The increasingly frequent blasts slicing the blanketed murmur of nature during this Diwali reminded me of what this festival has come to be equated with—noise. Not the pleasant kind, but the kind that shocks, that smells, that reeks of smoke and pollution and terrified animals and alcohol and short-term gratification and child labour.
I can't remember when the festival of lights stopped being fun. As a child, I remember the thrill of holding a phool jhadi, its sparks singeing my skin as I ran barefoot. The blisters didn't matter, because I felt like a grown up, being allowed to play with fire. This, the freedom to partake in the forbidden, was what I imagined adulthood to be like. Shining, exploding things fascinated me then. Somewhere along the way, I can't remember when, the shiny and the explosive lost their appeal. Now, I am drawn to the thrill that comes from waiting, waiting enough and working enough until struggle becomes success.
Perhaps that is what makes Diwali so appealing to so many, its fulfillment of our basest needs—social validation, brightness, sugar, owning new things...
In the Kumaoni art of Aipan, the red gerua, the colour of a cloudy sunset before dusk, is applied first; it is only after the gerua fully dries that patterns are drawn with rice powder. In waiting for the initial dryness, I learn patience. In planting seeds—radish, coriander and spinach in one field, fenugreek and lai in another—in nurturing them until the invisible grows into the familiar which grows into the edible, I grow to trust the earth. When my attempts to churn chunks of malai into butter fail, I start over. The thrill of waiting, one might analogize, is orgasmic; it needs time and skill and is far from passive.
I realize I sound like a pretentious hermit. Despite the streaks of pretence, there is nothing hermit-like about me. I crave cheesecake, eat unnatural amounts of sugar, hang fairy lights on the ceiling, and continue to kill brain cells through the saturation of social media. In other words, I bypass the healthy for the addictive, the necessary for the frivolous, the thrill of waiting for the high of the immediate. I wonder if I'll ever be rid of it, or if it has sunk irreversibly into my nature.
Perhaps that is what makes Diwali so appealing to so many, its fulfillment of our basest needs—social validation, brightness, sugar, owning new things—injecting them into our system with such intensity that our brains have no choice but to emit signals of satisfaction. For one day, we drug ourselves into believing that all is well, and deny the existence of the suffering and loneliness we swim in. Like any intoxicant, this belief, this social persuasion will have side effects, ritualized from one generation to the next. We continue to blast firecrackers and bask in consumerism and ignore the waste it produces. In the belief of this day, some of us drink ourselves to numbness and the stupid ones end up on the road. It was some of these stupider ones that, the day before Diwali, swerved off a cliff, taking with them not just their truck but a motorcycle and the family on it.
For one day, we drug ourselves into believing that all is well, and deny the existence of the suffering and loneliness we swim in.
I saw it from my window: the truck flipping down the ledge, leaving a trail of dusty cloud for 10 very long seconds. The flash of red that tumbled, I'd later discover, was a woman's sari. By the time I called the ambulance and reached the scene, bloody bodies with broken bones were being carried on blankets up the steep, pathless rocks. Guttural groans escaped the lips of the injured. The ambulance claimed it was on its way when the cars of strangers took two men, one woman, and a child to a hospital in Almora. All were conscious, save for the fifth body, pronounced dead by a doctor. For nearly an hour and a half, the dead man lay by the rocks where his skull had cracked, and the ambulance never came, because a corpse, they said, is the responsibility of the patwari and the police. Of the four that were hospitalized, only the woman would survive. She had been wearing a helmet.
This Diwali, as Almora twinkled with pinks and blues and yellows, in the face of destruction, people came together, organically organizing themselves to help people they didn't know, because that is what must be done. This is the spirit that life, festival or not, must be lived with. This Diwali, as the crack of explosions echoed in the night, I saw death, reaffirming the need to live one day at a time, because really, that is all life has to offer.