Today, one of my neighbours put me to shame. I'm always cribbing about people on WhatsApp who forward too-good-to-be-true miracle cures, or amazingly interesting videos that do absolutely nothing for my life other than using up a few minutes of it. Thank goodness for "Delete", I always think (but then go on to crib about how much time I must waste pressing "Delete").
Today, though, my neighbour wrote this note: "The pyrotechnics industry truly sucks! The working conditions is absolutely deplorable, with gruesome forms of child labour ruling the roost. I so wish this industry virtually ceases to exist. The images are a stark reality to this torturous trade for profit."
I skimmed quickly through that, but then I saw the pictures that followed, and froze:
I'm sharing them here and I hope there's no copyright infringement, none intended - they are stamped with "Vikatan.com" so I will assume that's who I must credit.
I know all the stuff about crackers being bad. How the noise terrifies and harms animals and birds, and how the smoke pollutes the air. I've seen the scattered scraps of burnt-out fireworks left carelessly all over our streets. I'm aware that bursting fireworks hurts asthmatics, and how Diwali can be a difficult time for heart patients, babies, the elderly, and the sick. I know how rude it can feel to be startled awake in the middle of the night by late night explosions. And I'm aware that children's hands are small and nimble, not just for knotting carpets or rolling beedis, but also for making fireworks. (I have heard so much about this last fact, that I had complacently assumed that it had been taken care of, that the government and the NGOs would have seen to it by now, that children are no longer employed in the pyrotechnics industry. I'm not so sure now).
So I never buy the "bad" fireworks. No bombs, no strings of crackers. Half a dozen flowerpots (fountains or anaar, as some people call them) maybe, because, well, they're so pretty and exciting. A couple of chakras (Catherine Wheels) - not a lot, because most of them whizz out too quickly or in inappropriate directions. I don't buy rockets at all, mainly because I am scared of lighting them, but I ooh and aah with the rest of you when I see them light up the night sky. And so of course, I buy sparklers.
Because sparklers are harmless! A little light, a little smoke, safe enough for a toddler to hold, and oh, it's like holding a shooting star in your hand! Harmless! Right?
But now these photographs, of what seems to be a middle-aged man, busy at work, making those lovely sparklers.
I do not know if he is really middle-aged, or if life has just made him look that way. And then I think about how chuffed I was just last week when someone assumed I was twenty years younger than I am.
I look at his skinny body coated silver like those chubby cherub statues. I wonder how easily it washes off, and how much gets into his pores. And then I think about long I stand in the aisle at Health & Glow, trying to decide if aloe vera or cocoa butter or Vitamin E should be the main ingredient in my body lotion.
I see that he has no shoes, no gloves, no mask. I wonder how much of what is on his outside is getting into his inside, if he knows what a good deep breath feels like, if he can even smell the sulphur any more, how long before his lungs pack up, how many years before he won't be able to work because he'll be dead. And then I think about how I agonise over the effects of the cigarette smoke that I inhale of my own free will, and how I worriedly put the windows up and turn on the AC to filter out the dust and smells when I'm stuck in my car in a traffic jam.
And worst of all, absolutely worst of all, I see on his face a look of concentration.
He is doing his job.
He is doing it to feed himself, and perhaps a family. He is doing it because he knows how, and because it will pay - not a lot, obviously, judging from his physique and wardrobe (or lack of). He is not making a career choice. He's just doing what he thinks he must, in order to survive.
I'm going to put him out of a job. It's a job that's only made necessary by my desire to hold shooting stars in my hand. How will he eat, some may ask? There are other jobs, I should reply, and it is both my job and his to make sure he finds them. How can I ever again laugh with joy as I draw circles in the air with a piece of burning wire, a cheap little sparkler that costs me so little and costs him so much?
Good bye, sparklers. I did so love you. But I simply can't be an accessory to manslaughter. So good bye.
But hey - hello, Diwali! A real Diwali this time, a festival not of noise or smoke or celebrating at the cost of someone else's life, but a festival of light. Some shopping, some sharing. Some mit'hai, some khaara. Celebrating with friends whose festival this is, and bringing a little celebration to those who can't afford it themselves. And two diyas at my doorstep, to symbolise my desire for light and knowledge to enter my home. It could be my brightest Diwali ever.
Happy Diwali, everyone. Let go of the sparkle. Let the light in.
beedi - tobacco rolled in a tobacco leaf and smoked like a filterless cigarette
chakra - spinning wheel
mit'hai - sweet
khaara - savoury
diya - oil lamp, traditionally made of clay
diwali - rows of lighted lamps (from the Sanskrit deepa + aavali)