Who will have a ‘happy’ Diwali this year? Not many, I am afraid
Happy Diwali to those who can still celebrate the festival without feeling any pain and worrying about the future. But barring ruling party politicians, very few are having fun this year
As I trot out for the first time in months to nearby markets for some Diwali shopping, I realise the usual fun is missing from the season. There are some crowds milling about the shops but there is hardly anything on the shelves, be it garments or grocery stores. Whatever is available in clothes is either outdated or even not worth the pricey labels; in groceries the quality is poor and the freshness is missing. There are just shrugs if you complain, the usual enthusiasm among the salespersons is also missing - indeed many of the familiar and favourite salespersons themselves are missing.
There are other random incidents that tell me this Diwali will be no fun for many more people in the country. A friend who was limping at the airport and got helped by the housekeeping staff to board a cart up to the gate tried to tip the helpful man. Usually, they accepted tips with alacrity but this man refused, "We are not allowed," he told her, "We could be sacked If we are caught. "
Then he added something that shook her up badly “I am not going to give up a 10000 Rupee job for a hundred-Rupee tip. If they kick me out of here, there are no jobs going anywhere else. I have a family to feed.”
Across professions and cities, my sister received the same response from a mobile company executive who came on a home visit to fix her wi-fi. He did hot have change for the cash she handed to him and he suggested he stroll across to the nearby market and get some small change.
“I hope you will not tun away with my change,” she said jokingly but she was taken aback by the seriousness with which he took it,
“Where will I go, Madam? You can always track me back to my company. There are no jobs going and I must earn to eat.”
Then there was this caretaker who found herself without work for months during the Covid crisis – no one would risk employing maids who travelled by public transport and with entire families confined indoors, firstly it was too crowded to add another member to the household and then there were enough free and idle people to take care of any needy individual.
She decided to return to the village and help her brother with his farming. Soon the reasons why she had migrated to the city in search of work in the first place became obvious – even if her labour was free, there was not much return on the crops and not enough to go around for an additional mouth to feed. She is back to the city in search of work that still does not exist.
Then there is the case of my middle-class neighbour, who had a happy living tutoring children in the neighbourhood. She lost all but one student during the Covid crisis as mothers forced to sit at home found more time to take up their childrens' homework. So, she decided to supply food to these mothers but it is not a very thriving business because everybody now has time to cook and despite reopenings, most offices have not and lunch still gets cooked at home.
A friend’s son, an MBA who was an executive in an automobile company found himself jobless when the company downsized its staff. Even before the Covid crisis, production was declining as inventories were rising because there were no sales. Then they began working alternate days to save cost on electricity and canteen expenditure for staff. The writing on the wall was thus visible even before the lockdown and when restrictions were lifted the company decided India was not worth the trouble any more. My friend's son decided to go into small business himself and now is burning his soles going door to door to sell his product himself. My friend, who thought she had raised a smart top executive, is agonised seeing him turn himself into a salesman.
So, happy Diwali all for even oil is so expensive this season that friends and neighbours have cut down on their lights by half. Firecracker stalls seem understocked and the usual painters and cleaners are returning disappointed from homes which have neither the resources nor the energy to undertake the usual Diwali renovation this year.
I also notice that among those who have resources to stretch have decided to save funds for their childrens' migration abroad. I know of someone who stopped her son from going abroad for higher studies some years ago. "I know what will happen; he will find a job there, perhaps even an angrezi memsaab will never return. He will be lost to me forever,” she had said. Today it is she who is urging him to migrate.
When I expressed surprise at her changed attitude, she said "Ultimately it is about my son. This is no country for the young. There is no future for him here."
So, happy Diwali, India. In just seven years, we have gone from a relative period of prosperity and affluence to hand to mouth existence fraught with all sorts of comedowns and indignities. I do not know who is happy this Diwali – I have known seasons when businesses might have faced some recession but were generally able to make good on the basics for all classes of society.
This season I see many more people grumble that they just want Diwali to come and go so that they can stop spending and think about how to maximise their earnings and save for future exigencies.
So, in seven short years from a happy Diwali to not such a happy one, the journey has been awful. My hats off to people who can accomplish such reversals without undergoing pain themselves.
May they too have very happy Diwali.
(The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald, Mumbai. Views are personal)