Thursday, October 25, 2012

THE PRICE OF FAITH

Much water has flowed past the banks of the Yamuna since I last wrote this, and yet not a lot over here... no, that would be unfair, but yes, definitely not enough has changed since.

Undoubtedly, there are more who care and more who know and understand about all that I have to say, and yet there would be places that you and I would know of, where we still partake of sins in the name of God. So here’s a reminder for us to do all we can, where we can, to ensure that the spirit of faith and the joy of celebration are not marred with the stain of death and the guilt of decimation... Shubho Pujo!

Perhaps it is too late. By the time you read this page, all those who sin on our behalf would have already sinned in the name of God. But as they say, better late than never…

It is that time of the year again when the Kash flowers sway in the autumn light and the Probashi (non-resident) Bengali spirit gets a second wind. It is that time of the year when the Mother Goddess returns to Pandals and homes across the country for a four-day-long celebration of divinity and cultural character – it is the time for Durga Puja. Every year, there is a child in me who waits for these days of the Puja like a farmer waiting for the rain, and yet for the last two years though, I must confess that my celebrations have always been tempered with a tinge of guilt.

Two years ago, I came across an article in an environmental magazine about the terrible damage that the Durga idols cause to our river systems when they are immersed into the rivers after Dussehra. Both these years, I thought I should do something about the issue and yet every year I would go no further than discussing the issue with a couple of DPCs (Durga Puja Committees) and sharing my concerns while the venerable old men heading these committees would nod sagely and say “Shoththi kotha khoka… what you say is true son, but what to do…? Such are the times we live in,” and with that, we both would wash our hands off the matter and carry on with our respective Puja preparations.

But this year I wanted to do more…

Durga idols are legitimate works of art. Tuft s of straw, a pile of bamboo and dollops of clay (thankfully still a far more popular medium than plaster of Paris which though easier to work with, pollutes the river systems unlike clay) blend under the artisan’s masterful touch and lo and behold, there stands in front of you an image that reflects both beauty and beatitude. Now somewhere in the middle of this artistic process, the artisan, who in all probability descends from a family of idol-makers, dips his paintbrush into a jar of chemical laden paint to add colour to his creation and it is this paint that happens to be the villain of the piece. These paints carry toxic chemicals like lead, mercury and cadmium and tonnes and tonnes of these pollutants enter our river systems during every Durga Puja and Ganesh Utsav. But so what, you say? Well, whatever we put in our rivers, lakes and oceans flows right back to us through our taps. And if not the taps, you’ll find traces of these very toxins in the fish you might buy from the market in your neighbourhood, because in all probability, the fish must have been half-dead with all the poisons we poured into its habitat before the fisherman caught it and sold it back to you. And what do these noxious elements do to our bodies, you ask? If you must know, they usually come up with various ingenious ways in which they could cause organ damage and failure in our bodies. Convincing logic, I would’ve thought but I knew not much would come of my attempts to talk to some of the DPC members I was familiar with. Neither was there any point in speaking to the civic authorities. Traditionally, they have been far too timid to confront communities on anything which might sniff of anything remotely religious and expecting them to implement whatever rules there might be was asking for too much off even one as na├»ve as yours truly.

So the only red hands left to hold were those of the artisans themselves, so off I went to ask them what they felt about the issue. When I entered the thatch and tarpaulin structure that was both studio and home for these industrious folk it was late evening. I could see a handful of artists working on more than thirty idols of various dimensions by the light of a single naked bulb. Seeing these simple folk work so hard and with such apparent devotion, I felt a tad guilty about accusing them of all the horrible things their actions were undoubtedly setting in motion. But when I did talk to them, instead of getting defensive, the boss-man on the floor, a lean and grey old man with a single betel-stained tooth in his mouth ‘smiled’ and assured me that they only used natural and vegetable dyes to paint these idols and were totally aware of the environmental hazards associated with lead laden paints. What could I say…? I felt relieved… and happy. At least in one locality, there was a conscientious environmental movement afoot, and at the very least, this was a start. I walked around the ‘workshop’, admired the idols in various stages of completion and was about to leave when tucked away under a stack of straw I spied three cans of a popular brand of chemical paint. I realized that the only simpleton under this roof was me and when I asked single-tooth gran’pa about the paint cans, he just put on his ‘I’m just a poor ignorant fool’ mask and said “Oh… but I was told this is natural paint… isn’t it? Who to trust in the city, babu…” Well, the wily old man was not going to be the ally I was looking for either. Looks like I started my crusade a little too late this year, so yet again the Yamuna will cough and choke and leak lead right back into our homes, but I have an action plan ready for next year. Here’s how this works… I happened to meet two of my friends, one in south Delhi and the other in east Delhi, both influential members of their local DPCs, and they have promised to take up the cause in their respective committees next year. Additionally, they have promised to allow me into their review meetings and all meetings for next year, where I could try and convince the committee to insist on an eco-friendly idol like some of the Ganesh Utsav committees in Mumbai this year. Dear reader, you too ought to try and do your bit to sensitise and convince your local DPC because the river we eventually pollute with our callousness is actually the one that runs in our veins.

And while we are at it, maybe we should also insist and ensure that the dhakis, traditional professional drummers who play at Durga Puja pandals, only decorate their drums with artificial feathers. Until I read an article in the Hindustan Times, I had always assumed that these tall and beautiful plumes gracing the drums were artificial. But the article revealed that thousands of egrets and storks are trapped and killed to provide plumes for the drums (about four birds are killed for each drum). Such brutality for the sake of vanity will surely not find divine sanction and if our celebrations cause such misery and pain, surely such joys would be short-lived. And if some of you are wondering, then what of animal sacrifices at festivals, I would only repeat that if there is a God, then our act of destroying what He created can cause Him no joy. But that is a debate for another occasion… for now, let us just ensure that our celebrations remain events that spread happiness and good cheer and not pollutants and fear…

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