Saturday, November 6, 2010

Julia Roberts Has It Wrong

Last week’s edition of the HT Brunch was a particularly anemic and formulaic exploration of Diwali, with checklists on how to decorate one’s home and throw festival parties. Today, the papers are telling us what Bollywood has-beens will be doing to bring in the New Year. Julia Roberts has gone on record to say that Diwali belongs to ‘everyone,’ that it celebrates self-confidence and humanity – a wildly inaccurate interpretation that in its misplaced earnestness, itself plays to type.

Fortunately, in spite of what the media serves up as the ‘festive spirit,’ Diwali has largely managed to transcend clichés; has evaded the more corrosive forms of commercialization; has retained relevance, appeal and allure.  

Like all festivals, Diwali offers a way in which to mark time; offers respite from the grinding realities of everyday life; offers a very large collective the opportunity to look forward and begin things anew, unblemished by the failures and setbacks of the past year.

Diwali also has meaning that is all its own. Hindus believe Diwali marks the return of Ram to Ayodhya, Jains believe it is when their last tirthankara, Mahavira, attained nirvana. Everywhere, Diwali has been adapted to fit a range of cultural and sub-cultural narratives and myths, but most people will celebrate it as the New Year, filled with promise, a time for food, family, friends, bonhomie, largesse and shopping.

In my experience, Diwali is a festival for pragmatists, for hard-headed accountants and businessmen as well as for the devout – an example of how Hindu theology, vast, sprawling and complex, can accommodate the spiritual needs of both the ascetic and the merchant, the yogi and the bhogi. It is partly a festival that celebrates wisdom, and mostly a festival that celebrates wealth. The meek may eventually inherit the earth, and karma may reap dividends in other lives, but it is money, ambition and enterprise that will turn the wheels of the world in the present. It is important to remember, though, that this is not a festival that valorizes greed, but rather one that encourages people to respect wealth and the responsibilities attendant upon its accumulation.

My community has celebrated Diwali in the traditional way for years, fusing Hindu rituals with Jain beliefs. All the rites center around prosperity and wisdom – the cleaning of our homes so as to welcome Laxmi, rituals marking the placement of orders for books of accounts, the worship of these books and silver and gold coins, the ceremony accompanying the inaugural credit/ debit entry into the books, the purchase of new clothes and the consumption of deep-fried and sweet food (everyday cooking being considered inauspicious, and diet-friendly food wholly blasphemous). A few days later, Saraswati is appeased through the worship of books, pencils and lately, CDs – all the paraphernalia of learning and knowledge.

What appeals most to me is the festival’s emphasis on light – lamplight, lantern-light, fairy lights, firecrackers and electric razzmatazz of all sorts – as a redemptive, protective, even healing force. Almost every part of the country is luminous at this time of the year, and even battle-scarred, world-weary Bombay takes on a softer glow.

Wisdom, wealth, bright and bold beginnings. I wish you a Happy Diwali and a Prosperous New Year.

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