Thirty years ago when I saw it for the first time I was amazed and alarmed in equal measure. I could see the finer details, even the unsavoury ones, as I had a ring side seat to the proceedings. The annual Dussehra Mela is held on a stretch of road just outside our clinic.
Back then I was unnerved by the wares laid out on the ground, narrowing the road to an alley . A sea of humanity thronged it, interspersed with the mandatory stray dogs and holy cows, a stampede in the making. Fresh out of medical school, with the idealism of youth I worried over the questionable additives in the brightly coloured sweet and spicy snacks. People casually swapping pesky flies as they ate off cursorily washed plates reminded me of the deadly epidemics I had read in text books.
All my trained eyes could see in the countless toys were parts small enough for children to swallow and choke on, with sharp edges which could cut and maim, bows and arrows which might blind, and the bright lead based paints on everything, which would slowly poison the unsuspecting kids when licked or chewed .
I was dismayed by the cheap cosmetics which had not been tested on animals, in fact had not been tested……period. Of suspect composition and packaged in dingy rooms they were being bought by clueless, aspiring beauty queens not knowing that they would do more harm than good. And the most worrisome item were Firecrackers, displayed in the open, they could turn into an inferno with a carelessly thrown bidi stub.
The zealous doctor in me wanted to warn them against hazardous toys and brightly colored food items. I wished they could see the harmful Metanil yellow and malachite green in their Barfi and that the ‘warq’ on it was toxic aluminium. I wanted to teach them the association of flies with gastroenteritis, dysentery and the deadly hepatitis. I felt compelled to educate them about skin allergies and rashes from cheap cosmetics. That the Kajal might contain lead which affects the brain and depresses bone marrow function. Whitening creams may contain mercury which will be absorbed from the skin and is poisonous. Most of the cheap lipstick, apart from causing pigmentation would be ingested and harmful metals like chromium and cadmium would end up in their bodies. Metals which are known carcinogens and will harm the liver and kidneys.
In three decades, things have improved but not greatly so. Firecrackers are off limits and so are stray animals. The Administration is more visible and there is some method to the madness. I have learnt not to worry too much, to keep my concerns to myself and to not play the party pooper.I have noticed that despite newer methods of entertainment, the interest in the village fair has not waned. And now, amid the chaos, I also see the gaiety and the bonhomie. The laughter and the merry making. The bright clothes and the carefree spirit. The energy and the enthusiasm. The sparkle in the eyes as they haggle for bargains. Children happily carrying their purchase in multicoloured polythene bags, the type which were banned long ago. I have learnt to look beyond this plastic which will clog drains and block bovine intestines.
The truth is, despite my misgivings, there has never been a stampede in the fair or an epidemic following it, nor is there a spurt of choking children in its wake. Maybe people are more resistant to infection, maybe the kids are smarter and know that toys are not edible, or, maybe they are blessed and God takes special care of them. For they are simple people and it surprises me how small things bring them joy. The pleasure they, even adults, derive from blowing party horns and trumpets has to be seen to be believed.
Year after year as people walk to the Ramlila ground for ‘Raavan -dahan’ the noise from their cheap toy trumpets hits a crescendo. As the giant effigies burn and collapse to the ground, people start their homeward journey, happy to have done their bit against evil. In a country where most people live on the edge and corruption and violence is rampant, it makes sense to reaffirm faith in honesty, to celebrate what’s good and righteous, to hope that truth will prevail. For hope is all that we have.
(published in the Sunday Tribune ‘ Reading the Pulse’ on 16/10/2016)