City City Bang Bang, Columns

A festival of noise?

The day after Diwali, newspapers are full of reports about the festival. They don’t feature the celebrations or the joy of the festivities, but focus almost exclusively on the issue of pollution. How noisy was the festival, as compared with previous years, and to what extent did it contaminate our already wretched air quality. There can be no denying the fact that Diwali is a deeply polluting event. It is dirty, noisy, smelly, smoky and unpredictably long. It is also true that pollution is perhaps the single most important health issue that bedevils modern urban living. Is it time to bid farewell to firecrackers and usher in a greener Diwali? In a larger sense, should older rituals become more sensitive to the needs of today and modify themselves accordingly?

It is interesting to note the difference in the language of the coverage before and after the event. Before Diwali, we see an elaborate build-up that takes place before the festival, with supplements stuffed with ads, colourful costumes, pages after pages of ‘gift ideas’, tempting shots of food items; Diwali is treated as the premier festive event of the year, surrounded with almost sickeningly sweet exuberance. In a variety of ways, we are exhorted to celebrate this festival with even more gusto, but even as that happens, we are simultaneously chided for indulging in what for most is the primary sign of the celebration- setting off crackers. This year, the Health minister of the country, Dr Harshvardhan too got into the act, calling for a silent Diwali.

It is interesting how firecrackers have become a sign of something that is wrong with the festival. Increasingly, these are seen as an attempt to distort a beautiful festival, an uncivilised attempt to sully something pure and aesthetic. The truth is that Diwali has in living memory always been noisy, dirty and highly polluting. And firecrackers have been at the heart of this festival; it is true that with greater affluence, the scales of celebrations have gone up which makes pollution at an aggregate level an increasingly serious problem. But, bad as Diwali day is, it would be silly to equate the problem of pollution with a single event. As a problem, pollution is infinitely more complex and stubborn than the intemperate bursting of  firecrackers on a single frenzied night.

Firecrackers have always been at the heart of Diwali; most of our childhoods have been marked by the joys of the sparkling phooljhadis graduating to the enthralling sight of the ground-chakaris scattering colourful electricity. Few have not marvelled at the sight of the anaar showering us with crackling bounty, first spluttering into vivid life, before going into a period of intense and ecstatic release before dying abruptly. The rocket was the special treat, to be used with restraint, as only a few could be afforded, but each launch out of an empty ketchup bottle, was a personal triumph for those watching, as gravity was defied in a proud fiery arc, briefly but spectacularly. And who can deny the primitive pleasure of the bomb, the exquisite anticipation between the lighting of the fuse and the echoing sound of perdition? It is true that the pleasures of the firecracker, when scaled up by the forces of brute consumerism, become exercises in power rather than pleasure, but to try and sever the link between Diwali and firecrackers is perhaps an over-reaction, however much the writer of this column may personally detest noisy bombs.

Noise is a sign of celebration. As is some amount of pain. Mass celebrations have a necessary element of rough energy that borders on the crude. One cannot have a Rath Yatra without sweaty throngs blocking roads, an idol immersion without crowds polluting the waters of rivers and seas, Dusshera without effigies going up in spectacular smoke and Holi without ruining some clothes. Festivals that are celebrated by people rather than merely watched by them necessarily involve large groups coming together noisily and acting in a way they would normally not. In India in particular, noise is a primary sign of having a good time. The average decibel level in an Indian mall, the new temple of modernity is a case in point.

It is understandable that with time, custom adapts to newer contexts and mirrors the needs of society. It would seem that we want our festivals to become bigger in scale, grander in terms of outward displays, and more rewarding in terms of consumption opportunities. Increasingly festivals are coming to be marked not so much by what we do, but by what we buy. As the need for personal comfort grows, the collective nature of festivals creates parallel narrative of inconvenience and pain. And we can see change taking place on its own, even when it comes to Diwali. Along with reports of greater pollution, there was data that pointed out how firecracker sales are down year on year. It is exceedingly likely that in the years to come, Diwali will, of its own accord become cleaner and quieter. This might need to be augmented by more stringent regulations that help limit the level of pollution generated by firecrackers.

Cultures are distinct because of their peculiarities. Mass rituals stand outside logic defined narrowly, bypassing the deliberateness of purposive action for the unconscious thrall of belongingness. It is legitimate that the level of dislocation that is deemed acceptable be re-negotiated continuously, but when this gets pushed too hard, there is a danger of sanitising traditional behaviour in the name of civilising it. Diwali is a festival of celebration that will naturally shed some of its exuberance with time and efforts to hasten this process are welcome, but demonising a familiar cultural experience might be taking things too far.