My earliest memories of Diwali are from Zambia, where I grew up. As Bengalis, it wasn’t our highlight of the year (Durga Pujo was) but of course we celebrated in our own way. My favourite part was always to light candles and stick them down with the melted wax at our gate and our doorstep. My second favourite part of course was the fireworks! We would buy a reasonable amount and on the night of Diwali, along with our other Indian neighbours at Nambala Close, we would come out and burst these fireworks (mostly the quieter kind that were a display of light and not noise). The third highlight was a sort of night-picnic event organised by the Hindu community at a massive grounds where there would be a cultural program and at the end of the night, a marvelous display of fireworks. So I grew up loving fireworks because well, they are pretty spectacular. It’s amazing how fire can come in so many different colours and take so many different shapes.
And then I went to boarding school in Ooty. It was a Christian school so celebrating Diwali wasn’t exactly on our calendar and we were strictly prohibited from buying fireworks of any kind. Initially, it seemed unfair and I quietly mourned being at school during Diwali but I had to respect the reasoning behind the prohibition. Most of the fireworks available to us in the market were hand-produced in highly hazardous conditions in factories by children. Children just like us who should have been in school whining about the general unfairness of life due to the rules our schools insist upon us. But their lives were a whole other kind of unfair.
As I graduated from school, I was an eighteen-year-old-self-righteous-almost-adult who looked very lowly upon people who burst firecrackers. When asked by my cousin why I wouldn’t burst any crackers, I probably rather arrogantly answered, “because firecrackers are made on the back of children forced into labour by their extreme poverty”. Duh.
I like to think I’ve grown up from that arrogant teenager but I woke up this morning with hatred searing through my head because some human beings (I admit there were other words that came to my head this morning) decided that 6:30am would be a great time to burst some very loud crackers. I guess killing my arrogance will take a lot more than just 8 years. So I decided to make a confession. I’m sorry, but I hate your firecrackers.
I don’t hate Diwali and I don’t want to dampen anyone’s celebration. I think Diwali i.e. celebrating the triumph of good over evil, light coming into darkness is symbolically so beautiful. We need this in our very broken world. We need the hope of victory, to know that good does triumph even against all odds.
But I fail to understand why Diwali is now synonymous with Firecrackers? Sure, it was definitely a part of my Diwali as a child but we also knew that some years we had to sacrifice the firecrackers and celebrate more quietly because there had been a death in the family or of a friend.
I learnt in school that we had to sacrifice Firecrackers because we don’t want to support an industry that we know exploits labour in children and adults. This is still the case today. Apart from respecting our neighbours (who might still be sleeping at 6:30am) or pedestrians who don’t want to walk, (quite literally) into fire, or the dogs and other animals who whimper in fear because of all the noise or the environment that could really do with a lot more kindness from us in all areas of our life.
And what’s wrong with sacrificing? Abolitionists at the end of 1700s sacrificed consuming sugar because they realised that the profits from the sugar they used kept the Slave Trade running.
Rosa Parks’ quiet refusal to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger, sparked off the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the black citizens of Montgomery forewent the bus service and walked everywhere in protest to racial discrimination.
We all know what happened at the end of those stories. Are we not cut from the same fabric of these human beings who made sacrifices for a greater good? Does Diwali become any less of a celebration of good over evil if we sacrifice on some firecrackers?
I’d like to think that the message of Diwali is much greater than indiscriminately bursting firecrackers that come from very questionable sources. I’d like to believe that honoring the memory of the good King Ram can inspire us to respect and value other people and fight on the side of Light.
Asato Ma Sadgamaye Lead us from Untruth to Truth Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya Lead us from Darkness to Light Mrityor Ma Amritam Gamaya Lead us from Death to Eternal Life