Lights come on again in Covidean dark

For the second year running, Deepavali is being celebrated amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In my Deepavali column in these pages last year, I had been optimistic.

"Deepavali will come. Covid-19 will be consigned to an ugly chapter in the epidemiological history of the world. Lamps will be lighted once again, life will not be in vain, jasmine garlands will adorn immortals and mortals alike, raga Hindolam will churn the depths of the soul and restaurants will offer fusion cuisine from ingredients unimagined today," I had said.

"Little India will survive like the flickering of an eternal candle in the passing wind."

Of course all that is true, but the persistence of Covid one year since I wrote those words makes me, not a pessimist, but a plaintive optimist, today. I am relearning the lesson that festivals are cyclical (and therefore predictable) but that the humans who celebrate them have to contend with the unknown linearity of time.

Covid is the perfect example of random and indeed hostile time. The disease struck without warning, spread without effort and quickly revealed the epidemiological and economic frailty of a hyper-connected world.

The months since the beginning of last year have provided a global tutorial in the need to come to terms with the lasting vagaries of infected moments.

In fact, Covid is now an endemic disease, that is, a fact of epidemiological life to which economies and societies will have to adjust themselves.

Covid has created a new linearity in world affairs, much as the bubonic plague or the Spanish Flu did once.

That being the case, I do not know exactly how Deepavali will be celebrated next year.

What social distancing measures will be in place then? How well would the Singapore economy have recovered? Will Little India return to a time when it outshone other cultural enclaves both literally and metaphorically on Deepavali nights?

I do not know, because the linearity of time points in a direction whose final address and purpose are unknown, by definition.

But what you and I and everyone else knows is that the festival called Deepavali is cyclical.

What is cyclical cannot end because its future is ensconced in its past.

Just imagine what those celebrating Deepavali have undergone through the ages. Famines, invasions, wars, floods, drought and other linear surprises of the natural world have intervened in the cyclical nature of the festival.

Even at the most personal level of linearity, parents died, spouses died, relatives died, those who lived could be bedridden at home, could be lying in hospital beds or could be committed to lunatic asylums.

Yet, when the lights came on, they did so for all. They came on for those who had departed and for those who had come: Newborns, toddlers, teenagers, youth, the middle aged, the ageing and those barely alive.

The lights came on for kings, thieves, philosophers, prostitutes, homemakers, homeless, theists, atheists and agnostics alike.

Deepavali attested and attests to the circular salvation of a timeless world in eternal space.

The triumph of light over darkness cannot possibly have a lifespan because both lighted lamps and the surrounding dark will exist so long as there is time, so long as there is good and evil, so long as humans enjoy the agency of choice over the imperative of necessity.

Deepavali is an invitation to consider our passing place in time, not out of fear of our ultimate mortality but in the joy of knowing that the linearity of our lives will be superseded by and incorporated within the cyclical nature of everlasting festive joy.

Deepavali is a pan-Indian festival both nationally and globally.

As a Bengali-Indian Singaporean, I am drawn to it particularly because of its celebration of Mother Kali, much feared by those who see her as a goddess but venerated by her daughters and sons who realise that she makes divinity tangible through the unconditional gift of motherhood.

The black mother-goddess Kali - Kaliamman to south Indians - represents not the glow of physical light but the light within eternal motherhood in the passing sea of darkness without.

Only those who have seen the maternal kindness in the anger of her fierce eyes will realise that no disease, no calamity, no disaster can break the cyclical nature of a mother's love for her children. What exists for a day will remain forever.

So, don't be disconsolate because of the darkness of Covid.

The lamps of lighted hearts will burn on. Let us be a part of that light.

Happy Deepavali.

Asad Latif is an editorial writer for The Straits Times.


அதற்குள்ளாகவா? இந்தச் செய்திகளையும் படிக்கலாமே!

இந்தச் செய்திகளையும் படிக்கலாமே!