The happiest memories of my life are connected with the festival of Dipawali even though I hate the deafening noise and air pollution that comes from Diwali crackers.
Ever since I came of age, Diwali was never an occasion for partying. It meant putting aside everything and everyone else to be with my parents for the evening puja and join my mother in singing the aarti. Even today, the sound of my mother's simple rendering of the aarti is for me the most melodious and divine sound in the entire world. After the puja when my mother would distribute gifts to all of us, in my eyes she looked like Lakshmi incarnate.
Ever since my mother left this world, Diwali is not a festival I can "celebrate" but I make sure to perform the evening puja as a ritual to keep alive and cherish her memory.
Right from my childhood whenever I sat down for Diwali puja, a question that invariably nagged me has come to bother me even more today: Why is it that Diwali puja involves worshipping Lakshmi only in her avatar as the goddess of wealth? How come she has become the most popular pan Indian goddess? As per tradition, even on Diwali, along with Vighnaharta (obstacle remover) Ganesh, Mahalakshmi is supposed to be worshipped in her three avatars-Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, Mahakali, the goddess of infinite energy representing the Primeval Force of the Universe as well as destroyer of evil and Mahasaraswati, the goddess of wisdom, knowledge, beauty, purity and arts. The puja is supposed to include worship of books as symbols of the goddess of wisdom and knowledge.
But at least in North India, most families confine their worship to propitiating the goddess of wealth alone. The place of knowledge-giving books has been monopolized by bahikhatas or account books. Those who have moved beyond the stage of old style manually bahikhatas place cheque books and passbooks at the feet of the goddess in the hope of being blessed with fatter bank balances.
During Navaratras, the popularity of Durga Puja matches the fanfare of Lakshmi Puja. But the goddess of wisdom, purity, knowledge and arts has been so marginalized in popular consciousness that her worship has been confined to select few communities and is treated as a low key affair. In North India in particular, very few families even remember the special day dedicated to her worship. I don't ever remember TV channels devoting even 5 minutes to Saraswati Puja day even though Lakshmi and Durga Puja are given extensive coverage for days on end.
This change warns us of the deep cultural and civilizational crisis we are collectively responsible for. The tradition of worshipping Mahalakshmi, Maha Saraswati and Mahakali together reminds us that earning wealth and bringing material prosperity for one's family can be considered a sacred duty of every householder only as long as money is earned through honest and just means. Furthermore, that wealth must not be directed only towards self consumption but used for promoting knowledge, beauty, arts and the finest cultural values in society. The joint worship also reminds us that wealth earned through dishonest, corrupt means or through evil acts may bring material comforts but cannot bring happiness and peace.
Those who have severed their connection with Ma Saraswati will have no compunction in selling adulterated foods, spurious medicines and other harmful products or looting the public exchequer. Those who see earning wealth as an end in itself may think nothing of pouring poisonous effluents from their industries into our holy rivers. They may succeed in amassing huge wealth but they forget that if their children have internalized the sanskar that money is all that matters, no matter how foul the means through which it is acquired, they are likely to witness their children fight each other to doom and destruction over property. Such children will not even hesitate to cheat their parents of their wealth or turn their backs on their siblings or parents once they have lost money.
Those who earn money through foul means are far more likely to spend it in foul ways. Money earned through honest hard work is not likely to be blown up in drugs, decadent lifestyle or prostitution. A home where Ma Saraswati reigns supreme is unlikely to produce daughters who get seduced by luxurious lifestyles into becoming call girls nor are sons of such families likely to turn rapists or wife beaters.
Those who earn money through honest hard work are not likely to celebrate Diwali by getting so drunk that they become a nuisance for their family or blow up thousands of rupees in firecrackers that produce deafening sound and fill the air with poisonous fumes. People who have lost connection with Ma Saraswati are the only ones who are unmindful of the fact that the Goddess, no matter what her avatar, does not like ugly noises and uncouth behavior.
Many people find it odd that on the auspicious day of Diwali after Lakshmi puja, it is customary for people to play cards -flush and rummy in particular--and gamble money. The tradition of gambling on Diwali has a legend behind it. It is believed that on this day, Goddess Parvati played dice with her husband Lord Shiva and she decreed that whosoever gambled on Diwali night would prosper throughout the ensuing year. I like it that our gods and goddesses are not goody goody and enjoy naughty things like gambling, smoking ganja and playing pranks.
In my view, the tradition of gambling on Diwali night is a necessary counterbalance to the excessive worship of the goddess of wealth on that day. This ritual may well be meant as a reminder that Lakshmi is intrinsically "chanchal". She does not like to stay in one place or remain locked up. Those who get unduly attached to her can never find peace. She comes and goes at her will. Therefore, it is best to treat her casually and avoid grieving when she departs.
Most important of all, life itself is a Big Gamble. In this gamble, who wins and who loses is of far less consequence than the ability to play the game with all one's heart and conviction. The wealthy often labour under the illusion that their material success is a product of their greater intelligence. No one knows it better than a gambler that the coming and going of money is mostly a matter of luck.
I am by no means recommending that we all become gamblers. I have never gambled for money in my life, nor do I know to play big time card games. But I have certainly practiced the art of treating each day of my life as a gamble; take big and small risks as a routine matter without a thought. As far as money is concerned, my mother would often tell me, "Even if you don't worship Lakshmi, you should at least not be disrespectful towards her." As a child if I dropped money on the street, I would not bend to pick it up with the naïve thought that somebody needier will find it. I would lose a good part of my pocket money because I would carelessly slip the notes in this or that copybook, never to find them again.
Even after I grew up, I never keep count of how much money I am carrying in my wallet so that when I lose it I will not know what to grieve for simply because I don't have a count of how much I lost. Even at home, I have no count of things I possess so that if certain things disappear I am not likely to notice unless they are items of daily use. There was a time when one of my office peons with whom I kept my chequebook and passbook kept withdrawing a good part of my modest lecturer's salary from my bank account by forging my signatures without my realizing that money was missing--all because I never look at my passbook. This 9th class fail boy had learnt to forge my signatures so well that even I would have cleared cheques signed by him. He was caught not by me but by a vigilant bank clerk because one day he played over smart and tried to withdraw my entire salary using not a "self" cheque but using the name of one of my female colleagues on a bearer cheque.
My mother used to laugh at my habit of losing things by saying: "You are lucky your hands, arms, nose, ears etc. are firmly stuck to your body. Otherwise, one day you would come back without an ear, another day without an arm and so on." I wonder why she never scolded me even when I lost her expensive shawls or gold jewelry.
Goddess Lakshmi has been kinder to me than I deserve and over the years I have learnt not to disrespect money. But Ma Saraswati has blessed me by keeping my attachment to material goods very low. She taught me to live by a simple motto: what is destined to be mine will not be stolen or taken away from me. What is not destined to stay with me is bound to go no matter how careful I am in protecting it. This is as true for my attachment to people as to things.
But there is one attachment I cannot get over or even bring down to manageable levels-that is my attachment to my mother. This is the 10th Diwali I have to bear without her. I wish on this day I could be so far away from India that there is no one to remind me of this festival. I light a lamp in her memory every single day. I miss her with every breath I take. But the pain of her loss on Diwali day is especially unbearable. Nothing in the world can fill the vacuum she left. No place can feel like home where she is not present. I may not have the heart to celebrate Diwali but I make it a point to do a quiet puja to honour her memory. How I wish I had tape recorded the aarti she sang in her uniquely peaceful divine voice.
An abridged version of this piece was originally written in Hindi for Dainik Bhaskar.
May be that is why it is so soppy and sentimental.