Each festival poses a question before me: Why should I celebrate it? Each time I express certain reservations, people very close to me ask why I am so negative about things. Sometimes facebook utterances are quite fleeting yet they generate some sort of debate while profound statements get ignored. Especially, if the comments are on Indian festivals or international festivals, and if they tinge with some kind of despair and dejection, people take it for absolute negativism. There must be people who think about me as someone seeking attention through difference. There was a time when I used to indulge in debate. Now I do not feel the need of debating such issues. But in the case of festivals, I think I need to explain some of my oppositional positions; I am not hard pressed to explain it to anybody else but I feel that I need to make it clear to myself.
Have I not celebrated festivals? Yes, I have. When I was a child I was enthusiastic to celebrate festivals typical to Kerala, where I was born and brought up. Onam was one special festival; it was the celebration of the annual visit of the benevolent king, Mahabali, who was sent to the netherworlds by Vamana, one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Mahabali was a very benevolent king though he was an asura (demon). He ruled the land of Kerala with sense of equanimity. ‘Maveli Naadu Vaneedum Kaalam, Maanusharellam onnu pole, kallavumilla chatiyummilla, ellolamilla polivachanma, kallapparayum cherunazhiyum, kallattharangal mattonnumilla’- During the reign of Mahabali, All subjects are alike, No theft, No cheating, None says a word of falsehood. No tricky measurements, no fooling vessals, No such falsities around- A picture of ideal rule. Why did the devas send exiled him to the underworld?
I had not asked this question when I was a child. Like many unquestioning subjects, I too welcome Mahabali for ten days and revelled in feasts. Onam was quite welcoming for a child like me because it heralded a ten days off from school, visits of relatives, exchanges of gifts, new clothes, games, plays, processions, boat races, general revelries and good food. These provisions were enjoyed and the cultural side of it were amply consumed without any ideological questioning. ‘Kaanam vittum Onam Unnanam’- Even by pawning your property, you should celebrate Onam- is another maxim that was and is still prevalent in Kerala. I started having doubts about Onam as I started learning and seeing the subtexts of this maxim. One has to do anything to celebrate Onam. You could sell your property or pawn your jewellery only to celebrate Onam. It was the beginning of commercialization of a commemorative festival. People who had lived the agricultural economy came out to buy their annual provisions of some luxuries including some new clothes and bangles from the village fairs during the Onam days. Slowly it became a compulsory shopping festival. I stopped celebrating Onam almost twenty years before. Onam is a cultural memory for me and it will remain like that so long as I live. The same fate has happened to Christmas and Eid. In India commercialization of Eid is not so apparent as we just do not want to align with Islam in a larger fashion, however tolerant we pretend to be.
‘Onam Pirannalum Unni Pirannaalum Koranu Kanji Kumbilil Thanne’- Whether it is Onam or the birth of his own child, Koran (the working class man) drinks his porridge from a leaf cone- is another maxim that made me think as I grew up. During Onam everyone eats feast on plantain leaves. Only the upper class and the upper caste, naturally affluent socially and financially had the capacity to eat a full meal on a plantain leaf throughout the year. Hence, eating on plantain leaf during the ten days of Onam became somewhat emblematic of temporal prosperity and equality. But what about the working class man or woman? S/he, even during the Onam days eats his food from a leaf cone. A cone made out of jackfruit leaf or any other flexible leaf shows the location where the food is served (to the menial class), the dignity or lack of it attributed to such serving and the kind of caste/class markings. The maxim says that even on the Onam day, the menial class remains menial class. This has not changed even today. I doubt festivals because of it. Onam was my learning ground and I could apply my findings in any festivals celebrated in India.
Let me recount some everyday examples related to these festivals. Yesterday, like many other people I too stood in front of an ATM counter in Faridabad. One old Sardarji came out of the air-conditioned cabin that dispenses money from the phallic machines, and he was absolutely confused. He had taken out Rs.20000/- from his account and while making a second transaction, the machine conked off. The man was in full belief that his money had been eaten up the machine or it would later be taken away by the security man there. He approached him. One of the biggest ironies that we see today in India is the presence of impoverished security guards who man ATMs, bungalows, private properties, housing colonies and so on. They come from somewhere in their rickety cycles and go back to that somewhere. The security man at the ATM counter sees people coming taking out notes smelling mint and carrying the smiles of Mahatma Gandhi but he never gets a chance to take his money out of the machine that he guards.
This old security guard tried to convince the old Sardarji saying that the machine would not eat up his money. Unconvinced, Sardarji told him that he had a total of Rs.32000/- in his account and as he had already taken out Rs.20000/- there should be a balance of Rs.12000/- there. In the commotion the man even forgot to keep the money he had just taken out, into his pocket. He was lamenting that with each failed transaction his Rs.20/- would be cut as service charge. Finally he once again entered the room and with the help of the security guard took out the balance money, leaving Rs.2000/- in his account. He was talking about Diwali and the things that he was supposed to do with that money. I found it absolutely absurd. A man pulling out all his money from his account just to buy crackers and sweets. I understand that the social norms teach us to perform our duties in certain ways. But on whose cost and on what cost? Personal happiness and a sense of security.
