By Ankur Bisen
Come Diwali and the house in its literal sense takes the center stage among many Indian homes. From timing the purchase of a new unit to renovating an existing one, the house starts to receive a disproportionate share of the “TLC” – tender love care during the Diwali festivities.
The genesis of this behavior lies in a simpler traditional act of spring cleaning and sprucing up respective personal spaces as a run-up to the festival. There are folklores about this association of cleaning endeavor with Diwali but knowing human nature most appealing among all such tales is this notion of cleanliness to entice Goddess Lakshmi – the goddess of Wealth to pay a visit during the festival.
Who would not mind a clean home if it means a pre-condition to entice the money goddess for her blessings?
It is not surprising, therefore, that an entire home improvement industry that comes up around Diwali to deliver this pursuit of cleanliness. Economically speaking, Diwali orders contribute nearly a quarter of their annual earnings in many cases. Offers are rolled out to facilitate replacement sales and home renovation services are either in short supply or charge a premium for intervention during this time.
This desire for cleanliness or a clean surrounding around Diwali and its notion of wealth and god is inarguably Nobel. Festivals being a reflection of the society, cleanliness or clean outcome should be a matter of fact for the Indian society.
But it is not and there are many data points that can be invoked to stake this claim. But simplistically put the existence of a clean private space that is an Indian home stands in stark constant with dirty public spaces that are the roads, pavements, markets, and gardens. This ironical existence will not change an iota during this clamor for a clean home around the festival of light.
Take the case of the Mega Metro city of Delhi. Entrances from three sides into the city are welcomed by open heaps of landfills that are in height taller than the Qutab Minar. These towering landfills also symbolize the poison in the underground water in their vicinity caused by the leachate discharged from them.
In the manner of speaking, what good will this pursuit of cleaning or sprucing-up millions of homes in Delhi be if the Goddess of Wealth has to encounter such towering garbage hills and poisonous water while attempting to visit these homes in the city?
Should she abandon her plans seeing the situation or should she overlook this irony and continue with her plans to bless “clean” homes in the city?
Festivals have a strong rooting in the cultural, social, and political context of the period and evolve with time. The famous Ram Leela of Delhi owes its lineage to the soldiers of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s army who provided a fixed venue in the heart of the city for the Ram Leela that until then was performed in a nondescript area on the banks of Yamuna.
Perhaps this association of Ram Leela over time evolved to associate with the government of the day. Then there is a stone-pelting ceremony called “Pathar Ka Mela” held in Dhami, Himachal Pradesh. Every year after Diwali, two groups of locals meet to fling stones at one another, and the blood extracted from those injured is used to apply tilak to the idol of Goddess Kali at a nearby temple. It was widely believed that human sacrifice was offered to the Goddess Kali at Dhami. However, a queen of the local princely state was offended by the ritual and abolished it. Stone pelting was established at the time as an alternative to human sacrifice and has been practiced ever since.
Many norms and practices that define the festival owe their genesis to countless such human acts and interpretations over centuries. The need is to acknowledge the spirit of such symbolism and use it as a force multiplier to affect real change in society. If cleanliness has a strong mooring around Diwali, it is time for us to use it to interpret it in today’s context rather than to pursue symbolic gestures that will remain perfunctory and cry out for their many ironies.
The pursuit of cleanliness around Diwali should include new practices of community dialogue, volunteering, workshops, and acts of Seva that aim to make our collective spaces clean and livable.
The idea of cleanliness should expand beyond the visible and include the invisible like clean water and air. Organizing waste segregation and composting workshops in markets and housing complexes to increase their adoption rates or hosting rag pickers for a day out of feast and frolic can be a good replacement for bursting crackers.
Family members can become a group of active individuals and consider the water body – a lake or a river, in the vicinity as a brother or a sister and celebrate Bhai Dooj cleaning it. Composting pits can be accorded as new avatars of Goddess Lakshmi and can be inaugurated or spruced up around Diwali.
The consuming class can re-interpret Diwali as an occasion to demonstrate solidarity and compassion with the cleaning class who work in abject conditions cleaning sewers, drains, and septic tanks while risking their lives.
Their work can be made visible and gestures of injecting dignity into their work like providing safety gear or formalizing their work contracts or organizing camps to address their daily concerns can make Diwali celebrations a fulfilling experience.
The question is who should initiate this change and how? Perhaps if we can just take a step back and reflect on the times we are living in the context of the future than in past we can start from our own homes.
Let’s strive for a clean sparkling festival.
Ankur Bisen is a senior partner with Technopak Advisors, and the author of ‘Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change’. Twitter: @AnkurBisen1
Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times