Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Explosions of Enlightenment

Diwali – The Festival of Lights. Like Navratri, a festival with many different meanings and manifestations, a tapestry of India’s multicolored threads. In Gujarat, Diwali honors Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth; here chopda pujans (literally, “book worships”) are held to herald a prosperous new financial year, as businesses close their yearly books of accounts and open fresh ones. (Of course, in modern times, many people are using CD-ROMs in the ceremonies rather than books, since most of their accounts are on the computer.) In north India, Diwali celebrates Rama’s return to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana. On this day, Rama was coronated King and thousands of lamps were lit across the land, symbolically banishing the dark days of Rama’s exile. And on this day in Jain history, Mahavir Swami attained nirvana. Diwali thus signifies enlightenment and renewal. During these holidays, people clean their homes and light diyas, preparing for a fresh start. They buy new clothes and feed each other sweets.

And they go deaf. Because enlightenment is not a quiet affair. It occurs in the sky, in momentary fire-flowers that slowly dribble to earth. It occurs in small alleys, in explosive sprays of combustion. It goes BANG.

As each night falls, a car backfires. A rifle blasts. Then another, and another…endless rebellious rifles taking potshots at Maruti sedans. You begin to worry. You heard about the explosions in Delhi; no one is safe from terror. Loud BANGs in the night could mean something. Flashes of light coming through the dusty window don’t seem so innocent. For a moment, it seems like it is reminding you of a memory you do not have. Telling you what it feels like to be at war. To sit inside your room and try to stop your heart from jumping every time something goes BANG.

Then a child laughs, and you remember – people are simply busy enlightening themselves outside. Ha. You go on the terrace of your brick tower of a house, and watch as kids light fuses and scurry away, squint your eyes in anticipation as the atmosphere takes a colorful and noisy beating. Then you duck, because a kid just chucked a fire-flower in your direction, and it fizzed to a stop just a few feet above your head before dying in the branches of a nearby (flammable) tree. You open your mouth to yell at him, then stop the hypocrisy with a memory, one that is actually yours – you and your brother, young, in India, setting off rockets from an empty Thumbs Up bottle on this same street. One of the rockets flew upward and then curved sharply to the left, flying straight into the balcony of a neighboring apartment in a flash of blue light. The only things faster than the rocket were your legs as you fled the crime scene. Ha.

You eat another sweet, and wonder how people can happily shop and blow things up, when just a few days ago several people died in a Delhi shopping market with a giant BANG.

And you pat yourself on the back for packing earplugs when you came to India, because you may need them now. Because the firecrackers of today are louder than the ones you remember as a child. You used to hold sparklers, waving them to form letters of fire in the air, like a devilish, almost-literate sprite. Now people buy “Time Bombs,” which create noise levels of 86.7 decibels, when the “scientifically permissible” noise level to prevent damage to the human ear is 75 dB. And Time Bombs are the quietest of Diwali’s most popular sellers; some firecrackers create sound waves of 125 dB – louder than a rock concert – all concentrated in one brief BANG a few feet from a child’s ear. They make noises that make you feel, for a moment, like there’s a war going on outside.

One ENT surgeon in the Times of India said that he gets 10 new cases of hearing loss every Diwali. 120 dB, he claims, can blow a hole in your eardrum; however, the Supreme Court of India has deemed anything up to 125 dB “legal.” A recent research study shows that Indians become hard of hearing an estimated 10 to 15 years earlier than is expected based on data on aging in other countries.

You notice your grandmother watching TV. The volume is turned up so loud that your earplugs seem like a good idea even inside the house, and you realize that no one is as disturbed by the BANGs outside as you are.

Because modern enlightenment is not a quiet affair. It doesn’t smell very nice, either…but there are people working to change that. “Green firecrackers” hit the market this year, advertising lower levels of smoke and pollution. They match the new Green Rickshaws, the ones with CNG painted on them in white block letters, boasting the use of Compressed Natural Gas rather than less air-friendly petrol. Made by people who value eardrums and noses over enlightenment.

Through all the colorful and noisy beatings, and in spite of sobering newspaper articles, the atmosphere retains a festive smile. It looks like Christmas in New York, the way all the buildings and trees on C.G. road now have decorative lights outlining them. And family keeps stopping by, to engage in games of “how much can we make you eat?” Yesterday Bhanumummy and I made a Rangoli, from colored powders we’d bought from a street vendor (see pic). My first attempt at one – even as a child, I could never color completely inside the lines on paper, and using powder on the floor didn’t make it any easier. But our multicolored powder tapestry now proudly decorates the entrance to the house.

It shows a peacock, in honor of the gorgeous birds that strut the campus of Gujarat University when we take pre-sunset walks. I’ve often stood mesmerized by these creatures, especially one recent day when a male spread its feathers in full flutter to attract a nearby female (see pic), who wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was. In fanned-out glory, his feathers reached a height of almost six feet. Yesterday, I was almost tempted to pluck one of the feathers from a nearby male, just to hold it and see it up close – but that would be cruel, so I kept walking. A few minutes later, on the opposite side of campus, a man in a white kurta came up to me and handed me a peacock feather! Flashing a yellow-toothed smile, he laughed and just walked away. As if he had come specially to reward me for not taking feathers into my own hands only moments earlier.

Later, in a dream, I imagined a peacock exploding – BANG. Colors everywhere. A surprised and naked peacock watching hopelessly as its beautiful feathers scattered in the wind and dribbled down to earth. Then, from the bushes, an army of yellow-toothed men in white kurtas scampered to collect the fallen treasures, and proceeded to hand them to foreign students who happened to be walking nearby. Foreign students who harbored secret desires to own peacock feathers.

The once-proud feather now decorates the entrance to my room. It still quivers from the explosion, and shimmers with blue-green enlightenment.

Day after tomorrow, we leave for Mount Abu, where we will stay for three nights. I’ll tell you all about it when we return. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, you can check out the pictures from the past month, recently posted to my Ofoto site (email rishiblogpics@hotmail.com, password blogpics). Saal Mubarak!


Anonymous Tina said...

Saal mubarak rishi, everyone misses you! Hope your adventures in India in the new year bring you futher enlightenment (but not too loud:))

3:28 AM  
Anonymous Mansi said...

Sal Mubarak Rishi. The photo of the peacock needs to be framed in your house some day, it is a perfect picture with the green surroundings which perfectly accent the green and brighten the blue of the peacock.

I love how your post invokes the idea of enlightenment through war. (Sounds a little fishy . . . as does U.S. foreign policy right now).

3:20 AM  

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