It’s that time of the year again, the so-called festive season. If only one person’s idea of merriment wasn’t at the cost of another’s health.
The Delhi winter is every bit as brutal as its gruelling summer. From the scarcely tolerable 46ºC, temperatures dropped dramatically last week, the day after Dusshera. Soon, just when one has started to enjoy the balmy autumn weather, it will be gone and the short but harsh winter will be upon us. We Dilliwallas are pretty well-attuned to dealing with the vagaries of temperature, but that is the least of Delhi’s problems. Winter brings with it a grey, toxic, smothering smog, which envelopes the city and brings in its wake asthma, allergies, cardiac problems, headaches, colds, coughs and more. With each passing year, the alarm bells sounded by state and non-state organisations, newspapers, radio and TV channels grow louder and the warnings more ominous. Those who can afford it run around buying air purifiers for their homes. Those who can’t, miraculously carry on with their lives as normal, braving the cold and the deadly air without masks and sometimes without shelter. As an asthmatic myself, my heart bleeds for the millions who suffer bronchial disorders. It’s something I would not wish on my worst enemy. But at least humans can express their discomfort. When I think of the poor animals on the streets and their suffering, well that is what really, really kills me.
Just this week I bumped in to a lady from our neighbourhood who had brought her lovely, young Golden Labrador to the vet’s. She told me he’d been coughing and was on the nebuliser. I realised suddenly that this seemed to be becoming quite a common complaint from fellow pet owners whom I have recently encountered. It made me wonder that while people are constantly being advised to take measures to safeguard against the Delhi pollution, our poor animals are subjected to a far worse dose of it. Who’s looking after them?
Aside from the pollution and smog, we senseless creatures insist on adding to it with fireworks and noise. Diwali- the festival of lights, albeit a Hindu festival, is celebrated by people across religions, regions, castes and socio-economic classes in India. It is a celebration of the return of Lord Ram from Lanka, having rescued his kidnapped wife, Sita, from the demon Ravan, whom he slayed. It is essentially a celebration of the triumph of Light over Darkness, Good over Evil. Much like every other celebration in India however, it has been degraded in to not a day, but rather several weeks of unruly, thoroughly uncivilised “celebrations”, which are very much in-your- face and whose damaging effects are for all to bear as the already polluted air fills with the toxic chemicals, ear-shattering sound and suffocating smoke of several million firecrackers bursting across the country.
I have long wondered why, given that our pollution levels are life-threatening, our government doesn’t put a ban or at least some very serious restrictions on people bursting fireworks. It seems like the most logical, necessary thing to do. Sadly though, it requires both, a civilized society and a caring government to take such a measure and we seem not to have either. A government which worked sincerely in the interest of its people would not hesitate to take a firm and likely unpopular decision with regards to giving people free rein to further pollute the almost unbreathable air. But we haven’t seen that ilk of politicians for a while. No government would be willing to piss off the majority Hindu populace, which is too short-sighted to realise that their uncontrolled expressions of joy and festivity are costing lives- those of others and their own. I’ve tried to imagine telling a zealous firecracker supporter, “Don’t burst firecrackers! They’re polluting the air!” And I imagine the reply being, “What?! No firecrackers? It’s Diwali! Firecrackers are a tradition!” Right. Of course. Because somewhere in the mythological tale of the Ramayan (a part which I obviously missed), Lord Ram killed the evil Ravan, rescued Sita, then returned home to a lavish party where he and the other Gods played the popular card game Teen Patti and set off Chinese-made fireworks.
Morons. Don’t people see that if we don’t let go of some of these daft, self-created “traditions”, there may be no traditions at all for future generations. We’re shortening our lives and of those around us and there is no justification for that.
I do remember a happier, healthier time, when I was a child and half the neighbourhood would gather at my grandmother’s house on Diwali night. It was a very different kind of Diwali party than the ones you see today. There were no fancy caterers, but rather my Dadi’s home-made, delicious matar-ke-parathe and hare dhaniye ke aloo, along with hot tea in earthen kulhars and alcoholic beverages for the so inclined. Several generations of people would land up. Yes, there were some fireworks (and no pollution in those days), but there were also a lot of traditional, handmade decorations, lighting, puja, etc. It was the ‘real thing’ and everyone was a part of it. Over the years though, the fireworks and gambling somehow took over. Along with the skies, the festival itself got terribly polluted somewhere down the line, with the invention of new firecrackers that emit sound, rather than light. The most idiotic invention of all time I think.
There was realisation very early on of the damaging effects of firecrackers and I remember my own mother coming to my school in an official capacity along with a very popular radio jockey, to launch one of the very first anti-firecracker campaigns. It made sense to us, even as kids and for a couple of years, things greatly improved. But there are always those who spoil it for everyone else and when India’s economy opened up a few years later and created millionaires overnight, firecrackers became yet another ridiculous measure of opulence and social standing.
My breathing trouble kept me indoors, in an air conditioned room, along with my poor dog, who was petrified of the noise. Ironic, isn’t it, that the pets who bring light in to our lives should be so traumatised by the Festival of Lights? For most pet owners, it’s a dreaded time. Dogs tend to run away or get terribly frightened. Street dogs scurry around, desperately seeking shelter from the noise and bright lights. Many are abused and maimed by godless people who think setting off firecrackers near them is amusing. The roads are littered with soot, gunpowder and toxic remnants from the previous night’s extravaganza, which mix in the food and water those poor animals live off. Night after night, at all unearthly hours, bombs and fireworks go off, preventing hard working labourers, elderly people and animals from even getting a proper night’s sleep. One helluva festival, eh?
It is very much in our own interest to voluntarily stop bursting firecrackers or lighting lamps which emit smoke. Let’s tone down our Diwali celebrations so we may live to have some more. Let’s open our hearts in the true spirit of festivity, allowing others their peace and quiet. Your freedom ends where mine begins.