It’s a land where a plethora of regions, religions and other divides among its population have given it a huge number of festivals as well. And well, humans the world over, celebrate much the same way – by fasting and feasting, by dressing up to look prettier and by trying to dispel the darkness by lighting up the night.
India’s largest festival, though by no means primary for most, Diwali is much the same. Its antecedents may be almost lost – the best most Indians can mumble is to say “when Lord Rama returned from exile’. Do not press for more information, or you will suddenly step into the land of belief and mythology. Better to believe that the good triumphed over evil. ‘Nuff said. Enjoy the rich fatty food.
So is Diwali a good time to travel to India? Well, it’s a bit like travelling to a major western city during the Christmas season – many places are likely to move at half speed, or indeed be closed altogether. However, the good thing is, the celebration differs from region to region, and the range is wide indeed.
For someone unused to Diwali in north or west India, the main regions it is celebrated, the celebration is best explained as a long night of fireworks. Now before you go ‘aww, how pretty it must be – I must go next year’, here’s a few things to keep in mind.
Fireworks in India are not about the visual appeal. Seeing stunning annual fireworks over Sydney Opera House or on New Year at Times Square may build an expectation of innovation in lighting. Nothing could be further from the truth. In north India, the celebration is not about aesthetics, it’s about a blaring resounding, rowdy, unceasing cacophony of bombs. The sound and resulting smoke at times resembles America’s first war on Iraq, during the Bush years, looked like.
Made in India’s fireworks hubs such Sivakasi, known around the world for its rampant use of child labour and unsafe working condition that claim many lives each year – including the current one – these fireworks are amongst the cheapest in the world.
Yes, the evening is lit up by beautiful earthen lamps, getting fast replaced by ‘fancy’ Chinese LEDs. Yes, the Chinese light up India for Diwali as the entire electric light market in India is supplied by Chinese manufacturing plants. Yes, you can get these on Alibaba as well.
Once the elders / women in the family have said their rather brief prayers at homes, and distributed sweets among fidgety youngsters, the main event unfolds.
Yes, that’s what the average boy next door calls ‘bums’. “Chal, bum udaate hain,” is commonly heard in lanes and bylanes. Now, in other nations, saying “come lets blow up some bombs now,” would at least put you on the security watchlist if not behind bars straightaway, but not here. While most civilised, or indeed uncivilised, societies would stay away from the very word, the average Indian embraces it.
These ‘bombs’ are generally deafeningly loud fireworks that are designed for only one purpose – to get as loud as they can. Stuffed with chemicals, they can be single loud events. More often, they are attached in a string – and these can go up to 500 on one, they are designed to explode one after the other. You can spot young boys, and even older men who still haven’t outgrown puberty to be lighting them. There’s ‘aloo bomb’ and ‘anaar bomb’ and ‘fire bomb’ and ‘multishots’ and ‘fireball’ and so on. Now these are not standardised names, and most manufacturing is unlicensed, so safety measures do not even come into play.
Yes, there is no light effect to them, nor are they built for any sort of aesthetics. They obviously appeal to the same part of pleasure as a particularly stomach churning amusement park ride. Yes, they are massively harmful for the environment – indeed in cities such as Delhi, the medical advice for those who are asthmatic, and that’s many of Delhi’s young – is to leave town. Yes, dogs and other pets often get lost during Diwali as the noise is too much for them. Yes, anyone, young, old, or infirm, requiring peace and quiet that night can just dream on.
Just about everyone, from the president and the prime minister downwards, make an appeal to the citizens to control these fireworks. Health experts do so too, and hospitals and fire stations are on extra alert. Obviously, this is no deterrent, and no one is even pulled up, despite environmentalists (those sissies, is the usual dismissive take on them) warning about air quality measures. Nearly 80 per cent of burn cases received by hospitals on Diwali day are due to fire crackers like the conical anar, chakri and rockets, say doctors, but again all that is for wimps, goes mainstream thinking.
There are other fireworks too, from sparklers (phooljharis in Hindi) to sky rockets or ‘anaars’ which have an aesthetic appeal and the decibel level is manageable. However these come low down in the priority list, and are seen to be best suited for ‘girls’.
Diwali in the south or the east of India is much quieter, and dare one say, prettier, with lights taking precedence. The north Indian male is unlikely to agree though.
Diwali is a time to celebrate. Exactly what seems to have been forgotten in the orgy of deafening loudness. Yes, the next day, you have to shout to make yourself heard, for the effect of ceaseless ‘bums’ can deafen even the most resilient. Spare yourself the tedium, relax in Kerala or Goa during Diwali!