I say this without hesitation: Diwali is one of my favourite festivals. It’s one of those occasions when you feel the warm, enclosing presence of your elders—it’s like your whole history and culture is there with you. Protecting you, making you who you are in so many ways. My cousins, Mama, Mami, Nana, Nani and parents all collect to spend the evening together. We’re all dressed in our best clothes and moods...so are our houses, which look beautiful after dusk! One of my favourite memories is sitting on the floor with Mami as she creates a beautiful rangoli pattern. I take a pinch of colour between my fingers and make a smaller design next to hers. My lines and figures come out all shaky, but everyone recognises it as mine and looks proud. We children fill our hand-painted diyas with oil and go outside with Nana and light them all around the house. The soft flickering on the faces, lit by the moving light of the diya—that’s the special picture that always stays with you.
Diwali is one of the rare days when we all sit together to pray. Nana is in charge and we all watch as he washes the coins and tiny idols in milk, with a plate of fruits and sweets placed on the side. We will each come forward as he puts a red tika with rice grains on our forehead. Nani and Mami will lead us as we sing the prayer song. In the end, we all get to choose something from the plate of sweets.
Then the peace is shattered by the loud burst of firecrackers. Smoke fills the air outside and we can barely see anything anymore. My mother will come to me with a cotton dupatta and wrap it around my nose and mouth. Even with those protective layers, it gets to me. I will still go home coughing and will stay in bed the next day.
The thing that sucks about having childhood asthma is that it gives you a really low immunity and the smallest thing will start you coughing and give you the sniffles. A change of season, even.
You go through your life with the ever-present awareness of one fact: your lungs are weak.
Everybody celebrates outside, while I have to stay indoors with my Nani because my body simply can’t handle it. When we get home, late at night, my nose is blocked, my throat is burning and my eyes are red and watery. We all know that I will not be able to sleep tonight. I sit up in bed, unable to get comfortable. I keep sniffing, and I have scratches on my nose from how long they have been rubbed by my handkerchief. I breathe from my mouth. Reading is not an option: I cannot focus on anything. Everybody else is exhausted. They don’t have the energy to stay up with me. I grab pillows and prop myself up. I drift in and out of sleep, waking up coughing. The next morning I am tired, frustrated and very irritated. My body is not getting the oxygen it needs.
It takes time for that feeling to go. A series of events have to be gone through first. We make that inevitable trip to our doctor. My parents talk about leaving Delhi the next Diwali, and travelling to the mountains instead. As it gets to be time to return to school, I know I may not be able to. Just like I know that all my classmates are going to come back with stories of adventures they had during the break. I want to talk about mine too.
Simply stated, getting sick during a festival you’re supposed to be enjoying feels awful.
Not that it could make me feel any better, but all of Delhi seems to be going asthmatic, in a way. This city has a disturbingly large number of people suffering from breathing disorders. It is among the most polluted cities in the world. It is also among the most populated, meaning a large amount of people get affected.
Child labour goes into making these firecrackers. Kids have been working under horrible conditions, just so their families have something to eat. If not having crackers means people will be able to breathe, then why shouldn’t we get rid of them? Diwali isn’t a competition of how much noise you make and how many crackers you burst. Diwali isn’t just a festival that gives you a couple of holidays. It’s a festival about coming home. It’s a time of peace, a time of unity. A time that reunites families. A time when you put away your gadgets and talk to each other. Share jokes and laugh. It reminds people of the love they have for the world, and the love the world has for them.
(The writer is a 14-year-old student at a Noida school)