After two years of a Covid-stricken festival season, Diwali in 2022 felt like a pleasant return to the buzz of conviviality, gin-fueled card parties, giveaways and general festive merriment. In researching my forthcoming book on India’s economy of frivolity and pleasure – spending on food, flowers, alcohol and fashion during the festival season remains a vital engine of growth in all classes of our consumer economy – j spent the last month interviewing several Residents Welfare Association (RWA), young professionals, street vendors, liquor store owners and various small businesses offering services to help organize celebrations in different parts of Delhi . I was curious how they thought Diwali had changed over the years, especially after the pandemic.
From RWA uncles to local phool-wallahs, everyone I interviewed had similar complaints about prices and predatory police. They were also united to highlight an important demographic trend: the steady rise in the number of single professionals who spend as much money and time celebrating with friends as they would a traditional Diwali with loved ones. While this “doston ki Diwali” existed in the past, budgets and frequency seemed to have increased over the past. For the RWA uncles, this phenomenon was a nuisance – they felt the need to regulate the number and noise of these parties, fearing that bachelors would turn Diwali into an excuse for sex-crazed debauchery.
The single and estranged Diwali revelers I interviewed were much more solemn about why they were partying. Each explained how the bonds between housemates and friends had deepened because of Covid illness and death, and the resulting swings in irregular wages and precarious jobs. Unable or unwilling to rely on the traditional safety net offered by parents or spouses, many have turned to friends and colleagues to serve as a strong support system in times of crisis. In the absence of a supportive state, migrant professionals helped each other access medical aid and loans during difficult times. Following the covid crisis, many urban elite and middle class singles have told me that they feel compelled to celebrate and socially sanctify these new support systems through simple rituals like a Diwali brunch , a manic party or a peaceful puja. As celibacy becomes a lifestyle choice in a pocket of urban India, this consumer behavior will also grow. For informal workers and street vendors, the additional income offered by such a non-traditional consumer base was a very welcome trend.
In fact, many service providers also described themselves as “single”. Some were single or separated; others were migrants living away from their spouse or family as they built roots and livelihoods in the capital. Their stories of trying to stay in Delhi during lockdowns – while cousins or spouses returned to their villages – described the powerful role friends and work colleagues play in caring for each other during the country’s worst economic and health crisis in recent times. These informal networks have built the resilience of small businesses and workers, allowing them to feel confident about the recovery and their future goals. Most did not understand that “celibacy” was tied to one’s marital status, but rather to a state in which a person cannot rely on the conventional protections and comforts of the traditional family.
Two of the RWA uncles I interviewed were widowed, their children had moved to other towns and were unable to make it to the festival. These men complained about the lack of loving companionship. Marriage is no guarantee against loneliness or neglect.
These conversations about Diwali teach us that the shape of our society is changing. Of course, most of us celebrate within marriage-based couples and families. But there is a growing single community that is reshaping and expanding the notion of family and “singleness.” This community of singles is diverse – it includes queer people, elderly and bereaved, migrants without family support, single or separated men and women – everyone must create and celebrate their own safety net to cope with times of fragility and vulnerability. Seen from the lived experiences of our precariat and the new professional classes, celibacy is not a fixed category linked to a legal document attesting to marriage. On the contrary, we are all single at one time or another.
Amplified by caste, gender and wealth, some struggle much more than others. There are enough books to show how single women from marginalized communities face the deepest social and economic hostility, enough to merit the demand for reparations.
The married couple remains the default design setting for most programs in India. In the majority of states, your access to the foodgrain ration remains tied to the entry on a family ration card. Our passport applications and Aadhaar, insurance policies are generally designed for those who have regular access to parents, siblings or spouses. Just like those who demand and provide the pleasure of Diwali, it is high time for the Indian state and our business processes to recognize the uniqueness in all of us.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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