Column published in Business Standard, October 24, 2014
The last time I saw Khushwant Singh (who died aged 99 this April) was a few evenings after Diwali. He found the festival increasingly irksome: the smog, the traffic, the noise and the kind of money that was being thrown around! It made him ruminate on the ways the city had changed. “I used to love Delhi but now I find it uninhabitable. I can’t find my way around. You can no longer see the moon and the stars – even the joy of darkness has been stolen. The corruption and extravagance are unbelievable. Diwali is just over and I am amazed at the gifts people send.” But the thought of some of the presents made his spirits lift. “I shouldn’t complain too much, though,” he added with a sigh and a chuckle. “I had a lovely haul of whisky, 14 or 15 bottles I think. But I find living here a pain in the a**.”
Most of the capital is immobilised for about a week before the event by mile-long traffic jams. The lighting is Titanic-sized, with houses and store fronts a blaze of multi-coloured wattage. Households as well as businesses start budgeting for Diwali expenses months in advance. The buying is manic; many shops declare themselves out of stock the day before. Despite exhortations to the public to reduce the use of firecrackers there is no evidence in any shortage of firepower. Where is all this money coming from?
I went to Diwali party and ran into an ex-soldier of my acquaintance who has gone into construction and real estate. He did exceptionally well out of building holiday homes in the hills. Cottages that his company offered for Rs 50 lakh less than 10 years ago were now going for anywhere up to Rs 7 crore. And what sort of projects was he now handling? “Mostly converting properties in Mayfair, London,” he said, as if Park Lane was a New Delhi neighbourhood and the two Green Parks interchangeable. The biggest demand, he added, was from Chinese buyers, some Russians, but also a growing number of Indians. Chinese millionaires buying up prime London real estate via Indian developers isn’t as surprising as it sounds: after all, some of their cash flow comes from the gazillions of fairy lights, plastic Ganeshas, Lakshmis and Diwali decorations manufactured in the Pearl River estuary that swamp Indian markets.
The aspiration for unabashed glitz is the biggest change that has overtaken in propitiating the Remover of Obstacles and the Goddess of Prosperity at Diwali. A business journalist complained the other day that the most expensively worthless gift she received from a PR firm this year was a pen drive covered in Swarovski crystals! “What am I meant to do … pray to it?” she wailed. Right down the line, Indians want to let the glitter hang out in a remorseless fortnight-long burnout. It is the custom in many homes to hand out cash bonuses to the staff with new suits of clothing. In ours, the clothes are of admittedly sober style and colour – but, in recent years, the choice has provoked mutterings of protest. The cleaning ladies demand “Kareena Kapoor suits” covered in sequins, while younger members hanker after jeans ripped at the knees, Ranbir Kapoor-style. They find our taste utterly passe; the compromise solution is a double cash bonus.
Old-style Diwalis were modest and restrained but no less fun, from the opening chant of Shubham karoti kalyanam (“Salute the lamp that brings good health and prosperity”) as the first diya was lit to the gorging on home-made mithai and some light-hearted gambling afterwards. I recall the mild sensation a United States-returned uncle in the early 1970s caused when he said he could only play with dollars – many elders and children had never seen a dollar bill!
The grandest Diwali celebration I ever attended in the early 1990s was at the 18th century City Palace in Jaipur, home to the late Lt Col Bhawani Singh, once maharaja of Jaipur – who was popularly known as “Bubbles”. Crested invitations invited guests to assemble for drinks on a wide terrace overlooking a magnificent garden vista ending at the far-off illuminated temple of Govindji, the family deity. Formal dress was advised: bewhiskered old feudals in sherwanis and striped safas, and women in traditional poshaks (in shades of indigo known as “Oxford blue”) decorously sipped whiskies and gossiped. Later the party repaired to a subterranean hall laid out with roulette, poker and card tables. All was orderly and convivial, noise and pollution-free, a pageant from vanished culture.
Diwali was never the racket it has now become.