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So Much Darkness, So Much Light

And so the madness begins. Firecrackers of the worst kind -not that there’s a ‘good’ kind anymore-the loud, all-noise-no-spectacle kind. The build up to Diwali has been sadly typical of Delhi hypocrisy- people spend their mornings reading about the ever-alarming state of Delhi’s pollution level, how it is responsible not just for the obvious bronchial problems but also for headaches, dizziness, joint pains, cardiac trouble and so on. Through the day, one ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’ any number of messages and posts urging people not to burst firecrackers and sharing real-time pollution readings in the city, in the hope that the statistics themselves would be a deterrent. Or the fact that the national capital now has the honour of being the world’s most polluted city. In the untrue spirit of the Festival of Lights, however, people take these warnings ‘lightly’, bursting loud crackers and bombs. Our own brand of ‘suicide bombers’!

I don’t quite know where the last few days have gone, because I’ve been busy preparing for Diwali too. My dear, kind friends and I have been on the hunt for a beautiful, extremely sweet dog who is very shy of people and doesn’t allow many people to touch him. I am one of the blessed few who can, but not since he developed an injury. For days, we have tried every trick in the book to get a hold of the dear fellow so we can treat his wound without it unecessarily becoming worse. Finally, we’ve had to call in the professionals, just to help us catch him. The plan was to send him to a quiet, excellent boarding facility, with his companion sent along for..well, companionship, and keep them there safely for a few days so that they’d be spared the Diwali trauma. Sadly, he has refused to be caught.

I’ve also been busy installing air purifiers for my family, putting reflective collars and tags on my street dogs, giving sedatives to my own dogs, coordinating with friends as to who is sheltering which dog and so on. Tonight, on chhoti Diwali (Diwali Eve), I find myself lying quietly in my room, lights dimmed, windows closed and soothing music playing as I try to reassure my dogs. I can see from my window that my house is all decorated with beautiful fairy lights and candles and garlands. I’ve had no part in it. I feel nothing. No excitement. No joy. My family is somewhere around, doing something or the other, in preparation for the grand festival. I know my Dadi would have wanted me to participate in the festivities and with her, one just couldn’t help but get in the mood to celebrate. Why can’t I feel like that anymore? Why do I cringe at the thought of Diwali? Why am I sitting in my room, anxious, annoyed, cursing at every loud explosion?

What with traffic snarls and health concerns and the ‘must-do’ compulsions that we struggle to fulfill, where’s the togetherness and joy of a festival?

As I curmudgeonly wished a friend who was as perturbed about our animals as me a ‘Happy Diwali’, she laughed and said, “Ever since I started caring for animals, I hate this day”. That makes me feel a little less of a Scrooge and yet sad to be the outsider even in my own home, untouched by the hustle bustle of people dressing up, decorating the house, cooking special treats and entertaining with learnt merriment. I cannot bring myself to feel the excitement of Diwali anymore. I seem to be losing faith in my faith. Sorry.

From all my four-legged friends, I pray for that feeling to return someday, the day it includes the animals, the poor people, the sick, the children and the elderly; a time when the air is fresh with the nip of the coming winter, when families run about lighting up their houses and the dogs wag their tails as happy participants. Meanwhile, from whichever dark corner or trench we’re hiding in, for what it’s worth, we wish you a Happy Diwali.

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Kaani’s Story

Diwali may be a night of great festivity for most people, but for those with any health issues and for animal lovers, it’s a pretty grim time. As an asthmatic, for years I have stopped going out in to the terrible Delhi pollution on Diwali. Rather, around  Diwali, since both the pollution and the horrid, noisy fireworks both linger on for weeks after the actual day of the festival. Once people have stocked up on the fireworks, they’re pulled out to celebrate every ridiculous “occasion” and “event”, ranging from Pappu’s Birthday to election victories and of course India’s cricketing triumphs. Whether or not you’re the least bit involved in the grand celebration, celebrate you shall, willy nilly. So suck it up or rather, breathe it in.

Post our quiet family puja, usually held in a verandah of the house, I retreat to my room, doors and windows closed, air conditioner on, television on in a desperate attempt to drown out the startling bangs and shrieks of fireworks which send my dog scurrying under the bed, panting hard, trembling, too frightened to go out to do her business, too traumatised to eat her food. This routine starts on Diwali night and goes on for weeks, every single evening.

So last Diwali, it was an unusual thing for me to decide to step out at about 11 pm, to walk around the corner of the park in front of my house to check on my friends, Spotty and Blackie. Spotty was nowhere to be seen. He was probably hiding under a car somewhere, I thought. Blackie responded to my call and came out gingerly to greet me. I went with some antihistamine and bronchodilator, prescribed by the vet, to treat her cough-obviously a product of the pollution. I was sitting there, stroking her in front of one of the houses, when I saw an unfamiliar, skinny, little, white dog running down the road in the opposite direction. I whistled and called out and she stopped and turned towards me. Blackie was about to chase her but I quickly pushed her back and went up to the dog, who was about to run off again. She wagged her tail and I knelt down beside her to see if she was injured and if I recognised her. I turned her face towards me and gasped. She had one eye missing and the other was entirely clouded. Clearly, she was blind. Blind and lost, on Diwali night. I couldn’t imagine anything worse. My mind raced as I wondered what to do next. I couldn’t possibly take her in with my four dogs, one of whom was already sleeping in the servant’s room. And yet there was no way I could leave her out on the road. I scooped her up in my arms, without her protesting, and carried her home. I called my mother out, imagining she would be annoyed that I’d brought in another dog, knowing we had absolutely no resources to accommodate her. But when she saw her, she too realised this was too desperate a situation for us to turn our backs on. We stood on the staircase landing, racking our brains, while I kept the poor dog from falling and bumping in to things. We finally decided to ask the upstairs neighbour’s very kind servant if he would keep her for the night and to my immense relief, he readily agreed. She was fed, given water and some bedding and sent to sleep in his room.

I got in to bed, cuddling my dog, amazed at how yet again, I had found myself in an unusual place at an unusual time, as if sent by God to rescue an animal in need. I shuddered to think of what this poor, affectionate little thing had endured and worse, what she may have endured had I not found her. For any animal on the already chaotic and dangerous streets of Delhi, I guess Diwali time is like the bombing of Aleppo.

I messaged the lady who diligently feeds over a hundred dogs in the colony by herself, everyday. To my delight, she knew the dog. Her name, she told me, was Kaani, which means, ‘one-eyed’. She told me Kaani was a very loving and sweet dog, who lived on a colony road with her pups and that first thing in the morning, she would come and pick her up.

Kaani slept through the night comfortably, I was told and after having a good breakfast, I tied her to our gate, in the company of the guard, who petted her and fed her biscuits. She was restless and nervous though. When the lady pulled up and blew the car horn, Kaani responded with happy squeals of recognition and gladly got in to her car.

All of us at home heaved a sigh of relief, our hearts happy and content at having been able to help her. What a brave and sweet dog. I was told she had been living where she was, on the road, for a long time and I wondered how she managed. If only people weren’t so averse to keeping Indian mixed-breed dogs. She should have been in a loving home, I thought and I decided to try and find her one soon.

The following morning, I got a message from the lady, asking if I had seen Kaani. My heart sank. She had been returned to her ‘home’, but there had been lots of firecrackers again that night and again, she had run away. Kaani was not found.

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Sound, Light and Smog

 

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.