According to articles in all the newspapers, there has been a huge surge in air travel bookings during Diwali week. Online booking company makemytrip.com reports 1.3 times more customers from India’s metros are travelling during Diwali this year, as compared to last year. This is unusual because demand during festive season is weak — especially on Diwali — an occasion when even impious Hindus prefer to be at home to welcome Lakshmi. Clearly this has something to do with the fact that the air quality in Delhi has plummeted to “very poor” already and this is when it isn’t anywhere close to its poisonous peak. Inhaling this foul haze means you have a death wish, so it is no wonder that many people are choosing to abandon tradition and save their lungs by skipping town instead.
Plenty has been written about what the magnificent fireworks that light up Diwali skies are doing to our health and how the acrid smoke that lingers for weeks after is damaging children, irreversibly. Less explored are the myriad ways that deadly pollution is impacting our social and cultural lives. The India some of us grew up in, in the ’90s was definitely more inclusive. However, Diwali has escaped being slotted rigidly on religious lines, and simply represents the pinnacle of the Indian festive season. It’s a universal metaphor for the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. However, younger generations are finding it hard to remain enthusiastic about a festival that has come to represent a horrifying truth, that how we celebrate it, is utterly ghastly. Delhi’s air is terrible at the best of times and the cracker bursting right now has turned the city into a veritable gas chamber.
Festivals are meant to celebrate the cycle of life. They serve as a throw back to history and legend, a yearly reminder to place our existence in a larger context. At some level, its awe inspiring and incomprehensible that Diwali has survived and thrived for thousands of years. It’s the occasion that used to guide and steady us, marking the important distinction between the ordinary day and a special one. Behind the glittering lights and smog-laden atmosphere is a personal dimension of how each one of us has experienced it over decades. It’s tragic that there is now a growing detachment with this ancient celebration, because of something as ludicrous as pollution. Two schools in Delhi have decided to make a fortnight break permanent this time of the year; so parents can plan to flee the city accordingly. More are likely to follow suit. Rooted though we may be in the past, tackling respiratory problems is our dire present.
Inexplicably, no amount of coverage of the air quality index, or the repeated warnings about how most of us are walking around with compromised lungs, has effected any change in, either government policy, or the way we live. Those of us still here continue like before; shopping for diyas unmindful that they release smoke, smugly satisfied that we’ve done our duty by rejecting fireworks. The collective feast and good cheer continue in all the self conscious acts of preparing for a festival, to reinforce family rituals. Malls and marketplaces are decorated brightly and seem busy enough, yet the cloud of deadly pollution looms large. Perhaps being Indian means forever juggling disparate elements, finding your peace somewhere between old habits and new, and philosophically accepting whatever follows.