A festive greeting, like any oft-repeated endearment, can lose its meaning over time. What is the significance, on this day, of wishing friends, family, strangers and colleagues? Is it merely an acknowledgment of the shared stories, of myths of kings-in-exile and their prodigal, triumphant return? There is the somewhat dry sociological explanation: The sense of community Diwali offers is essential for a modern, fragmented society to maintain cohesion. And finally, of course, there is the economic rationale of consumerism — the discounts and renovations that provide the annual servicing that grease the wheels of commerce.
But beyond the academic rationales and the cynical theorising of economists of every shade — and the love of Ram and Lakshmi — the festival of lights is about giving. It allows people, in an unequal and cruel world, to show generosity. That spirit, at least in the festive season, can be and is marked by gifts, both material and spiritual. And in recent times, the metaphor and myth that most often defines Diwali most — the triumph of good over evil — is inextricably tied to a selfless idea of magnanimity.
India’s children, over the last few years, have given up crackers in increasing numbers. The logic of their gift — to their future selves, society and the environment — holds a broader lesson. Perhaps it is time the comfort of parochialisms of religion and clan is given up, as a gift, for the greater good. For leaders to lead beyond an aggrandisement of their egos and support bases. The discounts should go beyond malls and e-commerce, and extend to a little understanding, of space to negotiate and empathise with those who seem to be different. “Happy Diwali” can go beyond the formalism of a greeting, of a temporary politeness tied to the lunar cycle. It can be a promise of understanding to the other.