Friday, October 31, 2014

The Moral Politics of Diwali

ek baras meiN ek baar hee jagti holi kee jwaala
  ek baar hee lagti baaji jalti deepoN kee maala
  duniya waaloN kintu kisi din aa madiraalay meiN dekho
  din meiN holi raat diwaali roz manaati madhushaala

 But once a year do the flames of Holi rise.
 But once is the dice rolled and the garlands of lamps lit.
 Yet, come to the tavern people of the world and behold,
 Where every day is Holi, a every night Diwali.

The verse above is extracted from the poem Madhushala penned by the celebrated Hindustani poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Drawing from the tropes of Islamic mysticism, while using the trope of alcohol, the tavern and worldly excess, the poem was in fact intended to be a mystical allusion to the exercise of finding truth in the world. 

Poor Bachchan, up in heaven, must probably be thanking his stars that he wrote the poem when he did, because he would have probably been at a loss to find the appropriate metaphors in a day and age when every day is treated as Holi and every night Diwali.

In an age of consumerist excess, especially in the urban world, we seem to have forgotten the meaning and the existence of the darkness of the night. The beauty of Diwali of yore was that the lamps that were lit could be read as an invitation to philosophical contemplation; a testament to the power of nature, the determination of the human being to overcome the challenges of nature, and an invitation to recognize that overwhelming nature made human existence itself bare.

Unfortunately, however, like so much of Hinduism, Diwali too is being held hostage by the forces of the Hindu right. I am referring in particular to a post from Dr.Subramanian Swamy that suggested that the pleas that Diwali be marked by a restrained use of fireworks was one more conspiracy against Hindus. His argument was that given that the larger amount of noxious gases are released by industries and automobiles, one should really not create a problem about the pollution caused by fireworks on a single day’s celebration.

As usual Swamy misses the point, that the point is not about the amount of pollution, but about the concentration of it in a single evening. If only the noise and smoke were restricted to a single evening though! Further, Swamy seems to not see that given the Diwali occurs just once a year, the fact of abjuring noise and smoke pollution would make a powerful symbol that would aid our tackling with other pollutions through the rest of the year.
Suggesting to some neighbours that we hold a Diwali celebration without fireworks, a neighbor responded “Diwali without fireworks is like Holi without colour or Christmas without Santa!” I was struck by the comment since, as Bachchan observed in his poem, Diwali was originally about the strings of lights, not of noise. What made her response odd was that Santa Claus can hardly be seen as integral to Christmas. Indeed, some Christians would argue that the problem is that the emphasis in our consumerist times has shifted from the infant Jesus to Santa Claus.

Given that this Christmas-is-about-Christ-not-Santa argument is often articulated by right-wing Christians, I am hesitant to endorse it totally. I endorse it only to the extent that despite the fact that Santa Claus is the tool through which Christmas has become more than just a Christian festival, it has also become the symbol of the consumerist excess that has demolished the potency of Christmas as a festival of hope and sharing.

A better example that one could give when arguing for a softer Diwali is that eschewing crackers would perhaps make it a more moral festival. It would assert celebrations that are based not on selfish pleasure and the assertion of privilege, but the assertion of a politics of justice. After all this is what the politics of Diwali is made out to be isn’t it? The politics of a just Diwali would be a politics that asserts that noisy crackers are a violence on those who are not bursting the crackers, those who are old and infirm. The abjuring of crackers would make a statement in favour of labour and against the perilous conditions, often endured by children, in which most crackers in India are produced.

The search for the morality in our celebrations of Diwali would perhaps also awaken us to the moral economy of the festival. This moral economy suggests that excess is best appreciated when it occurs as an aberration. A festival of lights loses relevance when our every night obliterates all form of natural darkness. A reference to nature would also suggest that it is against the background of nature that excess can be ideally judged. The moonless night (Amavasya) of the month of Kartik is held to be the darkest night of the year, and it against this darkness that the brave lights of Diwali shine forth. This could be argued to be the context of Diwali. Lose this context of darkness and one loses the meaning of the festival itself.

I have often thought that the lamps of Diwali offer a remarkable statement of bravery in the face of vulnerability, possibly from a recognition of the fact that those brave lights last only so long as their oil, and only as long the wind does not snuff them out. A shift of emphasis away from these oil (or wax) lamps, to electricity and noise shifts the emphasis away from resolute vulnerability to rude assertion. It is perhaps for this reason that members of the Hindu right would prefer that Diwali be celebrated with the violent assertions of noise and absolute assertion of masculine power over the softness of the autumn night.

Whichever way you choose to celebrate Diwali, however, Diwali Mubarak.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 31 October 2014)

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