The Dark Side of Diwali

Diwali blog 1Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is here.

And India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and people from those countries living in other parts of the globe are celebrating it with food, festivities and fun.

And firecrackers. Firecrackers are a huge part of Diwali celebration.

The little-noisy crackers they call patka. And the big, very noisy crackers, like chocolate bombs and bottle bombs and the two-repeat and three-repeat bombs, driving people crazy. Noise pollution at this time takes on an unimaginable level.

And the beautiful, noiseless fireworks, like the flower glitters or phul jhuri, colored torches or rang mashal, floor spinners or charki, and fire fountains or tubri. The blue-green-red-n-yellow, fun match sticks made especially for this occasion. The earthen lamps and candles lightening up each porch, terrace and verandah. The spring-up, black snakes or saap baji. The rockets. You name it. The underground, illegal varieties too.

Phul Jhuri
Phul Jhuri

And then, expert artisans make all kinds of incredible fireworks to lit up the dark, new-moon, autumn skies. Some go way up in the sky, and then make shapes of famous leaders and celebrities. Gandhi, Tagore, Modi, Shah Rukh Khan 🙂

But behind all this explosive happiness and gaiety, very few remember the poor workers who make these little and big fireworks and crackers that the affluent and middle-class families and children play with on Diwali. Most of them do not know or care about the fact that a vast majority of these behind-the-scene workers are hapless, poor children who can’t go to school or get enough to eat. Most of those celebrating the Festival of Lights do not remember that for these poor child workers and their families, there is hardly any festivals and any lights.

Diwali blog 2In fact, these children cannot afford to pay for the high prices for those firecrackers. If anything, they pay for them with their own lives. They die a slow but sure death because of the extremely toxic environment they work in, and the often-carcinogenic chemicals they use. And often in India, fireworks factories explode because of unlawful chemicals wrongly used, killing scores of these child laborers. It has now become a commonplace tragedy, happening every year in India, over a few weeks before Diwali.

Nobody really pays any attention. The fun show must go on. Children filed petition to India’s Supreme Court to stop the horrific noise pollution, but the government intervened to stop the petition from winning.

This Diwali, even though all for celebrating it, I am inviting everyone from every religion and non-religion to be a part of it, I’m also inviting you to remember this untold, dark side of the festival. Think about how you can improve their lives. Think about how we can find an alternative, healthy life for these children and their families so that they don’t have to die working with poisons. Can we send them to schools they deserve? Can we find them money to eat a good lunch and dinner?

It’s easy to say, “Ban Child Labor!” That is the cry the affluent, bleeding-heart liberal cry. But then what? If not an economic way out for them, what other choice do they have?

Diwali is not, and cannot be the Festival of Lights, unless we bring light to illuminate this deep darkness.

Wake up to this reality.

###

Diwali blog 3

Theft, An Art. Robbery, An Industry.

Theft 1EVERYTHING I wrote in this blog: about the massive corruption in India, police inaction, mob lynching, violence on women, lawyer and government office dishonesty and all, I wrote from my personal experiences, and not on the basis of newspaper or TV reports or hearsay. It does not mean India is full of dishonest people only. How can I say such a thing? My father and my teachers are still alive. So are some friends and friends back there who could have become millionaires had they chose to be corrupt, given the powerful positions they are (or were) in. Yet, I must tell you what I have gone through in my life. That honesty and transparency are the real strengths of my writing. And I am proud of that.
________________________________________________________________

Don’t be surprised when you read this. Just know that it is all one hundred percent true.

In India, or the ancient Land of Bharat, grand, subtle theft has always been an art (centuries before they wrote Ocean’s Eleven or The Great Train Robbery).

In the famous Sanskrit play The Little Clay Cart (Mrichchhakatika), thief Sharvilaka enters merchant Charudatta’s house at night, and steals the jewels, for he wishes to buy his girl Madanika’s (a beautiful slave) freedom with the stolen jewels. One of the best plays ever written.

In the Bengali novel The Nightly In-Law (Nishikutumba), author Manoj Basu illustrates the art in an exquisite, elaborate way. He had received the prestigious, National Academy Award for the novel. Wish someone did a new movie on it.

The Clay Cart. Exquisite, sensual romance.
The Little Clay Cart. Exquisite, sensual, romance.

But that was then. What is happening in India now is not theft anymore. It is an historic level of “grand larceny” and “high-noon robbery”, in every sphere of life.

Let me give you some recent examples.

If you play “professional” cricket in India, you can make millions by underground gambling. That’s now all too well known.

