It is well known that its hard to be an atheist in a country like India, where 99.76% of people have strong religious identities and beliefs. These hardships increase tenfold during- you guessed it- festive holidays.

In a very informal study of those in my immediate friend circle, I realised that people who don’t necessarily believe in God, or are not even fully aware of the story of Ramayana – basically moderate or soft atheists, still enjoy Diwali. For all Indians, Diwali is more than a religious holiday, it provides motivation to clean your dwellings, a reason get dressed in traditional clothes (no matter how uncomfortable and restraining) and an excuse to laze around and play cards with your near and dear ones. Moderate atheists are usually seen having the best time, cooperating with most of the traditions, albeit with sly remarks about how compulsive their parents are.

Sure, it seems harmless so far. But for a devout atheist, things are a little different. Diwali seems synonymous to coercion and hypocrisy. This year I stood first hand witness to people burning crackers while wearing anti pollution face masks, my family members dancing to the most demeaning of Bollywood item numbers, and being told from  at least four different sources to, “Smile more, beta”.

And I’m sure its the same story everywhere. Your average Diwali starts with you being forced to sit in a pooja, meeting people you haven’t seen since last years Diwali, and being expected to spend exorbitant amounts of money on things that are really unnecessary. Any rational person may still find indulging and complying with your family a fair trade off, given how much they do for you. And that does sound fair.

But living in the world of #metoo, sensitisation and libertarianism, festivals manifest themselves into culture wars. Even a two-day period of compliance with religious hypocrisy becomes a source of moral panic. For the first time in history, the moralizers are young people, and not their parents. Each time I am forced to dance to a Yo Yo Honey Singh song or waste food as offerings to idols, I spiral into existentialism and despair. I feel troubled because I think wastefulness in the name of religion is wrong. And I’d rather protest than be a silent onlooker (even if that protesting is limited to declining party invitations, not lighting lamps or eating Diwali sweets).

Because at the end of the day, the representation my generation has fought for is more important to me than family values. It can be said that I’m evaluating culture for it’s moral correctness more than for it’s sentiment. But that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make as a devout atheist.

So long, a Not So Happy Diwali.

Feature Image Credits – Surabhi Khare for DU Beat.

Nikita Bhatia

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When you put a non-believer in a religious environment, interesting things are bound to happen. For instance, the idea of praying for hours without an end will end with a cry for help.

Before I recount my trip to an ashram in south India, I must delve into some personal details. For the purpose of this experience, knowing that I am a transgender girl and an atheist is, perhaps, epochal. To live in the ashram meant subduing these parts of me. It started at the accommodation office. The person-in-charge would talk to me, rather than my mom. The idea of being perceived as a man and the ‘phallus’ attached to being a man is very discomforting to me. I nudged my mother to talk to him and he glanced at me with his under-the-breath judgement.

The whole ashram was based around Sai Baba and, for some, life ceased to exist after that. Life meant praying to their god and participating in his discourse. You can choose to call it either dedication or obsession. Though this isn’t necessarily bad, this isn’t my choice of a lifestyle.

Everything at the ashram was divided on the basis of gender,  be it the canteen queues, the prayer hall seating arrangement, or the shopping centre timings. While this was done to bring a sense of discipline in the environment, I found myself sitting in  my room, dreading to go outside. Interestingly, the library was not restricted on the basis of gender and I tried finding my solace there. Eventually, I realised all the books are based on praying or religious commandments. Soon it became very monotonous to read how you should live and how you should not.

What I thoroughly enjoyed during my stay at the ashram was the cheap yet tasty food. It was prepared with clean hands. The ratios of spices were just perfect and the fact that I was eating my lunch for less thanINR 30, made me a happy woman. The canteen timings were definitely odd for a person from Delhi. Breakfast from 6:30 a.m. – 8 a.m., lunch at 11:30 a.m., and dinner at 6:30 p.m., were unknown concepts for me.

Some of the most cherished memories I had were when I experienced the Chinese New Year celebration where classical Chinese music and dances were performed. The next day, I sat through a set of plays based on family values and a choir performing upbeat spiritual songs. These moments were truly beautiful. Such extravaganzas made me change my perception towards spirituality, which no longer seemed to be a boring concept.

While throwing myself back into the ‘closet’ brought immense pain to my mental state, so much so that passing each day felt like a huge task, I still took away some sweet memories and learned a lot about myself and the kinds of people around me.


Feature Image Credits: Holidify

Raabiya Tuteja

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