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The Festive Spirit?

It seems to be a no-brainer. There is a clear correlation between the spike in pollution and Diwali. This is not one of those issues where the connection between two variables is invisible or intangible. The air quality worsens before Diwali, to be sure, but from the day after, things deteriorate unmistakably. And within a week large parts of the country get covered in a smoggy shroud of despair. It doesn’t help that crop burning too begins to peak at this time, and the combined effect is disastrous. It is absolutely true that one evening’s festivities cannot be singularly responsible for the air quality problem that so many parts of the country face over many months, but a rational response would be to cut back on what is clearly the one variable that can be controlled at the level of the individual. For instance, if due to freak weather, we woke up to a freezing Holi, it would be natural for us to avoid playing it with water, without thinking of it as a threat to our culture. 

Instead this subject becomes a political and cultural minefield. The attempt to ban or limit fireworks is seen by some as an attempt to stifle the sentiments of Hindus by demonising its traditions. Instead it being an issue of public health, it becomes an ideological wedge between left-liberals who are seen to disdain Hindu culture and those that seek to protect it. Both sides see their position as perfectly valid and other side as being demonstrably wrong. Surely a single day cannot be held responsible for a problem that is so much larger, argues one side. To knowingly do something that makes things visibly worse when things are already terrible is madness, argues the other.

It is interesting that most other traditional festivals have effortlessly changed to accommodate the needs of today. The wedding, for instance has undergone huge changes. From a solemn affair full of arcane rituals and elaborate customs, it is now a fun-filled affair lasting for days. The Indian wedding has absorbed the larger influences of the day and funnelled these through itself to emerge vibrant and invigorated, to the point of psychedelic excess. It is interesting that the wedding of today invites virtually no objections from any quarters. There is no left-right divide in any meaningful sense on this subject. Nor is the clear dilution of traditional customs in modern weddings a subject of right-wing hand wringing. 

Similarly, Karwa Chauth has undergone a well-documented transformation, from a festival steeped in sacrifice to one which is brimming over with the energy of consumption. Again, despite the virtual inversion of meaning that this festival has undergone, it faces no challenge from those that are invested in upholding traditional values and norms. 

Then why is that the move to bring Diwali celebrations in line with current concerns evokes such a reaction? If anything, the case for the festival to evolve is stronger for the problem of pollution is a far more visible and pressing one than the reasons why other festivals have felt the need to evolve. After all, lungs do not have a religion and the need for good health cuts across culture. If other festivals can change on their own merely to align with the times, why should this one be an exception?

Part of the reason lies in the fact that because here the push to change is seen to come from the outside rather than being an organic outgrowth from within, a need is felt to protect it. The symbolic support for a tradition that is seen to be under threat overrides the more immediate and pressing concern about health. The other factor at work comes from a perception that the critics of the festival look down upon those that still celebrate it the traditional way. The resentment at a small elite turning its nose up contemptuously at something that has been such an intrinsic part of Diwali festivities adds an edge to the reaction. Labelling such a common shared cultural experience as a form of evil is seen to be a form of class prejudice.  Lungs do not heed politics, nor do they care about cultural norms, but the fear here is that health is merely an excuse to drive an agenda.

Regardless of this debate, the truth is that the festival is undergoing a change. It didn’t help the air quality too much, but this year’s Diwali was quieter and unlike previous years where the bursting of crackers began many days in advance, this time it was largely centred around one night. This is inevitable for the health problem that it is part of has now reached the proportions of a calamitous crisis. Instead of the current debate, what is needed a conversation on finding ways to evolve the festival around the axis of joy rather than fear. This is something both sides can easily agree upon.

At another level, one could see this as a metaphor for the times we live in. In an earlier age, one night of contamination could easily be absorbed in a world that was so much more innocent. What lingered was not the toxic effects of fireworks but the joy of festivities. We could be more tolerant of ourselves, and of others without feeling the need to be on one’s guard constantly. In today’s times however, we do not enjoy such leeway. We live on the edge of our tolerance, teeter on the brink of our patience, and have no room left to accommodate any further infractions. Physically, the air quality is so bad that even one evening’s festivities makes a real difference to our lives. Metaphorically, we live in times contaminated with such mutual distrust, that we cannot even agree on something that would otherwise be considered an unremarkable act of rationality. Meanwhile the governments of the day are largely silent and we are all dying a little bit faster.