This is Diwali month in India. Compulsive celebration is in order. Not without reason perhaps. In a country where the per capita annual income averages at around Rs80,000, which is less than Rs7,000, per month, the unwritten diktat to celebrate the good times that a festival implies must act as a relief of sorts; a safety valve in the pressure cooker of Indian life. Forget your worries for a week, take a break. When you are done, you will find the old bad times at your elbow, fretting, faithful as ever.
Diwali (Festival of Lights) is supposed to commemorate the Hindu deity Ram’s return from Sri Lanka to Ayodhya (along with his wife Sita, and his brother, Lakshman) after his 14-year-exile ending with his victorious war against the great bad man in the North and a cult figure in the South’s Dravida lore, Ravan.
The residents of Ayodhya lit up their homes to welcome their icon, though, what happened soon after may not have justified it. The marriage broke up over Ram’s suspicions of Sita’s fidelity, and Sita had to prove her goodness by an ordeal of fire, out of which she came unscathed but disappointed.
Clearly, the people of Ayodhya did not know if they were celebrating the beginning, or the end of a triumph. Whatever they did, they apparently did not burst crackers, though the technology must have been available as Hindutva advocates believe Ramayana, among other things, is a repository of scientific knowledge. They certainly believe aviation technology was in use: Ravan flew a private plane called, Pushpak.
Last week, the police authorities in Delhi and the nearby National Capital Region (NCR) banned the sale of crackers. According to reports, only ‘green’ firecrackers will be allowed this Diwali. A Delhi police spokesperson said: “We will not be issuing permission to anyone to sell firecrackers this Diwali. The applicants of temporary licences do not have green firecrackers and are not in a position to procure them before Diwali. We have taken a decision to enforce the Supreme Court order on sale and use of firecrackers.”
According to India’s explosives regulating authority, Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (Peso), as quoted in newspaper reports, ‘green firecrackers refer to products that do not contain metals such as barium, aluminium, and iron, which release toxic gases.’ Normally, Diwali in Delhi and north India in general are a protracted, week-long noisy affair. In many congested residential areas, the crackers go off through night and day, adding to the discomfort of babies, the elderly and the sick. Because the celebration is about a great Hindu deity and his virtuous reign, no one seriously protests.
Indeed, bursting crackers in India in many ways can be seen as one of those moral majoritarian exercises, and few actively venture on the ground to go against what is seen as a Hindu religious right easily misinterpreted as duty. It was Gore Vidal who described ‘President worship as that peculiar American religion.’ India worships noise. Just step out on the road on any given day. No vehicle will be seen moving three feet without as many blowing their horn.
Firecrackers are also big business in Delhi. The estimated worth of the trade is around Rs10 billion (Dh504.7 million). Most of them are made in the unorganised sector. Despite the recent moves by Indian government to bring the country’s predominant informal economy to line, crackers of all sorts — some are ominously called bombs on account of the noise they make — continue to be made in hovels, slums and in unsafe factories, and the business employs, contrary to Supreme Court rulings, minors.
In recent times, the very enterprising Chinese have burst their way into the Indian cracker industry, undercutting locally made stuff. Since the whole Chinese philosophy of industry is to be relevant to the customer at a discount, their presence in the market in terms of fancy lights (Indians love fancy lights, perhaps to distract themselves from the dirt and grime of the surroundings) and crackers has been rising. China will observe a relatively dark Diwali this time, if Delhi is any indication.
The ban on the sale of crackers is a great boon in a city where, according to a study, 64 per cent of hearing problems are directly related to noise pollution. The air quality of Delhi and the NCR region have always been terrible. There are days when it is quite unbreathable, and respiratory diseases shoot up like pollution level indicators.
It stands to reason therefore that the real Ram Rajya (Land of Ram), which Hindu India strives for, would be a cleaner and quieter one than Indians have contrived to make it. Lord Ram himself was a rather silent man, never given to shouting — though he might occasionally cheat as when he shot an arrow to kill the great monkey king of Kishkinda, Vali, from a hiding place — or anger. It would be a true tribute to Ram to have a silent Diwali. I for one look forward to it. More light, less heat.
C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.