Let's mark Diwali as a Festival of Lights, not a Celebration of Excess
My childhood memories of Diwali revolve around (no, not shopping, crackers or mithai) cleaning. Yes, you read that right: cleaning. As a child I rapidly came to recognize that the first sign that the Festival of Lights was around the corner was that industrial-scale cleaning would commence in the Goswami household.
Entire rooms would be cleared out so that they could be washed and swabbed and swept until the floor was clean enough to eat off. The 'special crockery' that lived in the cupboard all year long, and was never used for fear of breakage, would be brought out ceremonially to be given a good scrubbing before it went right back on the shelves. The silver would be polished, the bronze given a good seeing-to. And all the Gods and Goddesses that presided over the Puja room would be ritually bathed and clad in brand-new clothes.
All of this was, of course, a communal activity, with the entire household pitching in to do their bit. Even the kids who were too young to be of much help would be handed a dusting cloth and sent forth to do their best.
I know it doesn't sound like it, but it was enormous fun. So much so that even now, when the weather starts to change and the air begins to hint at Diwali, my thoughts go back to my childhood home in Calcutta and our annual Diwali clean-out. I flash back to the vision of all the household furniture piled up high in the verandah to be given a little lick and polish, while the rooms were flushed of the dust accumulated in corners over the year. Which perhaps explains why to this day, to me, nothing says Diwali like the smell of soap-suds and bleach.
Growing up, it was made abundantly clear to me that it was only after the house was squeaky clean -- and sparkling enough to pass inspection by Ma Lakshmi -- that the task of celebrating Diwali could begin.
Of course, it was a different Diwali in those days. For one thing, communities were more integrated, and not only did we know the names of all our neighbors, we also thought nothing of dropping in on them unannounced. In fact, we weren't just in and out of each other's houses, anybody who was around at mealtimes would be asked to tuck in as well (and even expected to help clear up!).
Not surprisingly, Diwali also used to be a more communal (in the positive sense) affair. Kids would pool their resources to buy crackers and then get together in the evening to set them off while the entire neighborhood watched. Card games were more laid-back, with low stakes so that nobody could lose a fortune no matter how hard they tried. And it was enough to take a box of mithai to the neighbors to wish them Happy Diwali; you didn't need to put together an extravagant hamper full of luxury chocolates, wine, whiskey or cheese.
But as you may have noticed, things are very different these days. Instead of a home-style festival focused on family, friends and feasting, Diwali has been turned into a celebration of conspicuous consumption.
On Dhanteras it is not enough to buy something useful for the kitchen. No, the ads tell us that it is imperative to splash out on some gold. It is not enough to just buy one new outfit for the Diwali day itself. No, you must invest in a whole new wardrobe so that you never repeat a dress as you make the rounds of the endless 'card parties' that precede Diwali. It is not enough to just light up the house with diyas on the day of Diwali. No, you must get garish lights hung on the facade of your house for weeks on end to properly get into the 'festive spirit'.
Well, even though I have made my peace with the modern, more mercenary Diwali, sending out and receiving hampers with the best of them (keeping up with the Junejas, as I like to call it) there are times when I find myself longing to go back to a simpler time. A time when Diwali was truly a Festival of Lights not a Celebration of Excess. A time when we worshipped the Goddess of wealth instead of just spreading our wealth around.
So this year round, I made a resolution. I would try my best to recreate the spirit of the Diwalis of my childhood and teenage years. Here's a tiny little sampler of how I went about it.
* No to electric lights. Yes to earthen oil-filled diyas with homemade cotton wicks. (If that seems much too fiddly to you, go with beeswax candles.)
* No to heavy-duty hampers that take in everything from macaroons to Darjeeling tea to premium champagne. Yes to eco-friendly gifts like potted plants which will flourish and grow rather than be consumed and forgotten.
* No to splurging on household goods that I don't need (and scarcely have the space for). Yes to taking a collection of goodies and presents to the local orphanage and seeing the kids' eyes light up.
And, on the cheerful note, here's wishing all of you a very Happy Diwali. Stay blessed.