But you can also make millions by bribing the international cricket board that would banish a certain, dangerous bowler just on the eve of a crucial game, and make the other team and its big-name captain win — a team bookies and corporations had put huge, huge bets on. Allegations. But no investigations.

If you are a government executive or minister, you can scrap an international trade deal on technical or legal grounds, and then after getting an incredible sum of money from the international trader, re-instate the deal quickly, overturning the ban.

Big media knows it, but avoids questions. In fact, some big-media journalists have themselves been implicated in underground deals. And we have every reason to believe that big media is bribed by national and international corporations; heck, some of them are now directly owned by big, global corporations such as Rupert Murdoch.

And then, there is all-pervasive bribery across the board: you need to bribe a government officer to get a completely legal contract validated, because without it, they have the power to sit on your files for the rest of your life.

My high-school English teacher did not get his pension for twenty years after his retirement, and only got it a few months before his death (he was lucky), perhaps because he refused to bribe anybody.

No caption needed.
No caption needed.

You need to pay back your lawyer to evict your unlawful tenant or tenant’s tenant, or they can make your life miserable, by getting kickbacks from your adversary, and working for your defeat in court.

You have one burglary at home (like the one we had during our 2007 visit), and you shall need to buy off the entire police station to even record an FIR, let alone have them do any investigation. We did not buy them off, and we did not get any justice.

Your village cousin is molested? The law enforcement and administration will molest her five times over again, physically or verbally, unless you have the money to move the case forward. Just read some of the recent incidents in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and such Indian provinces.

And I’m not even talking about some of the more well-known cases of high-noon robbery that got exposed only because the robbers — politicians or executives — got up on the wrong side of the bed that unlucky day (or could not strike a deal on time). Nobody in the seat of power — any power — gets caught in India, or punished. Biggest robbers get court bails quickly, and eventually get a slap on the wrist, before they come back to steal again.

Mob police beating thiefSmall thieves do get caught and punished, and the Indian mob will likely beat them to death in broad daylight. I have seen a few such incidents with my own eyes, and wrote about them in my to-be-published memoir. Medium-level or high-level thieves and robbers, with any political or media connection — small or big? Forget it.

The fabled, subtle art on those Sanskrit or Bengali or Tamil acts of theft has disappeared, to be replaced in India by the largest, in-your-face industry the country has ever seen. The new prime minister has promised to cure and cleanse India of this systemic cancer, but we have heard such rhetoric from Indira Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi before.

Today, India’s supreme court has released one of the biggest, convicted robbers in history on bail. Done very quickly: no questions asked.

In this socioeconomic structure, which has not changed a bit through elections, no real cure is possible.

Just like the U.S. Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers.

Same stories, different scenarios.

###

Big-name politicians. Convicted of mega corruption. Quickly released on bail.
Big-name politicians. Convicted of mega corruption. Quickly released on bail.

Celebrate Diwali in America

kids-diwali-photosA SINCERE PROPOSAL.

No, not to big politicians or big media. They are too busy, and their priorities are too different.

I am making this humble request to you: my friends, colleagues, supporters and well wishers. I propose that we all celebrate Diwali — the Festival of Lights — here in USA, the Land of Diversity. Celebrate it as a secular, social festival. I invite everyone: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, socialists, greens.

Light up. Lighten up. Have a party. This year, October 23 is the day. Mark your calendar.

Even though Diwali has a deep connection with Hinduism, and it always falls on the day after the auspicious Kali Puja or the worship of Goddess Kali the Demon Slayer, Diwali is now a pan-Indian festival, both in India and all over the world, wherever Indians are. And you can find us everywhere: America, Europe, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Zambia or Zanzibar. And people from all religions celebrate it with much fanfare. In fact, in my opinion, perhaps next to Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Eid, Kwanzaa and Yom Kippur, Diwali is a festival that many Americans are aware of.

Of course, thanks to a blanket exclusion by corporate media, even those who have heard about Diwali and know that it has something to do with India or Indians and Hindus or Hindi do not know what it is really all about. So, every time somebody asks me what is the occasion they saw fireworks over the Hudson next to Brooklyn Bridge, I take the time to explain to them that Diwali — the Festival of Lights — is an autumn festival when people all over India lighten up their houses with small or big lights, and celebrate with fireworks, followed by fabulous food and sumptuous sweets.

I then take the time to explain to them that it is a symbol for the victory of the good over evil, or for the more religious, triumph of good karma over bad karma.

Then everyone understands, and greets me, saying, “Happy Diwali.” And that makes me happy too.

