The Dark Side of the Festival of Lights

I knew something was changing in India when I arrived for Diwali about ten years back and some of my nephews were boycotting the five-day Hindu Festival of Lights. While subtler forms of light are used too—a cascade of clay oil lamps illuminating sets of stairs—firecrackers are the big attraction in this annual commemoration of good over evil. Sparklers and M80s and things that go Pop! Bang! Boom! Ravana has been vanquished. All hail Lakshmi, goddess of wealth… with a thousand firecrackers strung together producing a magnificent five-minute-long series of explosions that surely the gods can hear in the heavens, making their ears ring and their eyes water.

My teenage relatives were having none of it. Not only does all that bang lead to missing fingers (a close call for one cousin) and house fires (an uncle’s rooftop thatch hut was engulfed), but the city is subsumed in a cloud of noxious smoke. The firecrackers themselves, my nephews explained to me, are produced in unsafe work conditions by child laborers. They didn’t want to support such a business.

Add to that the revelations that Diwali spurs an increase in the ritual sacrifice of owls to woo the the gods into helping the lives of humans. Something similar was happening during the World Cup in Africa, when smoking vulture brains was thought to help predict winners. (Little did they know they could simply ask Paul, who sadly passed away just last week.)

For Hindus, with their 300 million incarnations of god, it must be hard to please them all. And so many are intimately connected with the animal world. Last year, I met Jitu Solanki, a young naturalist making a living by running a guest house and offering desert tours in Bikaner of western Rajasthan. We were talking about the lack of dog control in India, the world’s leading country in rabies bites. He said:

Hindu people, you know, there is a lot of god and all, so we have a god we call Bhairava, reincarnation of Shiva and his vehicle is a dog, so people believe that if you kill the dog, Bhairava will be angry. This is a very nice concept that I like. If you see any god in Hinduism, you will find some bird or animal related and it is a very nice way to conserve wildlife.

But, everywhere, everyday, we lay lesser forms at the altars—little kids making firecrackers for our celebratory fun, exhaust from the transportation that carries me to a conference on conservation, the wind turbines that create “green energy,” daubed with the blood of birds. If only good and evil were just a bit easier to distinguish from one another. Give me more comics and less complexity. Give me light and the sweet, loud, smokey, conscience-free childhood memory of climbing rooftops in Chennai with my pack of cousins. Me in my brand new clothes, my clean hair freshly oiled, looking for the match to light my next sparkler.

Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at