coloured light whiz and twirl and shower and explode all over the place. Fear seemed secondary to the delights that were in store. I realise today that I had terrorised the children in my family into fireworks fun so that I could legitimately have childish pleasures as an adult.

Now, I sign petitions about how Diwali firecrackers and sound are a menace. We could be sensible about it and have public fireworks displays, planned and executed by experts. They do that in other countries. We could also ban the bombs of various descriptions rather than apply decibel controls that no one quite understands.

Until that happens, all is not lost however. I can still watch other people indulging themselves in this wicked way. Smell the cordite and sulphur, watch the coloured lights and use ear plugs: guiltless guilty pleasures. Happy Diwali everyone!

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona 

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