🙂

Diwali fireworksNow, fireworks, followed by sweets are big in India. Here in America the so-called Land of Freedom, they have imposed so many restrictions on our lives that we don’t even know how restricted we are. We can’t blow our mandatory Hindu conch shells outside of the temples and designated schools or community halls where we’re having our celebrations. We can’t lighten up our pious, ceremonial, invocation firewood almost anywhere, let alone outside the designated areas. Fireworks, even the silent, small and beautiful ones, our children can’t play with without having special permission from the city administration. You can’t even buy fireworks in New York City for Diwali, unless you are a big business group, and have resources and connections and permissions to do it over the Hudson next to Brooklyn Bridge.

Truly, believe it or not, even for the less-religious like me, it’s mighty stifling.

But no, I’m not proposing that we be given permission to crack our fireworks anywhere we like. I’m not even proposing that we be given permission to light up our ceremonial, religious fire inside our wooden houses. I know how dangerous it can be. Just like any responsible New Yorker, I would be very reluctant to undermine the safety of me, my family, and my neighbors. We are responsible, enlightened citizens.

All I’m proposing that let us all celebrate Diwali — the Festival of Lights — in its true, secular, inclusive spirit, inviting everyone in America to be a part of it. Let us observe Diwali this year, and every year, to show our real spirit of inclusion and diversity, and make this colorful, social festival a known event in the American household.

Happy-DiwaliAnd if not for the fireworks, approved or not by the government officials, let us rejoice Diwali at least for its food and sweets part.

If Yoga can be a popular, household practice for today’s America and especially its open-minded young generation, why can’t Diwali? Both are spiritual. Both are secular and inclusive. Both celebrate life. Both inspire health and happiness.

And if you are truly worried about your health and happiness due to the plentiful of Indian food and sweets, we shall make them low-calorie for you.

Heck, we could even make them totally fat- and sugar-free.

🙂

Let’s celebrate Diwali this year.

###

Don’t Think. Be Happy. My New Song.

Flickr 1Don’t think. Be happy.

[A new song. By Yours Truly. Long Island, New York. Saturday, October 11, 2014. Will perform at your next Halloween Party. Or, Thanksgiving.]
________

Don’t think. Be happy.
Don’t think. Be happy.
Don’t think. Be happy.

Don’t think…think…think.
Be happy…happy…happy.

Think? No! Hell!

Happy? Yeah, baby!

Happy happy happy…happy happy happy…happy happy happyyyyyyy…

[Interlude]

Happy 3They don’t want you think.
So you don’t think.
They don’t want me think.
So I don’t think.

They want you to smile.
Ya smile smile smile.
They want me to laugh.
I laugh laugh laugh.

Think? No! Hell!
Happy? Yeah, baby!

Happy happy happy…happy happy happy…happy happy happyyyyyyy…

[Interlude]

Happy 5Never mind the war.
Never mind the bomb.
Never mind the foxes
that keep ya deaf and dumb.

Never mind the tissue
cuz that’s not an issue
Never mind the milk
More power to the ilk

Never mind the gas
cuz it’s gonna pass
Never talk the prices
the temperature rises.

They want me to laugh.
I laugh laugh laugh.

Think? No! Hell!

Happy? Yeah, baby!

Happy happy happy…happy happy happy…happy happy happyyyyyyy…

[Interlude]

Happy 6The American Dream?
Why, have an ice cream
Darn it so much better
than your editor’s letter

Live it like the others
like your sisters and brothers
Never ask no questions
Never say no challenge
Never see no slum
It’ll make you mighty glum

Live it like a mall
or the cards are gonna fall

You must have no reason
wanna end up in prison?

Hell no no…
Hell no no…

Think? No! Hell!

Happy? Yeah, baby!

Happy happy happy…happy happy happy…happy happy happyyyyyyy…

[Interlude]

Happy 7Think is a crime
I’d rather chime
the patriotic song
with loud bells and gong,
“We’re the best we’re the best
the bestest of the best…”

Ding dong ding dong
Bing Bang Bong…

No questions asked
And the debate is all done
Don’t dare us no challenge
Or, we’ll send in the drone.

They want me laugh.
I laugh laugh laugh.
They want me cry.
I cry cry cry.

Think? No! Hell!
Happy? Yeah, baby!
Happy happy happy…happy happy happy…happy happy happyyyyyyy…

[End]

Lakshmi Puja in Full Moon

Village woman in Bengal decorating her simple courtyard with Alpana.
Village woman in Bengal decorating her simple courtyard with Alpana. How exquisite!

Today is Lakshmi Puja in Bengal. And in many other parts in India. An auspicious, full-moon night.

