CHENNAI: A little over eight years ago, when I decided to stop burning firecrackers, resistance came from close quarters. My father, a ‘seasoned firecracker burner’, was disgruntled by the decision. “This is the first time in 50-odd years when I haven’t burned a single piece of cracker…not even a bijili!,” he’d mumble under his breath.
While ripping him off the joy of displaying a visual spectacle — laced with decibel hell and clouded sheets of smoke — did cause sudden bursts of arguments, it was worth it. I was no more the reason for the neighbour’s dogs to hide and shudder under the bed; for the strays to bolt from the exploding sound of a 10,000 wala and birds to leave their shelter, or for the blanket of smoke that consumed the city every Deepavali.
Ever since, I have thanked my moral compass for guiding me and stuck to the choice I’d made. Ahead of the festival, curious, I reach out to fellow Chennaiites, who’ve been celebrating a nocracker Deepavali to get a glimpse of their journey dotted with myriad reasons, causes and perspectives.
A meditative affair
In 2000, after moving to Chennai from Hong Kong, author Jaya Narain Mahbubani and her family celebrated their first Deepavali with fanfare. “We went over the top, bought a lot of crackers, and relived the festival the way we used to. But, by the next year, our children said they didn’t want to burn firecrackers anymore. This was in the wake of the news of child labour in the factories of Sivakasi. We decided not to celebrate while other children were struggling in grim conditions,” says Jaya, whose family hasn’t indulged in bursting crackers for more than 15 years.
“Over time, I’ve increasingly noticed that several like-minded people too have been disenchanted with the burning of crackers – keeping in mind the harm it causes to the ecosystem and people who are vulnerable,” she shares. Now, the festival of lights has become a meditative affair for the family. “We light a few agarbattis and diyas, each of us share a few positive words and soak in silence for few minutes. That’s how we celebrate the festival,” she adds, reminding us of possible alternatives to keep the tradition alive.
A fruitful festival
With more than two generations growing up bursting crackers, being mindful of its harmful imprint comes with a lot of effort. Reminding the previous and future generations that not bursting crackers, even for a day, has the potential to ebb away pollution and help people, including those with asthma and cardiovascular conditions take refreshing breaths that are not marred by toxic fumes, is eight-year-old Prasiddhi Singh, an eco-warrior and fruit forest creator.
“Though I decided to quit bursting crackers about two decades ago, my daughter, Prasiddhi, gave me a new reason to renew the decision. Until then, my husband used to buy small quantities of crackers. Five years ago, when she embarked on a journey to create fruit forests in schools and public spaces, our perspectives changed too,” says Stuti, Prasiddhi’s mother.
The family has been ushering the festival of lights by donating saplings, conducting plantation drives and campaigning for the environment. “Prasiddhi believes that change starts from home and she often has conversations with cousins and other relatives about the importance of becoming ecoconscious. Despite several campaigns, some continue to burst it. But, bringing about a change is a process and we hope to reach there soon,” she adds.
Waking up before sunrise, taking an oil bath, picking his favourite cracker from the heap and bursting it along with his cousins is what Deepavali meant to Kaarthic RS until he turned 15. “Deepavali meant family time and congregation of relatives. But soon, with everyone becoming busy with their lives, meeting each other during the festival became close to impossible and the number of crackers dwindled. Almost at the same time, I came across a documentary about forced child labour in Sivakasi. It made me rethink my choices.
But, I also thought about how it would affect the makers of these crackers, the dealers and shop owners if we stopped. Eventually, I decided to call it quits. Fortunately, it didn’t take too much convincing at home. My parents were on board and my younger brother, who was — at the time — a part of the Rotary Club in school and campaigning for a smokeless and noiseless Deepavali, decided to do his bit by not bursting crackers,” shares the 26-year-old.
For the pet lover, the vile behaviour of some merrymakers against strays, during the festival, has become irksome, and it was one of the reasons that mooted him to take the plunge. Concurring, Venba Karthik*, a 20-something-old journalist, who has pressed the stop button on bursting crackers tells that such aggressive human behaviour, among other reasons, led her to turn away from fireworks.
“I’ve always enjoyed bursting crackers; I look at it as a way to take the tradition forward and help the livelihoods of the makers. So, buying crackers was always a part and parcel of celebrations. But over the years, with plummeting interest and reasons pertaining to animal welfare, I decided to not indulge in it,” she reveals.
Need for an alternative
Actor and entrepreneur Shylaja Chetlur, who — over the past seven years — has turned spectator to the visual spectacle while taking a stance to protect the environment and four-legged friends during the festival, calls for an alternative; a community initiative to celebrate the festival in an undiluted manner.
“The tradition should have evolved in a better way with changing times. The aesthetics of these festivals have to be kept intact and we have to come up with new solutions to celebrate it, keeping safety and the spirit of the festival in mind,” she says.