I see so many worried faces in the metro coaches. They all carry sweet packets and gift packets covered in gilt papers as if they are their life; the dear life. You know something, how do you feel when you are just the receiver of gifts not the giver? That is the worry and shame that I see in many faces in the metro coach. These packets have been given to them by their superiors. Friends hardly give gifts to each other. People carry identical packets; one could even see that which sweet company has made the maximum profit this year by selling packet sweets. As the train journey crosses its half course, confidence comes back to their faces. They have forgotten the receiving part. Now they are heading towards their homes and there they are the givers. To the expectant children, old parents, dear wife and other relatives, you are going to the play the role of the giver. You have earned these packets by toiling for three hundred and sixty five days. Now you carry these packets with pride and go home. That is festival. Whenever I see the college going children with their expensive mobile phones in metro coaches, I remember only the worried faces of their parents and the furrows that appear in their foreheads when they attend their calls in a local handset procured for a paltry sum of Rs.900/- because it comes from China.
The boys who look like thugs from any angle, this evening behave like polite politicians. Yes, they are politicians and businessmen for a few days. The long stretch where the government has allowed selling of crackers is now filled with a jostling crowd. The boys entice you to their stalls. They call out, ‘Sir, this is original. We sell only Koel brand’. I found it a bit odd. I have never heard somebody insisting on the brand of crackers. The common belief is that all these crackers and sparklers come from Sivakasi factories where small children and women work day and night in sweatshops and so many PhD theses are used for preparing the ‘gunds’, known as diwali bombs in the north. Most of the crackers need papers as raw material; and I believe that academic research papers, assignments and unsold books must be contributing a lot to this industry. (Recently, in Ahmedabad, I saw one exhibition of a Japanese artist who has carved sculptures out books. Curiosity led me to look at the spine of the books and found that this was a book on Ahmedabad city written by a local scholar. I thought it was good for the artist as raw material and a indelible shame for the author as the world came to know that the majority of the copies published remained in some storage space till the artist found them good to carve!).
‘Koel Brand’ does not sound as attractive as Tag Heuer. Later on I realized that the emphasis on brand has a lot to do with a distorted idea of nationalism. What they want to tell the customers is that they are not selling Chinese crackers. Chinese wears have found an easy market in India as they are cheap and more stylish. My friend in Mumbai tells me that most of the Ganesh idols used for the illustrious Ganpati Festival there come from China; Mumbai Ganesh fans are happy with cheap but beautiful Ganesh idols. I think Bengalis still resist the Chinese project as their Kumartali has enough expertise and cheap labour to produce as many as Durgas for their ‘Pujo’ festival. Suddenly Chinese products fell out of grace because despite the good market they have found in India, the Chinese still want a few acres of land from India. They make incursions and encroachments at the North-Eastern border of India, also at the extreme North. Despite the bilateral negotiations, they attack Indian soldiers. Suddenly, we became aware of the fact that we are buying Chinese products and the Chinese in fact are attacking us militarily. When the cracker selling boys say that they sell ‘Koel Brand’ I realize that for the last few years they too were selling Chinese products masquerading as Indian brands.
I do not preach against festivals. I do not keep a negative feel about festivals. But I have my own logical and emotional reasons to keep myself away from these festivals where money and opulence is extravagantly flaunted, places are littered and in the name of social integrations boundaries are created, properties are encroached, women are teased and molested and many are brought into permanent poverty. Festivals do not create poverty but they contribute to it. The pro-festival people may say that festivals provide a lot of jobs to a lot of people and it runs like an industry. But I am sure that if there are rehabilitation programs effectively implemented there would not be any job loss due a possible lack of enthusiasm on festivals. When we say that it would leave people devoid of jobs, we do not address so many issues including the constant dispossession and displacement of people from their areas of livelihood to nondescript places that do not yield anything to support their lives. All these happen in the name of traditionally rooted way of living, progress and development.
Today morning I saw so many young boys walking along the streets and collecting small little crackers strewn here and there unexploded in the previous night when people celebrated their ‘chotti diwali’. At the other end of the street, I few kids collecting the burnt iron sticks from the used sparklers. One of the boys had at least five hundred or more iron strings in his hand. I was continuously talking to my son about the disparities seen in our society and I showed them those boys who collected the leftover things from diwali. I told my son that they too would go and sell it to the kabadi wala, get a few rupees and instead buying their food they too would go and buy some crackers. I asked my son to be aware of his comfortable life and the insecure life of so many children like those boys. He asked me what could be done. I did not have an immediate answer to that because by asking him to share whatever he has with the others would make only a society run on charity (if everyone does so). But I aspire for a society where everyone gets equal opportunity to live and perform. I told him to do something as he grows up to create equal opportunity for everyone. I do not know what an eight year old boy would make out of that. But I am sure he would remember these words when he would be a man.
If you ask me, what could be done? I do not have any answer. But I find that the festivals have lost their cultural meaning. They have become avenues to show personal might and political power. It has become a market and seriously speaking market treats consumer also a commodity, ruthlessly. The imaginary satisfaction of consuming things in fact creates a commodity out of you that curiously consumes things anything given unquestioningly. Any festival celebrated in moderate scale is welcome with a lot of emphasis on its cultural meanings. Any festival that is celebrated for the sake of showing power should be shunned like plague. Unfortunately most of the festivals have become plagues. I prefer to do some sanitation job during the epidemic and die in the process than blindly believe in my immune powers and succumb to the disease without raising a finger.