There is light, light, light all around you during the Indian festival 'Diwali', which roughly translates into English as the 'Festival of Lights'. Outdoors, children draw designs in the air with sparklers. Fountains of colored light shoot up as high as three-storied buildings; rockets erupt in showers of fireworks, and its hard to distinguish man-made flakes of fire from the twinkling stars and planets in the night sky. And if you lower your eyes a little and peer into the houses in your neighborhood, you will see each porch illuminated by rows and rows of tiny clay lamps.
These lamps were lit for the first time thousands of years ago, when the ancient king Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshmana returned from fourteen years of exile, according to The Ramayana, one of the greatest works of Hindu mythology. The people of Ayodhya, the capital of Rama's kingdom, lit these lamps in order to welcome their beloved rulers back home. Ever since then, the Festival of Lights has been celebrated every year in India with pomp and splendor, usually within the months of October or November. For children especially it is one of the happiest days in the year, as they get to blast off the noisiest fire-crackers without having grown-ups holler at them.
Sometimes celebrations can stretch the social fabric, and in the case of Diwali it can turn into a nightmare of sound rather than light. That's when the noise police intervene to prevent sound pollution, and even schoolchildren themselves in major cities lead marches, equipped with banners and placards, about the importance of keeping the decibels low during the festival. And of course there are all those bursting firecrackers, with all their dangers. And so every year before Diwali, the media is full of cautions about keeping a bucket of water handy, and not showing off with fireworks.
Diwali is not without other controversies, like the child labor that is used to produce many of the fireworks, especially in poorer regions of Southern India. But the question is not that simple at all, for if the festival were to be banned and all these factories closed, those child workers would be forced into even deeper poverty. It is a difficult problem to solve, trying to find a way to preserve the light of Diwali without adding to the darkness.
Copyright 2003 © Malini Roy
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