October 31, 2008

As a child, Diwali was a very festive occasion for us. Diwali, Christmas, birthdays and my parents’ anniversary were the occasions we celebrated, and Diwali was one of the most festive of these occasions. This is strange, because we are technically a Bengali Hindu family, so we should make a big deal of Dusshera, not so much of Diwali, and none at all of Christmas. But where I grew up, Diwali was much more important at a personal, family level than Dusshera, which simply meant gathering in a large open area to see the three effigies go up in a great display of light and sound.

Diwali, on the other hand, was when we all got new clothes. Loads of sweets arrived, along with boxes of dried fruit and some of this was parceled into smaller packets and given away. Much of it was served to guests or consumed in a once-in-a-year sweet-eating frenzy. The dried fruit was usually squirelled away and used in small quantities over the next many months.

On Diwali evening, we usually lit candles in our house quite early, (no puja – we were never that kind of family) and then got dressed up in our new clothes and drove to my maternal grandmother’s house. Two of my mother’s four sisters would be there, along with the four of us, my nani (nana having passed away when I was still quite young), and a whole bunch of faithful family retainers. My nani would have sponsored a modest collection of fire crackers, which the family retainers’ kids would light, giving my sister and me a sparkler or two to hold along the way.

Diwali dinner was a feast. Although my nani and both my aunts didn’t eat non-veg (by choice), there would be a rich, delicious mutton curry for the four of us, with puris fried as fast as you could eat them and the usual veggie accompaniments. There must have been dessert, perhaps more Diwali sweets, but it doesn’t seem to have made a lasting impression on me. What I enjoyed perhaps the most, was the drive back home that night, when we could admire all the houses all lit up. Hardly anyone used electric fairy lights in those days, and I always liked the candle and diya arrangements more. The city, Chandigarh, looked beautiful, sparkling with millions of tiny flames. That, to me, was the essence of the festival of light, much more so than the noisy fire crackers that I never enjoyed much.

Those were the good times.

After getting married and moving away from family (both things that I’m mostly quite happy about) the festive occasions lost their festivity. I discovered that, in a family of two, each of us has to make all the effort to make an occasion special. For Diwali, I always tried. Though I usually couldn’t manage to shop for new clothes by Dusshera, I almost always had something nice to wear for Diwali. We didn’t get boxes of sweets and dried fruits, but I tried to have something “special” ready for dinner. We never did fire crackers, but I always put at least a few candles or diyas on the balconies. Diwali remained a festival for me, while Christmas and the birthdays and anniversaries of my parents and sister became just an occasion for a phone call.

I usually wanted to be in town for Diwali, and at home for at least part of the evening, but we weren’t always. One year, I was away while Amit was at home for Diwali. Another time he was away. Two years ago, we were both in Calcutta.

So this was by no means the first time we were going to be away from home for Diwali. But, this time was perhaps the worst Diwali I’ve ever had. For one thing, there simply wasn’t time enough for me to go shopping for myself, so I wore my newest pair of jeans (only a year old) and some old shirt. For another thing, Diwali in Calcutta is a big thing mainly for the fire crackers and the puja – the two aspects that never meant much to me anyway. The good food, the new clothes, the excessive sweets were not big features of Diwali here, at least not in Amit’s family (where good food and excessive sweet seem to be everyday features).

On Diwali evening, I somehow wasn’t much in the mood to do the diya-lighting in someone else’s house, so I didn’t participate much in that. Then, we fed the kids dinner and that turned into a fiasco with both kids throwing tantrums during the meal. There were about 20 people milling around, distracting them and offering unwanted advice, which didn’t help. Anyway, after their dinner, we took the girls to a quieter part of the house and spent some quality family time in which Amit and I played badminton with a balloon while the girls watched in amazement and occasionally got whacked by the balloon. Then, we decided to go down and join in the fire cracker show, but already my heart wasn’t in it and the girls only clung to us and looked scared. So we brought them in, and soon after we put them to bed.

