By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
Visiting India during the festival season, the US based writer capsules the mood in India this Diwali.
Diwali – this beautiful, happiest of happy Indian festivals – traditionally lights up our lives and habitats. From poorest to richest, people clean and decorate their homes and brighten them with diyas and candles, exchange gifts and mithais, and pray for Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesh to bless them with prosperity and well-being.
Weeks before Diwali in pre-Corona times, firecrackers traditionally would begin to light up the skies, and their deafening noise would numb our ears. Yet, like children addicted to noisy games, those who grew up in India would revel in the “Son-et-Lumiere” (Sound and Light show!)
Like Christmas, Diwali is a season of joy. It does not pivot on just one day but is more like a lengthy period of hope, cheer, and animation. But arriving under the shadow of Corona, with gruesome memories of death and destruction around us, and distancing protocols continuing to hamper free social interface for the second consecutive year, this Diwali season seems eerily mellow.
On the upside, there is relief, speaking for Delhi’s residents, at the declining incidence of infections and of Delhi’s notoriously high pollution levels. The double whammy of Covid and pollution appears to have mellowed. Also, in just nine months with India having reached the impressive goal of administering 100 crore jabs of anti-Covid vaccine, one senses less despair and greater readiness to welcome Diwali.
Even so, across India, functioning under Covid’s cloud, customary ways to celebrate Diwali with relatives and friends, hectic shopping sprees in crowded malls and melas, and bursting of crackers are either being curtailed or entirely skipped. As in the US and elsewhere, people in India are continuing to seek innovative ways to celebrate Diwali – mainly by migrating to the digital world. Through zoom and social media, the ultra savvy and digitally equipped are sharing ways to celebrate this uniquely cheerful and cheer-spreading festival while not breaching mandated guidelines. Bollywood actors, Indian internet stars and media personalities from Los Angeles, London, and elsewhere who have huge followings are trying to remain modest and set an example for safer, healthier Diwali for their fans.
The onus of showcasing Diwali’s grandeur has always rested with wealthy Indians who are readily adapting to socially distant celebration while retaining its glamour. An elite Indian family in Texas, for instance, traditionally hosted huge Diwali parties at their home, with invitations shipped from India to invitees, a specially hired chef to design a menu, an eminent rangoli artist to decorate the house, and the garage fitted to resemble a colorful Rajasthani tent. This year, the family has chosen a different drive-thru way to celebrate Diwali. As guests drive in, the hosts will be handing out take-out curbside dinners from a reputed restaurant, while an eminent sitar player will play Indian music to entertain the guests and enhance the festive experience.
Eager to tap into pent-up demand, corporates are vigorously wooing consumers. For the second consecutive year, internet companies are promoting e-gifts to send to friends and relatives; hotels, restaurants, and halwais are offering special deals along with hampers and gift cards for people to use to mark the festival; and travel agencies and airlines are offering irresistible vacation packages. Even temples have switched their puja and Diwali celebrations from in-person to remote or drive-in, while others are offering smaller in-person gatherings of attendees with reserved spaces.
Overall, while Covid’s continuation through its second year has caused a damper, the celebrations have not ended. They have merely “zoomed”.
For the ‘aam aurat aur aadmi’, however, virtual Diwali is hardly an option. One can look to them to celebrate Diwali the best they can within their meager earnings. As much as public health, Corona’s devastating impact on public employment has drastically reduced average earnings, while inflation, rise in fuel prices and essential commodities, and even hunger levels have crept up leaving less room for joyous celebration. For the underprivileged many, Diwalis come and go, but the cheer that comes from prosperity continues to elude them.
Of the households – whether rich or poor – which personally experienced Corona, the ones who lost their loved ones to Covid are too sad and bitter to seek joy and meaning in the festival. On the other hand, those who recovered from the near death experience of Corona have much to celebrate and be grateful for.
Regardless of the gloom and doom prediction concerning this year’s Diwali, Indians are known for resilience and may well prove the prediction wrong. The recent exuberance and gusto with which people gathered in pandals and temples in Bengal to celebrate Durga Puja and in the South to mark Dushehra presages what could occur in respect of Diwali. In the previous two festivals, temporarily setting aside Covid’s guidelines, people joined in fearless intermingling, prayers, and celebrations. Fearing spikes in incidence, Prime Minister Modi in a national address recently appealed to the people to observe caution and abide by the behavioral guidelines during Diwali.
Whether shallow or elaborate, Diwali festivities are likely to envelope us. But sadly, beneath the celebratory pomp and show, the promise of new beginnings and compassion representing the essence of Diwali is lost on us. Charity and charitableness constitute true wealth, as saints and scholars have urged. Instead, we have a polity that thrives on vicious and vituperative politics. Neither Covid nor Diwali seem to impact our public conduct. Political rallies and protests occur freely with not much backlash from people on social media platforms. Yet Twitter’s users are quick to slash and burn anyone who they perceive as having “crossed the line”.
As in the US, anyone here can be accused, declared guilty and hanged before one has a chance to defend oneself or one’s deed. Here too, counterparts of WOKE and BLM instantly express their rage and finish you. This year, the guillotine fell on Fabindia – a popular Indian outlet for handloom clothing. Their Diwali collection unveiled under an Urdu phrase “Jashn-e-Riwaaz” enraged people who interpreted it as Islamization of India, a threat to Hinduism, and appropriation of a holy Hindu festival. Similar wrath was unleashed last year on Tanishq – an eminent jewelry outlet – whose advertisement portraying a Muslim woman conducting a baby shower for a Hindu daughter-in-law incensed viewers as being suggestive of the one-way conversion of Hindu women by Muslims into their faith. A frenzied response with hashtags to boycott their goods brought both companies to their knees, compelling them to kill their ad campaigns.
Secular Indians, mainly from the elite upper class, have tried to turn the tide towards an eclectic, syncretic India, and use Diwali’s spirit of cheer to bring the glow of light to everyone regardless of faith. But tolerance in societies and nations everywhere is becoming increasingly rare, especially when politics and politicians thrive on schism. To argue that the diya’s origin can be traced to an Arabic word further aggravates Hindus and Hindutva forces, which have no use for attributing Deepavali (Diwali’s original name – meaning String of Lights) to anything alien.
To ask for a benign, happy Diwali seems to become a growing challenge, as miscreants, WOKE, and other elements appear to intentionally or innocently provoke the sleeping populace. Whether India will ever celebrate Diwali as one nation, under God, with respect and love for all remains a false hope, very similar to the divisive polity and society of a fractured America heading into Christmas.
A published author based in California, Neera Kuckreja Sohoni regularly contributes opeds to The South Asian Times.