Is this the festival of lights, or a celebration of sound?
It's just six-thirty in the evening, but the fog is already dense. I can barely see anything beyond the car that is right ahead of ours; the signboards on shops are hazy; the traffic lights are wrapped in a blanket of smoke. The festivity in the air is palpable – but what's this, why am I not shivering in spite of the fog?
I was so carried away by the sight of the fog for a moment that I had forgotten that I was not driving through Khan Market in Delhi on Christmas night but through T. Nagar on Diwali night, and what looked like fog was actually smog caused by the incessant bursting of crackers.
To tell you the truth, I knew right from the beginning that it was smog and not fog, but what's the harm in escaping, for a few moments, to a much quieter and charming place, even if in your mind? In fact, the whole idea behind the drive on Diwali night – when people usually stay at home to indulge in a range of activities, from praying to playing cards – was to escape the bombing. Since 5 a.m., my ears had been subjected to loud – and incessant – bursting of crackers. I realised I would be better off in a mall, browsing books or looking at clothes.
I am all for tradition, so much so that I often find it irritating when activist types advocate restraint during Diwali. What is Diwali, after all, without the bursting of some bombs? Remember how, as kids, we waited all year to buy a boxful of crackers? When I was growing up in Kanpur, where the weather this time of the year is pleasantly chilly, we would not only buy crackers well in advance but also put them out in the sun for a few days to increase the potency of the potash. Diwali has been so close to my heart that I always made it a point to be with my family in Kanpur during the festival. But my mother died a couple of years ago and since then I've deliberately avoided going home for fear of missing her even more. However, the two Diwalis that I got to spend in Chennai have now put me firmly on the side of the activists.
Bursting crackers at the crack of dawn? It escapes me. Even gods won't be pleased. And to go on bursting them throughout the day and thus ruining a well-deserved holiday for peaceful citizens? Do they spare a thought for the other people in the neighbourhood who might be sick, or who might have just lost his job or a member of his family, or who just might not have money to buy the bombs? And what about the infants and the animals (pets as well as stray), who are unable to tell you how petrified they are?
Is Diwali a festival of lights or a naked dance of noise? Chennai can be funny. On one hand it lets people burst crackers at will; on the other hand it measures the pollution caused during Diwali night. The findings of the pollution control board are then duly published by newspapers. What's the point when asthma patients find themselves choking every Diwali night?
We Indians always behave like an unruly classroom, which maintains order only in the presence of an intimidating teacher wielding the ruler. We are always in need of a regulatory authority. If I were the authority, I would make two things mandatory on Diwali. One, the money invested in the purchase of ear-shattering bombs should be spent on buying clay lamps and oil. Light up your houses with these lamps on Diwali night and switch off the electricity. Not only will your house look beautiful, your city will also save power.
Two, fireworks would be allowed only between eight and ten in the evening. Okay, burst a bomb or two clandestinely if you want to during these two hours, but if caught, you will have to pay a hefty fine – the fine money will be spent on rehabilitating stray animals.
During the Diwali-night drive, I saw a dog obediently following the barely visible traffic lights. As long as the light was red, the dog waited as impatiently as the cars and the bikes, and as soon as the light turned green, it sprinted to the other side, as if it was in a hurry to get home for Diwali. But the dog had no home to go to: it was a street dog that was desperately running away from the bombs.