For some strange reason, both of them have started getting extremely anxious at bedtime and as soon as we turn out the light, or even before that, Mrini starts wailing and becomes hysterical. One day we tried leaving her wailing, but when she showed no signs of abating a couple of minutes later, I gave in and held her. Whatever insecurity is making her be like this, it doesn’t seem to be settling down, in fact it even seems to be getting worse.

So after putting them to bed, I spent half an hour lying with them in the dark, waiting for them to fall asleep. By that time, I had no desire whatsoever to go and join the family outside. I stayed skulking in the room, in the dark, listening to the fireworks, wishing it had been different. I didn’t regret missing the fireworks, but when I crept out of my room to eat the three rotis, cabbage, and fish curry that had been dished up and kept outside the room for me, as I ate alone in the living room, and crept back into the dark room where the twins slept uneasily amidst all the loud bangs, and the screams of merriment from outside, I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for myself. I couldn’t help feeling that this was not really what Diwali meant to me.

Oh, well… Maybe next year will be better.


October 30, 2005

What I always liked about Diwali – apart from the good food, of course – was the lights. I liked the idea of decorating the house with candles or diyas. This was even before I knew the significance of it. What significance? Well, two that I am aware of. One, the houses were lit up in Ayodhya to welcome Ram & Co back from their sojourn in the jungle, where they had various adventures, the key message being the triumph of good over evil. Anyway, when the good trio came back to Ayodhya, the faithful citizens welcomed them back by lighting up their houses and in those pre-electric days they used lamp lights.

The second significance of the lights is to welcome in Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. There are various rituals to do with welcoming Lakshmi into the house: keeping doors and windows open, keeping all the lights on, doing puja, buying things, gambling (What? Why?? How??? Who knows!), spending money, making money etc. For my part, I like to keep the doors and windows open anyway to get some fresh air in, but on Diwali day this is not very effective because there’s no fresh air to be had anywhere in the entire sub continent, practically. Why? Because all of it is full of the fumes of fire crackers.
Why, oh why, do people have to light fire crackers? And why the ones that go Bang!? I hate things that go Bang!, and I hate them even more because most dogs get petrified and run and hide when things start going Bang! around them. Probably other animals aren’t too happy either, but dogs are definitely unhappy and, come to think of it, I don’t think babies are too thrilled about it either.

The festival of lights, people, lights. NOT the festival of noise. And I’m not even saying anything about pollution and asthma and deafness and blindness and fires and burns and child labor in making the fire crackers in the first place.

The thought of twisting bits of cotton and placing them in tiny earthenware bowls and filling the bowls with oil and lighting the cotton wicks and watching them burn is something so lovely and so peaceful. Much could be said of the alternatives to diyas: candles or electric lights. But candles are messy, they topple and leave wax all over the place, and besides, they go out at the slightest hint of a breeze. Diyas are much neater and much more cooperative, they often manage to keep burning even in a breeze. And electric lights – fairy lamps and long strings of bulbs that are festooned over the entire building – look very nice, but are missing the romance altogether. Without the effort of twisting the wicks and pouring the oil and then watching them burn in a bit of a breeze, fluttering but surviving, without that excitement, where’s the thrill of Diwali, the festival of lights?

Another thing that I think certainly doesn’t go with Diwali is bombs. Not firecracker bombs, I mean, but killer bombs, the kind that are left in shopping places to kill people. Why would anyone want to do that? Call me naïve, but I simply fail to understand why a person, any person, would get any kind of happiness or satisfaction out of killing innocent people who are out shopping to celebrate a festival – to celebrate life. All they are doing is buying gifts and sweets – small things to make ordinary people happy. Nobody is carrying out any social-religious-political agenda here. Why go kill them? The person who left the bomb there, and watched its destruction later on TV, he’s human too. Why did he (or she) do that? Why? I don’t understand.

Lights, and good food. That’s what Diwali is about. Why not just keep it that way?

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