Monday 23 November 2020

Of light, diyas, Diwali and celebrating life.

Photo credit: Sahitya

Dear Readers, 

I hope you've been well and healthy. 

As some of you may know the past fortnight has been all about Diwali; a festival of lights celebrated by --- and this is where I'm struggling (she admits after tapping the backspace button 5 times!)

So, who celebrates Diwali? Is it only Hindus? No, my Muslim and Christian and Atheist friends get as excited about this celebration of good over evil as much as I do. 

Is it just Indians? No, the same list of friends includes some whose connection to India is purely and only (unashamedly) gastronomical--alloo gobhi and gulab jamun.

I tapped the Backspace button so many times wile trying to complete the sentence that I decided it was better to explore the questions arising within and share them with you rather than forcefully plant a word that may limit the horizons of Diwali's celebratory aura.  Does assigning a festival to a group of people makes it divisive? Is there any need any more to attach festivals to regions and religions to celebrations? 

I grew up in secular India. The sweetness of Eid mingled with the joys of Diwali and colours of Holi and langars of Guru Purabs and twinkling lights of Christmas like Van Gogh's brush strokes. Everything mixed together and remained distinct at the same time. The end result was always memorable. We celebrated all the festivals on the calendar -- some more fervently than others, but the collective canvas was always vibrant and life affirming.

The common denominators were sweets and new clothes and holidays. It didn't really matter whether Krishna was being born or Christ or if the Moon was a crescent in the sky or Full or New. We were celebrating. Those three words were enough to bring the neighbours into our homes, us into theirs, families to meet and school friends to pack left over feasts in dabbas to take to school the next day to swap, bargain over or share.

Those three words didn't need any qualifiers like which God or Goddess was being thought of that day. The names of the festivals were important only to the grandmothers and banner makers. 

The celebrations were communal. All of us in the mohalla (neighbourhood) participated without invitations or inhibitions.  There were no T.V. ads to drool or fight over. No celebratory guidelines were issued by governments. We simply turned up with dreams of new things, hungry tummies and lots of noisy energy. And that was that.

Diwali of Doon, when I was a little girl, looked nothing like the showy, noisy, decadent, ridden with consumerism commotion of a tamasha everyone is compelled to be a part of and yet complain afterwards these days. Festivals have become giant conglomerates of more vs more, shiny vs shinier, louder vs deafening. Many magazine articles tell you how to 'cope' with the stresses of celebrating a festival, a holiday and how to destress afterwards.

Aren't holidays and stress supposed to be antonyms?  I may go so far and call them oxymoronic. How can stress sit next to a holiday/a festival on the same line unless we are going about this business of  celebrating  the wrong way!

Friends and family have complained of over-doing the party scene in the past years. I am guilty of getting into such a tizzy about cleaning my entire house in a day that I had to resort to a Panadol just before doing the Diwali puja this year. Why do we create mountains to climb over in order to feel like we've done a good job of celebrating? I'd love to know your thoughts.

Apart from the day long cleaning circus I planted myself in, Diwali was different this year, like everything else. Covid made sure the ex-pat Indian population couldn't travel back home to celebrate and that worked out well for the art initiative I've been a part of for the past 2 years.

Let me explain. Two years ago, I visited a facility where cancer warriors undergoing treatment stay. The facility houses blue collar workers who come to Doha from all over the world to work. They come alone and either live with their sponsor's family as their maids or drivers or in community housing provided by their employees and sponsors. Qatar Cancer Charity provides them with treatment free of charge and makes arrangement for some of the more vulnerable patients to stay in this facility so that it's easier for them to manage.

In 2018, around Diwali, I visited the facility for the first time to give some money in the spirit of giving. There I met Gary, the manager in charge, who shared his vision of using posters or art pieces to make the rooms more warm and vibrant for the patients.

"How about if the patients make that art?" I volunteered.

Gary didn't look convinced but he agreed and let me come in the following Thursday to dabble in art with 24 patients in a large activity room.

What started off as a 'one off' session has grown and blossomed into an initiative that keeps me busy and fulfilled. Many dear friends have joined in to help and support. The magic of art and the human spirit have shown me a new way to celebrate. And in this kind of celebration, trust me, there is no stress. On the contrary, my weekly visits destress me.

So, this year, we made diyas with clay and decorated them with colours. They turned out to be the most beautiful diyas I have ever seen. If you don't believe me, ask anyone who's bought them. They'll tell you:)

So many homes and hearts rejoiced in India, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Egypt this Diwali because kind souls bought diyas made in Doha by cancer warriors who fight not just the disease but the perpetual uncertainties limited finances bring.

This year, diyas made by Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims in a hospital far away from any of the countries the makers come from brought Diwali of forty years ago, from a gully in a mohalla in Dehradun to Doha and reminded me that it's the human spirit that wants to celebrate the miracle of life. Divisions of religion and countries blur into oblivion when the light of life shines. Life wants to live. There's no better place to witness this fact than in a place where disease stares at you with its painful and sometimes imminent stark reality. 

Life, every day and every minute of it, is a celebration of light. Why store it in a box of decorations to be stored away for  yet another year? 

Photo credit: Deepa

If I could capture the tears of joy, the smiles of satisfaction, the spring in steps, the blissful immersions in the making of art and the energy that fills the room (which looks like an art gallery now) and share it with you, I would. You wouldn't have to go spend a penny to 'celebrate' anything ever again. That's how intoxicating this joy is.

Brother David Steindl Rast in one of his YouTube videos talks about the difference between a journey and a pilgrimage.

"In a journey, you reach a goal, that is the essence of the journey." He states and carries on, "In a pilgrimage, every step is the goal: now, now, now. The essence of a pilgrimage is love because in love, with every step, you reach the goal." 

If celebrations became pilgrimages, not journeys, we'd stop exhausting ourselves to reach those goals. Instead, we'd be in blissful joy every step of the way. Don't you think?

For some of us, making diyas this year was a pilgrimage of sorts. Diwali became a pilgrimage in times of Covid.

You can watch the video here:

I'll leave you with a prayer. 

May we make pilgrimages out of our journeys every day and may all the celebrations light up the light that's inside of us. It needs no flame, no oxygen, no expenses at all. Just a smile. And even though smiles may be covered with masks (as they should these days), our eyes will convey our heart's songs to the ones near and far.

Happy Diwali my lovely ones.

Warmly and in gratitude for your presence on this page today,

photo credit: Deepa