We invoke and worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. But to many, she is actually the goddess who blesses us with fulfillment. And the fulfillment is not necessarily about wealth. It could be about anything you desire in your life: education, art, poetry, love, activism, movement for rights, justice, peace…

You desire something and you aspire something. And you work hard to achieve it. With your passion and hard work, Goddess Lakshmi is going to bless you with the final, divine touch, so that you can achieve it. That’s the idea. Nothing complicated.

At least, not complicated in my book. My religion is simple, sans the complexities.

Goddess Lakshmi and her companion the big white owl.
Goddess Lakshmi and her companion the big white owl.

It’s also called Kojagari Lakshmi Puja. The full moon day of Ashvin (sixth month of Bengali lunar calendar) is called Kojagari Purnima, a day when people stay up all night, observing fasts. The ceremony owes its origin to the Kojagari Purnima Vrat (hymns or slokas), dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Indra. I’m sharing a few photos I just stole from Facebook friends. They know who they are. I forgot.

🙂

Women fast more than men do. Women invoke Lakshmi with blowing conch shells and hulu-dhwani (ululation). Unlike the Durga or Kali puja, the worship of Lakshmi is a soft, subtle one. They beat the drum and beat the metal gong with the iron hammer, maybe, but perhaps only once or twice during the actual, peak hours of the puja ceremony, when the priest invites them to do it. Then, they read folk poetry, called Lakshmi Panchali, dedicated to the goddess and her divine deeds.

In Bengal, no religious ceremony is complete without a sumptuous food. But again, unlike Durga or Kali puja, the puja offering is totally vegetarian. Hand-made flour bread called Luchi, potato curry, and sweets dominate the after-puja meals for the devotees, and onlookers.

We used to organize community pujas when we were boys playing around on Calcutta streets way back when. We would go from door to door to collect small donations from neighbors. And then, we would stay up all night to celebrate, defying our parents not to catch a late-night, autumn cold.

Oh, was it fun! Especially the food part! Slurp, slurp, slurp…

🙂

A delicious religion :-)
A delicious religion 🙂 Photo courtesy: Mukti’s Kitchen.

An Amazing Experience of Life

Mother Goddess destroys the demon: the demon within us.
Mother Goddess destroys the demon: the demon within us.

Not sure if anybody truly cares to know about such small experience of life, but extrovert and emotional as I am, I decide to share it with you.

This little incident this morning, on this very auspicious day of Vijaya Dashami, when Goddess Durga finally vanquished Asura the demon, it is something that resonates with me. It also makes me realize how I have changed from the inside, over the years.

On my way to work, I was filling the gas tank on my car at our neighborhood Shell station in Brooklyn. This was one of the rare days when I had to drive in to work; I normally take the New York subway and then an MTA bus. So, I’m wearing a new, blue sweater my wifey bought me on the occasion of Durga Puja. And I’m wearing a pair of dark blue pants. And I’m happily pumping gas on my car.

A white gentleman in his suit and tie pulls in, gets out of his car, and without any hesitation, asks me: “Hey, can I use your bathroom?” No, he was not being disrespectful, and his whiteness was purely coincidental. Obviously, he mistook me for a gas station attendant, with my blue, uniform-like attire. I was a little startled, and didn’t know what to say. Just within a few seconds, he realized I was not an attendant, and he said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And that was the end of the conversation.

Why was it important? Because of the many possible layers of this brief encounter. One, I knew for the fact that this morning, I was not angry or irked or nervous, hearing his question. There was a time in my earlier years in America, when I would be definitely angry or irked or nervous: I’d consider his innocent question to be raising from subtle superiority, disrespect, or even racism. I would think: “How dare he speaks to me this way…doesn’t he know I have a Ph.D. and I teach in a college and I speak three languages and I do this and I do that … doesn’t he know I’m not someone he thinks I am?” I would think: “Just because I have a brown skin and I don’t drive a Lexus and I am not six feet tall…does that give him the right to treat me disrespectfully?”

But I have grown up. And now I realize that even though I cannot change my body color or looks or height or name or religion or economic situation, I can change myself and my philosophy of life from within. I can train myself how to be tolerant, and how not to be thin-skinned and judgmental. Bengali Indian men, and perhaps men in general, have a much thinner skin than women, who are in my opinion, much more patient, tolerant, and pragmatic about life.

Praying for strength. Inner strength.
Praying for strength. Inner strength.

And some more wisdom this morning. Through this one, little incident, I realized that I feel completely at ease with anyone considering me a part of the working-class people here in America, and for that matter, all over the world. In fact, that he thought I was a gas-pumping attendant made me happy and proud. Even gleeful.

Happy Vijaya Dashami. May Goddess Durga bless us all with strength — to conquer our inner demon.

(Now, I demand some Bengali sweets on this special day)

🙂 🙂