We celebrate primarily because it gives us joy, because it helps us connect and share precious moments with those we love. (DC Image)
Across the country, across cultures, across the world and through centuries, people have treasured celebrations. What we celebrate and how we celebrate may differ, but everyone loves a celebration. There are no two opinions on this. We celebrate primarily because it gives us joy, because it helps us connect and share precious moments with those we love.
To celebrate is to live.
The word "celebrate" has its roots in the Latin "celebrare", which means "to assemble to honour". In other words, a gathering might seem to be a pre-requisite, etymologically speaking at least, to celebration.
Today is Diwali, the festival of lights, and one of India’s major festivals. In the time of the Covid-19 pandemic and amidst raging pollution, what does celebration mean? To me, the essence of Diwali has always been the Sanskrit sloka, "Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya", which means: "Lead me from darkness to light".
I grew up in an agnostic household. I am not a religious person. To me, Diwali or Deepawali is about lighting lamps, sweets, sharing, family, close friends. It is equally about shedding darkness and lighting the fire within, seeking out those whose warmth heals and nourishes.
Looking at photographs of Diwalis over the years brings back a flood of memories -- there is one spent in mountainous Ukhrul in Manipur more than a decade ago -- rows and rows of earthen lamps lighting up a hillside. An enchanting sight. Then all the Diwalis spent at home -- the preparations, the decorations, the earthen lamps with a touch of Rajasthan’s mandana art, sitting alongside a conch shell that I inherited from my grandmother, marigolds, rose petals, candles and lights… All through the years and decades, there has been a common thread in my Diwalis -- lights, warmth and joy.
Is this the only way to celebrate Diwali? Certainly not. Diwali is celebrated in different ways by different people. For millions of devout Hindus, it is a celebration of the homecoming of Lord Ram to Ayodhya with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman after a prolonged exile of 14 years and defeating the Lanka’s King Ravan. Ramayana, the epic, which has shaped India’s culture, arts and politics, has many versions and there are multiple traditions within it.
To me, celebration is not about hierarchising; each one can celebrate Diwali the way she or he may wish to, within the parameters of the law.
Which brings me to the by-now routine, vitriolic discussions about Diwali. Several state governments across the country have imposed guidelines and restrictions pertaining to the manufacture, use, sale and burning of firecrackers for the festival. Delhi, the national capital, for example, has ordered a complete ban on the sale and bursting of firecrackers in the national capital till January 1, 2022.
On September 29, the Supreme Court noted that six major fireworks manufacturers had violated orders requiring them not to use banned chemicals such as barium salts and to label firecrackers in accordance with the law.
"Under the guise of celebration, nobody can be permitted to infringe the right to health of others, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, and nobody can be allowed to play with the life of the others, more particularly senior citizens and children, the apex court declared.
"It is made clear that there is no total ban on the use of firecrackers. Only those firecrackers are banned, as directed hereinabove, which are found to be injurious to health and affecting the health of the citizens, more particularly the senior citizens and the children," it added.
Last month, the Supreme Court also pointed out that under the guise of "green crackers", many banned substances were being used by several firecracker manufacturers. The apex court noted that it was unfortunate that despite various directions issued by it, blatant violations were going on and it warned that "any lapse on the part of the state governments, state agencies and UTs shall be viewed very seriously, and if it is found that any banned firecrackers are manufactured, sold and used in any particular area, the chief secretary of the concerned state(s), the secretary (home) of the concerned state(s) and the commissioner of police and DSP of the concerned area and the SHO/police officer in-charge of the concerned police station shall be held personally liable".
As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, health experts also advise against gravitating towards large gatherings and crowds.
Many see this as an attack on Hindu traditions, festivities and cultural practices. But can Diwali, which symbolises the victory of good over evil and light over darkness, be reduced to just burning firecrackers?
Celebrate we must, but the celebrations have to factor in the context. And our health. Talk to any doctor, or better still a pediatrician, and listen to him/her speaking about children who come in gasping after being exposed to the foul air for hours. Schools are reopening across the country after a long hiatus. Do we really want to make things worse for our children?
Arguably, the polluted air in most Indian cities can’t be blamed only on Diwali. No one has argued that this is so and we must tackle the multiple sources of noxious air. And in my view, the bursting of firecrackers with dangerous substances should not be allowed on any occasion.
Celebrations are about spreading joy. How can we reduce the festival of lights to just one thing? Can Diwali be religious and secular at the same time, embracing the devout and the agnostic? I believe it can.
Celebrate Diwali. Make it a joyous and deeply personal experience with close friends and family members. Bring on the earthen lamps. Spread the light. Shedding the darkness also means shedding divisiveness.
Victory of good over evil can’t be reduced to just bursting firecrackers.
On the eve of Diwali, I bought earthen diyas from a woman from Chittor, Rajasthan, who had set up a stall in my neighbourhood market. She comes every year to sell her wares and gets home just in time to celebrate Diwali with her family. What do the celebrations mean to her, I asked. "Puja. Lighting these diyas. Being with my family. Maybe a few sparklers which have no dangerous chemicals," she said.
This is a celebration. Happy Diwali!