IT’S Diwali and my mind goes back to the old days when our parents and children lived with us. For weeks, the house would be busy with spring cleaning, shopping for new clothes and the kitchen occupied with making sweets and savouries to be shared with visitors. In those days, it was a mark of sloppiness and shame to offer shop-bought ‘nashta’. More importantly, it was considered a waste of hard-earned money. We grumbled privately at the enormous strain this put on our energy and envied all those better-off friends who came laden with expensive boxes of sweets and fruit baskets to wish us on the occasion.
Long ago, we had decided that sweets and fruit was where we would draw the line, no silver gift items, booze or shawls and so on would be accepted. Soon, word went round that my husband was a peculiar brand of bureaucrat who resolutely refused expensive Diwali and Christmas gifts. Privately, we envied those who had no such qualms but now when I see what passes off as Diwali ‘gifts’, I laugh at the modest things we were offered. When we first came to Delhi, my husband was posted in the Ministry of Defence, on what was called the Bofors desk, to clean up the mess that had led to the biggest scandal of that time. His boss, the redoubtable NN Vohra, was feared across continents and political parties for his rectitude and firmness. Naturally, not a single arms dealer or supplier of goods to the Army was allowed access to South Block where the MoD was situated. Despite this, many tried other means of coming over: a social call at Diwali was considered kosher but that was it.
Come now to the present times. Few have such qualms. As I read and hear the hysterical charges being exchanged on social media between a certain firebrand MP and the gifts she allegedly demanded and accepted, I am aghast. The lifestyle of such people no longer evokes any questions or censure. No one asks how politicians and officers who came from humble homes now live more lavishly than the erstwhile princes and rulers of feudal India. Once, even those who came from affluent backgrounds lived a life of austerity. They wore khadi and avoided showing off their jewels and mink coats. Even those who came from royal families led by example. Khadi is now worn by those old fogies who are sneered at and the new power-wielders and brokers shamelessly buy shoes and bags that would keep an OBC parivar happy through the year. The sin, apparently, lies in being caught.
Thankfully, we will be dead and gone by the time the next generation takes over this country but, seriously, how much is enough?
There are many among us whose hearts bleed for the victims of poverty in our own country and for those suffering the cruelty of the war in Gaza. Yet, apart from holding candlelight vigils or giving fiery speeches in Parliament and elsewhere, have you heard of anyone offering to collect clothes, medicines or blankets for the victims of war or for those villages in Nepal that have been devastated by two back-to-back earthquakes? All of us are guilty of forwarding posts on WhatsApp about human suffering and war victims in the name of humanitarian gestures.
To turn to more cheerful matters, come to the life-threatening levels of pollution in Delhi. Our brave Chief Minister and his faithful Sancho Panza, the Chief Minister of Punjab, chose to tilt at windmills in remote Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh where few even recognise them, abandoning their posts in the two states that have contributed the most to the suffocating conditions in the national capital. Predictably, when cornered, they chose to blame everyone else to absolve themselves of criminal negligence. So it is Haryana, UP, the Central government rather than the lack of pollution control measures here and in Punjab that have worked to poison Delhi. Does anyone even believe such lies?
Schools are shut, people put to great hardship as car movement is restricted and hefty penalties imposed giving rent-seekers the best Diwali gift they could have wished for. Traffic policemen lurk everywhere, demanding to see papers and issue challans (if you give me a bribe, they openly say, I’ll let you go), making commuters and delivery vans shiver in their boots.
Finally, some good news: the Tata LitFest award for the best non-fiction title went to Sara Rai’s ‘Raw Umber’, a whimsical memoir of her family and an exquisite portrait of Banaras and Allahabad. Sara writes her fiction in Hindi-Urdu but this is her first book in English. I urge all my readers to pick it up for I have seldom come across such elegant, pared-down prose and the emotional sub-text that she manages to fuse so effortlessly. Sara is Premchand’s granddaughter and I have known her since she was a little schoolgirl in Allahabad. Quiet, with big eyes behind her glasses, she speaks little but observes every detail of nature, human beings and her own mind with a sharpness that is rare. I am currently translating her short stories. Actually, we are doing them jointly since she is a fine translator herself, and savouring her writing as I would korma where the spices are subtle, the mutton cuts perfectly chosen and the dish cooked lovingly on a slow fire.
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