On the Wrong Side of History: A Diwali Confession

History is being made as I write this and as you read this. The old world order is being aggressively challenged, and is in turn putting up a stiff resistance. The towering edifice of patriarchy is being torn down piece by piece. The right wing is fighting back the efforts of liberals, who in turn are fighting back the resurgent right wing. And people are protesting more and more about environmental pollution—of air, seas, rivers, earth.

In the past five years or so, a clear dividing line has been etched on the ground of human affairs. Most of us have found ourselves on one side or the other of this line, be it the #metoo movement, the rise of Modi and Trump, or the impact of crackers on Diwali. We are sometimes on the opposing side from our family members, friends, or colleagues. But generally we are on the same page as our peers, whose opinion (judgement?) we are most respectful (afraid!) of. That is the side of history that we would like to be on.

I have been fortunate, till now, that I have been on the right side of history vis-à-vis the #metoo movement and the rise of the right wing. But this Diwali, I suddenly realized that my peers, my family members, my colleagues—most of them—are on the other side of the line. And, isolated, I\’m sheepishly grinning from this side, like I\’ve done some silly boo-boo.

OK, I admit it—I love fireworks! I\’m fascinated by fire, the ability of barood (gunpowder) to generate fire, the spontaneity, the pomp, the extravagance of it! It is drama, it is action, it is emotion! It is loud, it is bright, it is colorful! It is soaring and it is elevating. It is a show like not other show; it is a break from reality like no other break away from reality.

My childhood memories are made up of many Diwalis that consisted of a long ritual centered on fireworks. First came the requesting (sometimes begging and sometimes negotiating) my parents for money for the fireworks. Then came the scoping of markets for the kind of fireworks available and the best bargains. Some kids liked one kind of fireworks—either chocolate/atom bombs or bottle rockets or anaars (flower pot/fountain). I liked to have a mix of things. So I had to be more calculative. I had to divide the little pie among small and big crackers, some chakris (spinning sparklers), some fire ropes and pencils, some anaars, and some phooljharis (sparklers). (I always found rockets a bit expensive for the kind of entertainment they provided.)

On top of that, I\’ve always been a squirrel, so I had to squirrel away some of the allowance into my piggy bank, which made my brother mad \’cause he was the kinds who spent his entire allowance on fireworks. See, my fireworks were also his entertainment. And if I was feeling communal enough, I would share some of mine with him (not!). So it made sense, for him, for me to spend my entire purse on patakhe (fireworks).

The next phase of the rituals came after the evening puja and house decorations were over. Before we began blowing up and lighting stuff, we Odias prayed to our ancestors (bada badua prayer) for their peace and ours. Then came the part where we went down to the playground, or up to the terrace, or just to the gallery outside our house to start the show. Our neighbors and their kids and our friends, all gathered in a common area that would be safe enough to burst our crackers.

It was always an activity that bordered on the risky. Some parents were extra cautious, some didn\’t care. My dad himself had a lot of derring-do, so we came from that mold. My mother was easily startled by loud bombs, but she enjoyed the noiseless variety of fireworks. My brother and I would systematically go through our merch and think of innovative ways of lighting \’em up.

Crackers were stuffed into boxes, earth, coconut shells, buckets, mugs, and all kinds of things that can be blasted into pieces. We were keen to learn whether the bomb could actually break those items. We were like scientists without lab coats! Items were blown to smithereens and flew out in all directions at a very high velocity. Those were the safety-be-damned days. We only avoided glass items. And we watched from a safe distance. \’Cause we were not stupid!

This would go on for two to three hours easily. Sometimes till 11 pm or midnight! In the end, when everything was blown up and fired away, we would be back home, exhausted from all the excitement. And the air outside would be thick with heavy smoke from millions of Indians burning billions of fireworks.

Unfortunately, where there is fire, there is smoke. And in the case of crackers, sometimes with a loud sound that hurts the senses of people.

Pollution is a phenomenon that needs to be combated urgently. No one\’s confused about the fact that pollution is a man-made phenomenon. Whether it is the air, the water, or the earth, it is human activity that is polluting it. And as our numbers rise, we are consuming more, burning more, and wasting more. Environment-friendly measures are not keeping pace with the rise in our consumption. If we don\’t do something now, we are doomed. Hence the urgency of people and courts to put a rein on it.

When I ask myself, would stopping fireworks on Diwali reverse the trend of rise in pollution? The clear answer I can give is \’no\’. Stopping fireworks on the one day of Diwali is like going for a run once a year and expecting yourself to be healthy. It is not going to stop the crop-burning, the vehicular fumes, the polluting industries, the plastic floating in the oceans, the filth in our \’holy\’ rivers. But I also know that we cannot do with yet another day of heightened pollution. It would just be cruel to impose that on a people that is already suffering. You cannot use the excuse of tradition, jobs, or even childhood memories to perpetuate a practice that is hurting people, even if it does so once a year.

So, standing this side of the dividing line, I\’m also moping about the fact that I will probably never again burst crackers. But I know that this is that march of history that I should not and cannot stop. I may never again see a rocket soar high, leaving behind a plume of thick smoke, but I hope that one day when I raise my eyes, I see clear blue skies over Delhi.

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Published by Anupam Choudhury

I'm a writer, editor, and blogger from New Delhi, India.

10 thoughts on “On the Wrong Side of History: A Diwali Confession

  1. Yeah I do agree. One day will not solve any problem but can't we even contribute one day? Each one day will count to 365 days. Everybody is thinking but everyone tries to tangle the issues with one another. We need to concentrate on solutions and not only on describing the problems. Need to encourage and need to do to create the kind of leadership and life you can be proud of. A story just flashed into my mind \” The Story of Everybody, Somebody, Anybody And Nobody\” Well just a thought…. many englishish mistakes but can't help it out. Kindly do the editing of thoughts 🙂

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this — you capture the experiences well! Change needs to start somewhere, even one person on one day. Eventually it becomes a movement. (Also –I didn't know you had a blog!)

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  3. Nice write up. Transported me back in time. Although not a fireworks enthusiast, sticking to all the colorful and noiseless stuff- sparklers, chakris, anars and colored matchsticks, nevertheless, have loved the smell of 'Barood'. Diwali was more of Bada badua chants and a never ending shradhha for us. Pre Diwali cracker shopping was a ritual back then, and then you had to dry them along with the earthen diyas in the sun so that they are in top shape, come Diwali. Plus the incessant prayers requesting God to please not let it rain on Diwali! One of my happier memories include roaming around the neighborhood post Diwali and seeing the trail of happiness/destruction Diwali left- all the colored packaging torn into shreds,carelessly thrown around, the faint smell of barood mingling with the everyday smells of a crisp pre-winter morning. We have come pretty far away from these things now and although I am an environmentalist in theory(not so much in practice, hopefully that improves soon), the sentimentalist in me does get excited seeing the colorful(and noiseless) Diwali crackers.:)

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  4. Strangely, I just now saw this comment on the post. It's amazing how your experience matches mine. We too primed the earthen diyas with water and sun. We too used to roam the neighbourhood checking out the trail of destruction 🙂 These were all symbols of a celebration, even though it was a lot of trash! 😀 Always gave immense joy.

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