How the pandemic has led to finding deeper meaning to the Festival of Lights
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Let me be frank, any attempt to sweeten this will just get me knotted up like sutherfeni on a bad hair day. Unlike many, who bemoan the disruption of Diwali celebrations due to the global coronavirus pandemic, I have embraced the change and found deeper meaning to the Festival of Lights.
Unpopular opinion, but I do have time for more fruitful activities now that I no longer spend at least a month tracking the price of butter, or slaving away in a sweetmeat production line.
Mixing, stirring, churning, and beating enough butter, ghee, and sugar, to send an invading hoard into a diabetic coma, Diwali was always a mission.
The pandemic, however, forced a change of perspective, a re-evaluation of priorities, as we stared our own mortality in the face.
With the world suddenly closing in, the walls of our houses drew uncomfortably tight, enveloping us in a new normal that drowned out the old, in a wave of alcohol-heavy sanitisers, disinfectants, and hand washes.
Wading through the daily quagmire of antibodies, anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers was tough, but I also discovered a new me in this scary place.
Home became life central. Work, live, play and pray – all at the same address. Family interactions changed, no one was blowing out candles on birthday cakes and boisterous festive celebrations were dramatically muted.
I’ve always loved Diwali, but not for the obvious reasons. As a child, I was transfixed by story behind the Festival of Lights – the gallant Prince Ram (the Hindu God Vishnu in human form) who'd endured 14 years of exile in a forest, his beautiful wife Sita, who was kidnapped by a demon king, and the famous battle to save her that resultedin the destruction of an entire kingdom. We were told this story at school, at home, and at places of worship. It always ended with a triumphant Ram returning with his wife – his path home lit by thousands of clay lamps, signalling the triumph of light over dark.
It was only as an adult that I learnt that the Ramayana, the holy book from which the story was recited, did not quite end there.
And the lessons from its closing chapters are what I now pore over with my children, instead of engaging in butter battles and sweetmeat sufferance.
Through these little-celebrated chapters, we learnt about the incredible resilience of women in the face of patriarchy, unsupportive family, and unjust society.
When Sita returned with her husband after 14 years in the forest – post Ram’s victorious slaying of the demon king Ravana and the torching of his kingdom Lanka – she was pregnant.
A kidnapping victim, who had been held captive by Ravana for some time, she had to publicly prove she was untouched by the demon king, by literally walking through fire. She was not burnt and, therefore, declared pure.
However, this did not stop malicious rumours and soon Ram was told that one of his subjects had publicly questioned Sita’s virtue. Instead of defending his wife or discussing his concerns with her, he ordered his brother Laxman to leave Sita alone in the forest.
Ram’s twin sons, Luv and Kush were born in a hermitage.They grew up hearing stories of their father, but did not meet him until much later.
When Sita reunited with Ram, after years of silence, humiliation and pain, she was once again asked to prove her purity. In a surprise twist, she flatly refused. Rather, she asked Mother Earth to open up and swallow her. Clearly, enough was enough.
Away from the madness, we learnt poignant lessons from the complete story of Diwali – respect for the dignity of women, the pitfalls of suffering in silence, finding your voice in a world of repression, and having the courage of your convictions.
Covid-19 took away many liberties, but it brought home some very important things. We had to evolve to survive. With the world changing at such a rapid pace, who knows what awaits us around the next corner.
The only sure thing is that we’ll always be looking for light to defeat the dark.
This article was first published in the latest IOL Food Digimag. Read it here