Saturday, October 17, 2009

Diwali: a festival of lights or pollution?

I have seen 49 years of Diwali celebrations. And, down the years, the shape of the festival has certainly changed! As a child, I still remember going to my father's shop (also run by his three other brothers, a partnership, if you may call it so) on the eve of Diwali. The night heralded, for businessmen, the start of a new accounting year (according to the Samvat calender); business-people would go to book shops during the day, and bring back "chopdas" or books of accounts, neatly and reverently wrapped in clean and crisp red cloths. They would also arrange to buy saffron, which they would mix in water, along with some red ink in inkwells, and they would clean up the wooden twills and keep them ready for the traditional "pooja" at the appointed auspicious hour, usually in the evening at 7:52 p.m., and sometimes, in the afternoons, at either 2:52 p.m. or 3:52 p.m. All the family members would come to the shop, and while the adults got themselves busy arranging things for the pooja, the children would eagerly await their rations of the fireworks, which, once given out to them, they would take to the center of the footpaths, and start lighting up. Joy and merriment was evident in the eyes and hearts of not just the children, but also their parents and care-givers. The mothers and daughters would dote on their children, and also keep an eye on the ceremonies taking place near the main "seat" or "baithak" of the shop. As the time for the actual pooja neared, the men would open up the books, and dip their twills in the saffron and red ink mix, and at the stroke of the appointed time, they would begin spraying the first page with the saffron-ink mixture. Each book would be sprayed, one after the other, and then passed on to the eldest brother, who would write religious lines and numbers on the tops of the page - usually a "Bismillah Irrahman Nirrahim" or the numbers "786/110" - both considered auspicious for the beginning of the new year.

The dichotomy between the Islamic phrases and prayers and the Hindu rituals and poojas were never considered contradictory, as nearly each and every shop played the same rituals at the same time. Thus, within minutes, the adults would go into their shops, while the children ran out with matches, sparklers and fire-crackers, and the street would get transformed from a moving-humanity, moving-traffic scene, to a brightly lit and noisy one with thousands of crackers bursting all at once in moments that seemed magical to us children. As the crackers stocks got over, children would move back into the shop and begin to pull at their mothers' dresses, either because they wanted more crackers, or they wanted to have a bottle of Coke or Gold Spot - drinks that would be served to each of the family members.

Down the years, while the ostentation and the noise have increased, the faith and the rituals have remained almost the same. While in the past, we used to burst simple crackers, such as the sparklers, the snake tablets, the ground chakkar, the kothis and a few stings of "lar" (pronounced as ler), today, people spend much more on fireworks, and expenditures of more than a few thousand rupees is no surprise. In fact, many households spend in five figures on fireworks. Also, people often burst more and more noisy stuff and smoky stuff that pollutes the environment no end. Children and adults with asthma or chronic respiratory ailments often stay within their homes, or, if they can, go away to hill stations, vacation spots or resorts, or ancestral homes in their native places, to escape the scourge of Diwali.

Doctors have to deal with many more cases of breathing difficulties during the ten days preceding and following the main dates of Diwali. At the same time, lest one forgets, there are incidents of accidental burning, eye injury, and, as it happened yesterday at a small place in Tamil Nadu, cases of wholesale fire-cracker shops blowing up due to some electrical short circuit. In the present case, more than 30 people, mostly customers, but also shop workers, lost their lives. See this for more details.

As a parent, I often used to buy a limited cache of fireworks for my two daughters until about six or seven years ago, when my daughters themselves lost interest in burning crackers and now mouth the pollution line and dissuade our neighbours and their friends from lighting them as well. This awareness among today's teens and youth is certainly commendable, but I also think sometimes of the thousands of men, women, and unfortunately, children, employed at the fireworks factories, whose employment may come to be terminated - and at the very least, they may have to take reduced salaries, as the people lose interest in lighting fireworks.

The government, on its part, is also trying to do a lot to reduce the impact of fireworks on noise pollution, and many extremely noisy crackers have been banned this year, e.g. the sutli bomb. NGO's like the one run by Sumaira Abdul Ali, are also into the act of monitoring the menace of noise pollution caused by fire crackers. Here is a report written by her on the evils of noise pollution: click here.


Little Steps said...

I agree with the cracker bit that you have written. At the preschool were I teach, we do a puppet show before we shut for diwali called, anti cracker drive. We hope it brings about some change..

Taher Kagalwala said...

Dear friend,

Thank you for your kind words.