Diwali means so many things to so many people; a festival of lights, a night for dressing up in the best Indian attire, a season for eating tons of sweets, a friendly session of gambling. However, for me it is the one night of the year that I spend months preparing for. You see, I was born with asthma and while years of rigorous sports and rehabilitation has helped me get the condition under control, a night where the air is rife with toxic fumes and particulate matter tends to take a severe toll on me.
Up until a few years ago, my Diwali was spent in a foreign land where the air quality was pristine. Delhi’s polluted air took almost three years to get used to, with a significant increase in my reliance of heavy medication to support my lungs. However, come Diwali and alongside the pollution, there’s panic in the air. Breathing in the unburnt gunpowder residue that’s floating around the air now makes my chest feel like it got crushed by a boulder. Every breath is an effort. With every breath, you inhale, it feels like the boulder on your chest is crushing on it harder. It’s an unpleasant feeling. You try to make it go away by puffing away at your inhaler, but it’s just powder, going into your lungs and depositing itself right next to the toxic pollutants you have breathed in thinking its air.
People this year have been very proactive, conscious about the toll their lavish fireworks display will have on the environment. Many were kind enough to say, “no bombs or rockets, we’ll just light some sparklers and maybe a flower pot or two.” You have the greatest gratitude of the environmentalists, but what you probably don’t understand that even the sparklers and the flower pots release excessive amounts of toxic smoke and unburnt low-grade gunpowder into the air. For a few minutes, you don’t know if your eyes are just tired from burning due to the smoke or is it the room going from being clear to a grey haze. You take one more breath and you can taste the metal in the back of your throat. A few more breaths and the heaviness starts to set in, the sinuses get enraged and before you know it, you’re feeling breathless. What lies ahead is a night of excessive coughing, hearing an uncomfortable wheeze emanate from deep within your oxygen sacks.
You lay down to sleep, but the choking and the crushing feeling within the chest keep you up all night. It’s like a knot that’s lodged itself inside of you and the only way to get it out is to cough. So you cough. You cough till your eyes are red, till your throat is lacerated, till your abs feel like you just gave them a workout. The knot remains and it keeps growing. The only true way to get rid of it is to stop breathing in the polluted air. You wonder where you could score a tank of oxygen and a delivery system that blocks out outside air, but that’s not sustainable. You’re irritable, partly because your body is not getting the proper amount of air it needs. You’re tired, you’re lethargic and you can’t focus. You need to stop breathing in this toxic smog.
The only way to truly move around in this toxic air is to wear a ridiculous contraption on your face. You walk out of your home, turning every head that crosses you. Those familiar to you refer to you as Bane. Some call you Darth Vader and ask you to repeat his infamous dialogue. Many just giggle at that ridiculous thing you’ve got strapped to your face. You get through the day without getting worse, but you fear the night. As the cold sets in, and the air becomes heavier, the pollution settles into the lower part of the air as well. You can’t sleep with your mask on and the air-purifier just can’t keep up. It’s another sleepless night, a night full of coughing and wheezing and wishing for “anything but this.”
If you’ve never had a respiratory disorder, you’re lucky. I’m sure you’re also coughing and feeling uncomfortable with all the pollution in the air. Now can you imagine what it must be like for a person with Asthma? I’m still an adult who has lived with the condition his whole life and is used to the discomfort, but can you imagine what it must be like for young children and babies? Can you imagine the toll it takes on those who cannot afford medical help?
While this Diwali has come and gone, leaving behind in its wake significant collateral damage, let us aim to celebrate the next Diwali truly as just a festival of lights. Let us aim for a full ban on fireworks, not just for the sake of the environment, but also for the sake of those who suffer from respiratory problems.