By Richa Gupta:
The day was uncharacteristically scorching; perspiration ran down my face. The car’s air conditioner had stopped working, leaving me vulnerable to the oppressive heat of a particularly vindictive Indian afternoon. Just as I was craving a chilled glass of water, I took a look out of the window. And then I saw a long line of huge statues of Lord Ganesha, and realised that Ganesh Chaturthi was approaching.
Ganesh Chaturthi is the Hindu festival celebrated in honor of the god Ganesha — the god who removes the obstacles from one’s path to success. Festivals, including this one, are a huge deal to most of us, and a pretty considerable deal to my family and me. And on that day, I could see that people were really getting into the festival spirit – those endless lines of intricately carved Ganesha elephants just proved it. Each carving was taller than me, and must have weighed a ton. But as we were rounding the corner, I saw something else that took away the excitement that was beginning to take shape in my heart — that the people cutting, carving and painting the statues were children, probably seven or eight years old, who were engaging in laborious tasks rather than joining their peers and going to school.
India is notorious for its prevalence of hard, demanding child labour. Almost everyone knows this but it becomes worse when we realise that our pleasure during festivities becomes another’s pain. But even this is nothing new — young children from illiterate or rural families are known to slave away in factories during the most widely celebrated of Indian festivals, such as Diwali and Holi. They are known to manufacture fire crackers, sparklers and coloured powder. I’ve read articles describing the plight of these children — the injuries they incur, the misery etched across their faces, some of which have even gone viral. But there’s barely any change in the mentalities of the people, which started making me question the very purpose of festivals.
Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights, which signifies the return of Rama and Sita (characters in the story from the Ramayana), and is a spiritual victory of light over darkness. This festival is also celebrated to honor Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. Let me just say that on Diwali nights, the night sky is brighter and so much more colorful than it is during the day, and is all the more polluted. It takes no time to discern the billows of multicoloured smoke rising up into the skies, which contribute to air pollution and global warming. But is Diwali a festival that affects only the environment? Or also the hands and legs of the little children who make perilous items every single festival day?
Last Diwali, I couldn’t light a single sparkler and send a single cracker spinning into the dusty skies. On Holi, I had to force myself to cream my sister with the blues, reds and greens of these powdered, festive hues. Because how could I have fun, when I was enjoying myself at the expense of another child’s pain and misery? The answer was simple — I couldn’t. But then I thought of everyone else – all those people I saw laughing and shouting and prancing and running. How could they enjoy themselves without that nagging voice at the back of their mind urging them to stop? A voice urging them to drop everything they’re holding and save these children from the predicament they’re ensnared in?
The concept of festivals is not as simple as I had once thought it was — they are not merely ‘religious times’ or ‘times of enjoyment’; this is something I had learnt many years ago. They are times to honor the Gods and Goddesses who are believed to have shaped and molded the universe to what it is today. But if they are ‘times of enjoyment’, who is meant to benefit? Who are they trying to make happy or to please?
As said by Anna Fitzgerald, a teenage character from the fictional novel “My Sister’s Keeper”: “There are always sides. There is always a winner and a loser. For every person who gets, there’s someone who must give.” Nonetheless, that shouldn’t mean that we deny ourselves the luxury of reality but as of now, I’m powerless to change it. So, nowadays, whenever I half-heartedly participate in festivals, rather than envisioning the tears that must have gone into manufacturing what I’m holding and tensely gripping with my fingers, I sincerely thank the children who had made them — my silent tribute to people too far away to pay my respects to directly and hope that one day, I’ll be able to meet them in person.