When I was growing up, Diwali was a festival I really looked forward to. It was also a festival I couldn’t wait to be done with. It was a festival of lights, sound and fury. The fury came mostly from my exhausted mother. Exile didn’t seem so bad then — in fact, we almost longed for it. Going off to a dark quiet forest, away from lecturing parents, what’s not to like?
It was a time of fun and stress in equal measure. Some years, one triumphed over the other; some years, the other won. It was also a time when Diwali wasn’t the big bang festival that it is now. The local kirana stores weren’t stacked with towers of chocolate boxes, elaborately packed dried fruit, boxes of juices for the health conscious (never mind their high sugar content); artisanal chocolates, crystal Ganeshas and tea lights were light years away. Growing up in the Dehradun of the Eighties, gifting was simple, you could even call it unimaginative. But, what it lacked in imagination, it made up in foresight. It entailed hoarding mithai dabbas months ahead to fill up when the big day arrived. The filling was a fixed formula. First to go was a bed of kheel or puffed rice, a couple of batashas came next, followed by a few whole walnuts, a few pieces of mithai came last and the box was ready to go. If you ran out of mithai dabbas, you just put it all on a humble tashtari (plate), covered it with a piece of cloth and gave it to your neighbour so that the plate didn’t travel far, and then, spent the next few days in anxiety till she returned it. It was, perhaps, all this exchange of plates that was behind the practice of people getting their names engraved on their utensils.
Then came the tedious task of gifting these to relatives and friends. Children were often chosen for this task and a large part of the Diwali day was spent going up and down the neighbourhood, carrying the boxes and returning with almost identical ones gifted by them in turn. Some of these were then recycled and gifted away, and I am pretty sure everyone finally landed with what they had sent out into the world in the first place. “What is the sense of this idotic exercise? Why can’t everyone just make a box for themselves and keep it instead of all this to-and-fro for nothing,’’ I would often complain loudly to my mother. A precocious philosopher, I had early on realised the futility of many of life’s exercises. My mother, on the other hand, held the rather uncharitable view that laziness more than any philosophy shaped my views.
In hindsight, as the worker bee of the household, she was perhaps justified in her belief. Like on most celebratory occasions, the burden of what makes a festival a festival fell on her. Making pooris, pakwans, subzi, kheer and all the culinary trappings of a festival was firmly her lot, putting her on the edge by the time the evening arrived and family bickering became as much a part of Diwali traditions as the customary lights. The meal was strictly vegetarian, and it was only years later, after I married into a Kayasth family, that I figured that mutton and poori too could be a Diwali staple.
Moving to Delhi also made Diwali as much a celebration with friends as family, where I got the heady taste of playing cards. Now, Diwali seems incomplete without teen patti and friends, which just goes to show, I guess, that there are as many Diwalis as there are people. While to some, traditions are sacrosanct, to others the festival is still a project-in-making, where you discard some rituals and happily add others along the way. As in everything else in India, there is scope for diversity in Diwali too.
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You only have to look at fireworks and realise how no festival can be change-proof. Once upon a time, bursting crackers, guilt-free, was the logical end to D-day. It was the essence of Diwali, its grand finale. The shroud of haze and dust hadn’t fallen in the ominous way that it has now — pretty much no one seemed to care about what the crackers were doing to us and the air around us. Children took to bursting crackers on Dussehra and the sound and dust only settled after Diwali. “What’s your favourite patakha?” I asked a little girl a few years ago, and was quickly chastened by her reply. “I don’t burst crackers, they cause too much solution,” she said with the wisdom of the very young. She may have not got the word right but she sure got the drift. In many families that I know, it’s the children who have guilt-tripped their parents into reluctantly surrendering their rockets and bombs.
But, back in our time, there were no school campaigns against fireworks and a child who turned down crackers was a child not born. In fact, the money you spent on crackers gave you bragging rights in school, and the one who spent a thousand rupees on them got glances of envy and admiration all day long. For us, too, crackers were the fun part and here, my father filled the shoes of the fun parent well. He spent a long time choosing the crackers with us, letting us overshoot the stipulated budget every year. His choices became our unintended ones and anars, charkhis and the red string patakhas remain favourites till date.
We once got new clothes for Diwali, but I think we gave up on that early too. On the occasional Diwalis that I spend at home in Dehradun, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt still works. My father didn’t care much about what we wore as long as it wasn’t a sari, and, my mother, a constant worrier who looks at the world as a minefield that has to be navigated carefully, had no sartorial, only safety, instructions, for us. No nylon and no dupattas. “Wear a nice shirt,’’ she would sometimes half-heartedly advise us, but had little time or energy to follow up on it. Her laissez-faire attitude spilled over to days other than Diwali too — months after my reluctant sister joined school as a nursery-goer, she was surprised into silence one day when the teacher asked her why my sister never did her homework. My mother never knew she had a homework diary; my sister never showed it to her, and she never asked for one. But that’s another story.
The evening of Diwali was always a mad scramble. There was pooja to be done, candles to be lit and crackers to be burst and, somehow, there seemed to be no time for anything. The pooja wasn’t too elaborate though. The small wooden temple and the shelf that was the pooja platform wasn’t as full of idols as it is today and, on Diwali, we had to pull out some arty idols of Ganeshas and other gods from the living room to ensure a full gallery of gods.
Not a religious family, Diwali was one of the few days in the year we lit a diya. One Diwali that we lit up the house with only candles, we found, to our horror, that we had no wick to even light up a diya for the pooja with. Those were times before the arrival of ready-made wicks that have mercifully put an end to the soul-crushing exercise of rolling cotton into wicks. Nevertheless, we were an ingenious lot. One of us popped over to our neighbour’s backyard that had a cotton tree and came back with some cotton balls. Soon, there was an organic flame. A cloud of dust would rise up every time we clanged the bell that stood unused the whole year, and, invariably, these mishaps brought forward much mirth and giggles. My sister, the family musician, took this occasion to sing the aarti tunefully, glaring balefully at my mother for singing too fast sometimes and too slow at others. My father made a rare appearance before the gods and I blundered through it all. Maybe, a family that prays together only once a year stays together.
Years later, I discovered that we were, perhaps, unusual in not following many of the Diwali traditions. We didn’t dress up, never made a rangoli, had no rituals, could skip the pooja and no one would notice. How did other people find time to make a rangoli, hold elaborate poojas and still find time to dress up and burst crackers, I would often wonder. Well, I guess they were not wasting their time running up and down the streets exchanging one mithai dabba for another.