Going by the newspapers, today’s Diwali is a dim one. Shopping is down, both due to financial constraints and security concerns. According to The Times of India, traders are reporting 50% fewer footfalls in the Capital’s markets. “No one is buying gifts,” laments Sanjay Bhargava, the owner of a readymade garment store in Chandni Chowk.
It’s not just the small shops. Large companies, too, are withdrawing perks such as free lunches and some have even cancelled their annual Diwali parties. Where last year’s corporate gifts included BlackBerrys and other expensive electronics, this year’s are confined to barfi and mobile phone accessories.
It’s a gloom that exists outside retail. In far away Kandhamal, even as Hindus, Christians and Maoists battle it out for the tribal soul (to paraphrase historian and columnist Ramchandra Guha), a raped nun is forced to appear before the nation’s media, reliving her ordeal and demanding a CBI inquiry: she has no faith in the Orissa state police, she says.
Women in big cities don’t have much to cheer about anyway. In Delhi, a journalist is shot dead late at night while returning home from work—nobody knows by whom or why. In nearby Noida, a schoolgirl is murdered in her bed and after the worst possible witch-hunt; we are no closer to finding out who killed Aarushi Talwar.
Teen violence is up and the Delhi high court has been hearing a case involving two class XII students, where one seriously injured the other after losing a game of volleyball. In Agra, a school trip by students of a Haryana school goes horribly wrong when girl students are molested inside a movie theatre. And stories of spurned lovers dousing their girlfriends with acid are now so common that they no longer make the front page.
Our politics is touched by the same sort of ugliness. In Mumbai, the Scotch-drinking, imported-car-loving Raj Thackeray has spent much of the past few months urging his party workers to beat up migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. For his troubles, he is finally despatched to jail for one night by a seemingly reluctant government. After all, the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance has nothing to lose and everything to gain by splitting the Marathi manus vote and dividing loyalties between the Shiv Sena and Raj’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
And in Uttar Pradesh, the diamond-loving Mayawati seems convinced that she is a prime minister-in-waiting and will stop at nothing to spoil the Congress’ party in her state.
Most shameful is the Global Hunger Index that ranks India at 66 out of 88 developing nations. The ranking is below 25 sub-Saharan African countries and all of South Asia (with the exception of Bangladesh). What’s worse, reveals the index by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, India’s hunger index showed virtually no improvement between 1997 and 2003, years during which India was deemed “shining”.
In terms of numbers, 200 million Indians go to bed hungry while 47% of the country’s children are malnourished.
To nobody’s great surprise, the hunger index goes vastly under-reported in many newspapers (which prefer to give fashion week a bigger play). What does make the front pages are stories of overall financial gloom, particularly the rapidly sinking Sensex. It’s middle class India’s turn to feel the pinch, whether it’s smartly dressed men and women being pink-slipped by Jet Airways or house buyers being put on hold by builders who simply cannot deliver.
Farmer suicides and malnourished children have existed for years in the other India, which is so far removed from our India that it could have existed on another planet. Our India was the India that shone and dreamt of becoming the next global superpower. Our India cheered when the Sensex breached the 20,000 level and real estate prices shot through the roof.
Our India bought paintings as investment and went to such exotic locations as Koh Samui for vacations. Cocooned by a sense of optimism, our India went on an utterly obscene binge of conspicuous consumption, regardless and insensitive of the fact that the rest of the country lived in darkness.
And now, our India suddenly doesn’t feel so confident any more. Our India is finally waking up to the fact that vegetables are expensive and it’s becoming harder to put a decent meal on the table. For the first time in years, there is an acknowledgement of hard times that just might make shiny India a bit more sympathetic to the needs and plights of the India that is in darkness.
It is with this hope that I embrace the new frugality of this year’s Diwali. If this year can mark a return to something simpler and if it can bring a certain amount of compassion and awareness in its wake, I think we’ll all be better off for it.
And yes, Happy Diwali to you all.
Also Read Namita Bhandare’s earlier columns
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org