By Runjhun Noopur Oct. 27, 2019
We often forget that the decibel levels during Diwali do not take everyone’s comfort into account. My friends who have pets and babies always have a harrowing Diwali, as do those who suffer from respiratory ailments. There have always been valid reasons to stay away from Diwali, but our culture almost always fails to account for them.
There is a jewelry advertisement doing rounds these days where a woman is shown getting decked up while she talks to her mother about celebrating a quiet Diwali with her dog. The tagline urges us to UnTradition. The advertisement evoked a range of reactions from people around me, varying from astonishment to downright pity, mostly because Diwali for most of us is about the sound of firecrackers and loud family banter and those who break away from this “tradition” are considered outliers.
The advertisement is not an isolated example. My Facebook feed these days is flooded with sponsor posts that keep urging me to get away from the “choking, noisy, urban landscape”, and celebrate this Diwali in some quiet corner in the hills.
“But who’d want to celebrate their Diwali in the lonely mountains?” my grandma wonders. The answer, of course, is a whole lot of us. But it is also an answer that seems incomprehensible and inconceivable to the general consciousness in this country.
Beyond the “festival of lights”, as Indian kids are taught to label it in their examination essays, Diwali is a festival of noise and boisterousness and festive cheer, the decibel levels of which do not take everyone’s comfort into account. Diwali isn’t a festival you choose to celebrate. It is a festival that demands to be celebrated, something you cannot miss even from space. And we have a picture from NASA to prove it. That it is a photoshopped fake that routinely gets peddled around on WhatsApp is the perfect metaphor for the spirit of Diwali in India.
As a culture, we have very fixed notions of what Diwali means. Any deviations from what is considered a norm make most people uncomfortable. Not just personally, this discomfort is visible in the kind of opposition that otherwise well-intended moves like the firecracker ban attract from the masses. The very idea of what Diwali means in our general consciousness remains sacred, further reinforced by our popular culture with its songs and dances and general exuberance.
Diwali for most of us is about the sound of firecrackers and loud family banter and those who break away from this “tradition” are considered outliers.
An entrepreneur on my LinkedIn feed recently shared the story of a Diwali during his struggling days when he and his family had to make do with 900 rupees. It was a poignant, inspiring tale of struggle, triumph, and making the best of what we have. The comments to that post however largely missed the point, most of them too surprised by the fact that the man did not take a loan to celebrate Diwali “properly”. The skewed priorities and general financial ignorance on display were astounding. But what was more disturbing was how much the supposed spirit of Diwali was attached to tangible material compulsions rather than the true joy that must be inherent in it. Unlike the woman in the jewellery ad, this man’s choice was driven by a compulsion. But denouncing the boisterousness of Diwali was still too radical to be mainstream, reasons notwithstanding.
Culturally, we neither have the space nor consideration for a quiet, personal Diwali. Death and tragedies are the only acceptable reasons that might justify a subdued celebration. All other considerations, whether financial, emotional, mental or familial are completely discounted from our understanding of what this festival means to us.
A couple of years ago, I had a chance to join a writers’ residency at a backpackers’ hostel right around Diwali. “But after Diwali please,” was my standard request. “But why,” an alumnus of the very same programme was unexpectedly surprised. “You have to be there at Diwali. It is magical,” she tried to convince me. Diwali on these remote corners of the hills is unlike anything we know or have experienced. The crackers are minimal, locals go to sleep at 8 pm, and the only signs of festivity that remain are diyas that twinkle like stars scattered across the mountain tops, and maybe a bunch of backpacking strangers bonded by their love for adventure and solitude.
I am an unabashed Diwali enthusiast. I never really liked firecrackers, but everything else – the sights, the sounds, the smell, the food, and the time with family – have all been delightful fixtures in my existence, something that I have made sure I come back to every year irrespective of where I am and what I am doing. The idea of a quiet Diwali is as alien to me as it is to our culture in general. Needless to say, I never ended up going to the hills for Diwali. But I got the charm inherent in the idea. And more importantly, I understood why it may be the idea of a perfect Diwali for so many of my friends who never enjoyed being forced into this frolicking parade.
Considering Diwali is a festival driven by the markets, the recent advertisement trends, including that of getaways that cater to quiet Diwali, signal a small but heartening cultural shift.
Back when I was at a residential campus, there were always a bunch of people who chose to read a book in their room while the rest of us fooled ourselves into believing that a dozen loud firecrackers and terrible mess food was an acceptable alternative to the Diwali we all were missing away from home. I remember those Diwalis as strangely bitter-sweet where I was almost envious of those who did not care for the festivities. Few of us understood or appreciated it as a personal choice, choosing to dub them as sad and boring.
Beyond personal choice and temperament, there are several reasons why people may not like Diwali as much. My friends who have pets and babies always have a harrowing Diwali, as do those who suffer from respiratory ailments. People who were eco-conscious before it became a thing have their reservations. There have always been valid reasons to stay away from Diwali, but our culture almost always fails to account for them.
Considering Diwali is a festival driven by the markets, the recent advertisement trends, including that of getaways that cater to quiet Diwali, signal a small but heartening cultural shift. Somewhere between shoving offers down our throats and forcing everyone to be loud and spendthrift, the market forces have discovered a brand new territory that is untapped.
As a product of our dominant culture, I still find the idea of a quiet Diwali hard to digest. However, with the acquired wisdom of multiple experiences, I am learning to accept that festivity and celebrations mean different things to different people. That at the end of the day, if Diwali is truly about celebrating our own happiness, it stands to reason that we should all be allowed to find and thrive in our own respective versions of festivity, without judgment or pressure. It is about time we made way for everyone to revel in their individual experiences, and accept that for some of us lighting a diya in a quiet corner of the hills is most exhilarating form of celebration that we may want or need.
Runjhun Noopur is the author of the wacky happiness book, Nirvana in a Corporate Suit. She writes, talks, eats, and inserts oxford comma, mostly in that order. She also likes to believe that she can teach people all about happiness.