I looked out the window and my heart fluttered. The sun had set, leaving behind the usual brightness of city lights that seemed soft and shadowy in the presence of seemingly endless strings of green and orange fairy lights, that lay like a blanket over the bushes in the garden and snaked around the trunk of a lone standing tree and the stems of two graceful palms.
A rather literal representation of Diwali, the festival of light(s), I thought. The version of the Diwali story that my sister and I heard repeatedly as children was narrated by our grandmother, and what I recall is the return of the noble couple, Rama and Sita, who preserved virtue and reigned over greed and avarice despite indescribable hardship.
To welcome virtue and the noble couple into our home, our grandmother lit twenty-one small earthen diyas (cups) with ghee (clarified butter) and a cotton wick, as do most households even today, then why the need for twinkling strands of electricity?
This year loud noise and smoke from fireworks and the ocular disturbance of electric lights coincides with the cry of the scientific community and of youth activists to cut emissions and to change radically our ways of production and consumption as the planet heats up.
My eyes looked at the fairy lights and they read the notifications that appeared on my phone about commitments being made at COP26 (Conference of the Parties, a UN conference on climate change)—simultaneous realities that highlighted the co-existence of darkness and light. It occurred to me that the noble and ignoble simply share space.
Is it not possible however, that there can be a little more light and a lot less darkness, of the kind that Diwali symbolises without the electric spectacle?
Each year, as festivities begin, I rant about what we are doing to the planet and oftentimes I send a strongly-worded message to the Managing Committee at our apartment building. This year, I chose differently. I inclined towards an inclusive stand: a little more (light of wisdom) and a lot less (darkness of ignorance), please!
I requested Management to turn off the fairy lights at midnight, when almost all residents are asleep. They agreed, only to turn the lights back on at 5AM before dawn, when people start stepping down for their morning exercise. Not perfect, but at least a five-hour respite had been made available to those having to bear the worst brunt of this light show. A sight we easily escape by drawing the curtains or pulling down the blinds.
Did I just compromise my idealism or did I learn for the first time to apply it correctly? Is idealism not about fighting all odds to get to the perfect outcome? Is it not about striving for perfection? I didn’t know this at the time, but the recent negotiation was the outcome of a new perspective: Idealism is about continuing to care despite all odds, allowing what we care about to alter our life. No longer the ranting reformist, I was transforming into a tolerant “inclusivist”, grateful for every experience of peaceful accord.
This was the second in a series of realisations and negotiations that happened over two weeks. The first was on a Saturday morning, when I sprinted to catch a bus. After twenty-five years of resisting the growing crowds in my city, I found that I was unable to get into the car and power my way to my favourite cafe at a distance of 13-kilometres or 8-miles. And so I ran, like Lola.
In the 1998 experimental thriller, Lola had twenty-minutes to save her boyfriend, I had less than a minute to run to the bus stop to catch the bus, which was at a red light about 300-metres from the stop.
Just in time, I climbed onboard, and was told that the bus was going to a bus depot a little farther from where I boarded. I disembarked at the next stop and learned that only one bus halted there. Who knew how long before a relatively empty bus would show up? With hungry friends waiting for breakfast and to relish a reunion after eight months, passivity was not an option. I walked at a brisk pace, unconcerned by sweat and crowds, focused on making it quickly to the next stop. As I walked the distance of a kilometre or 0.62-miles, I watched three buses to my destination speed by.
Finally, I reached the desired bus stop and waited patiently for the bus; ten-minutes later it arrived. I climbed the three steps, thinking it’s time these buses got ramps: realities change and realities are varied, to design for a single reality is flawed.
I walked to the front thankful that unlike the buses I had missed, this one had vacant seats. Sitting by the window, I felt the air circulate and all trace of mugginess was erased from my skin and memory. I looked out at signboards of institutional stores in narrow lanes of old Bombay: gems of typography and style, hidden by huge facades of modernity, made distance and time irrelevant.
My friends weren’t at the cafe yet. They had delayed their arrival in anticipation of my bus adventure. I was far from bothered as I got a table and ordered an almond-milk cappuccino. On the contrary, I was buoyant and filled with joy. I had negotiated my way out of an old habit or mental block. In a city of approximately 21-million, I had braved the bus because I loved nature and the life of all beings a little more than my comfort. I felt free and liberated. I learned that the joy of choosing from love is much greater than the righteousness of principles and is beyond the reach of conveniences offered by the modern economic system. My friends were amused, ‘Do you realise that most people who rode with you, do it every day?’ ‘Sure, but I did it for love,’ was my reply.
The third such incident in this series involved a road trip. After two-long Covid wave-and-lockdown years, I was making plans to give service at and to sit a Vipassana meditation retreat. From there I intended to drive to Navadarshanam, a forest preservation and sustenance farming space, with a halt at a coffee plantation to learn about the harvest-to-roast process that converts a beautiful berry into a brown bean and completes the morning ritual of many around the world.
I enjoy road trips, especially because India dotted by villages and adorned by small verdant fields, waterfalls and streams, sun-dried montane grass, and perennial wild green forests offers stretches of un-manicured beauty as relief from shabby, unplanned development.
I assumed simply that a road trip to my various destinations would be less polluting than taking flights, till I checked a carbon footprint calculator: a return flight and the journey by road released an equal amount of Carbon Dioxide, 0.16 metric tons. Not marginally less but equal! Detours while driving and taxi rides between airports and final destinations maintain this fine balance.
The least polluting option is also my least favourite. Overnight train rides across 1200-kilometres or 745.65-miles bring emissions down to 0.01 metric tons, but they also sound in my head the horn of caution. Unpleasant experiences from past journeys make me apprehensive about choosing this option while travelling alone. I may therefore compromise and fly one-way while taking shorter train journeys on the way back. A decision as imperfect as the five-hour respite from the Diwali light show, and a choice that fills me with the same buoyancy as the bus ride after twenty-five years, is a reminder that love is larger than principles and greater than perfection. And all that love needs is idealism of the inclusive kind.