Close to a billion people of Indian origin around the globe were praying – among other things, for “Lakshmi” (wealth) and prosperity – over the past week leading up to the big celebration of Diwali. It is not unusual for religious beliefs and populist rituals to dominate personal and public behaviour on such occasions and for some time at least, a general sort of bonhomie prevails. Then, it is business as usual. Social media, Bollywood’s growing influence and over 16 million Indians living outside India have helped the global promotion of Diwali, transforming it into a celebration that now has significant political and commercial connotations as well. Like Christmas, Father’s and Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and other days that are considered special, now that we have North America’s attention, Diwali’s commercialization is well on its way to be fully milked.
I visited the local wholesale distributor of firecrackers and pyrotechnic materials to buy a few sparklers for the grandkids as a part of our “token” Diwali celebrations. The owner, a burly and genial Italian would not allow me inside his huge warehouse for safety reasons, but in the adjoining showroom proudly displayed samples of all his goods. He told me “This year, I was completely cleaned out by the huge demand for what you guys call “patakas” (firecrackers)!” On display were packages of all sizes specially created for, and inscribed specially with alluring Happy Diwali messaging. The attractive boxes contained an assortment of rockets, sparklers, “anaars” (sparkler fountains), “chakri” (ground spinners) and other items, ranging in price from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars! I was informed that there was a large and growing number of “second generation” Indian-origin affluent professionals settled in the neighbourhood who now made up his regular clientele, not just for Diwali but birthdays and other celebratory events like Victoria Day etc., as well. I quietly paid $7 for two packets of sparklers and hightailed it! We have come a long way from trying to find a South Asian grocery store that would bring in a sorry looking bundle of “Diwali special” items to sell, only a few years ago.
We were in touch with friends and family in India in the weeks leading up to Diwali, exchanging greetings and catching up with the latest news. Every one was talking about the high level of pollution they were having to contend with, especially in Delhi. The decline in air quality is the result of many factors including the rapidly increasing volume of vehicular traffic, dust from construction activities everywhere, burning of the chaff threshed from the “kharif” (autumn) crops in the states neighbouring Delhi and lighting of firecrackers to celebrate Diwali.
In 2017, the total population of Delhi (and what is known as the larger, National Capital Region – NCR) was estimated at close to 19 million; in the 1960s, when I would visit Delhi as a kid, the population was just over 2 million! I understand that around 1,500 new cars are being added to Delhi city’s roads each day.
This was not always the case. I am biased and can come up with any number of excuses to defend one of my favourite cities, but prefer to delve into my childhood memories of sights, smells and tastes associated with celebrating Diwali in Delhi. The acrid smell of firecrackers being let off, intermingled aroma of incense and the dark plumes of smoke rising from lit wicks of cotton dipped in mustard oil-filled earthen lamps, fresh “mithai” (sweets) being prepared by “halwaais” (confectioners, suppliers of sweetmeats), the list is endless.
Perhaps the innocence of a child’s vision renders it myopic and we choose to recall experiences in a positive light, I guess. Back in those days, the ostentatious display of newfound wealth was frowned upon; while rituals and traditional celebrations were elaborate even at the time, I prefer to believe that there was more to celebrating Diwali than just an affectation. “Puja” (prayers) must to be performed and firecrackers lit to keep our youngsters connected with their roots and culture, we say. Nothing wrong with it.
But, should we not also pay attention to the adage “Tamso ma jyotir gamay” (Keep me not in the Darkness (of Ignorance), but lead me towards the Light (of Spiritual Knowledge) that speaks to the ethos of Diwali? Compassion, respect and love can light up lives each day. Much better than lighting lamps once every year in an attempt to dispel darkness, don’t you think?