*aakhon mein teri…ajab si ajab si adaye hain…* tune plays on…
on for another thirty seconds…Bad mistake. You should hang up now…
here: God..? Hii… Did I wake you up..? So sorry…
there: No. That’s..ahmm..OK…what’s up..?
here: Iniya deepawali nalvaazthukkal..(Happy Diwali!)
there: Oh..OK OK…Thank you…arr…what time is it.?
here: Ahmm..Around 4 30 AM? Am soo sorry, I had to wake you up. I thought you guys would be up and running.
there: Nah!! It’s not even 5 30 yet. Wait. Let me wake Goddess up.
here: Oh no no… I will call you guys back when it’s time.
there: OK. Take care. Good night.
I downed another cup of white chocolate to nullify the 4C around me.
The preparations usually began weeks before the actual date of Diwali, multi fold in the true sense. The ladies in the house spent the week churning out the best sweets and savories, that could be made at home. The last little clause is to rule out the intriguing rossogolla, you see? Ingredients are consolidated from the markets specializing in each, jaggery from that dingy hidden joint, milk and sugar in kilos, vegetables and fruits from the mandi, as an arrangement for the big feast on the pooja day.
Meanwhile, the men handled the logistics behind all these activities; driving the ladies to the market and coordinating the house cleaning. The most crucial part, which they took ample help from the youngsters in the house for, was purchasing the firecrackers. They visited the temporary shacks put up in open grounds turned to shopping malls, shouted and yelled over the crowd to be heard and bought home the best in class, state of the art fireworks. 10,000 wala crackers, the multi-colored ‘1000 gems in the sky’, fancy rockets and ‘butterflies’ were bought in time, before the rest of the town lay their hands on them. The assortment of bombs and sparklers were the common ones across every Diwali. They were what kept the kids engaged through the day, when the elders had their post lunch conversations.
Schools realized that Diwali was the biggest festival of the year, the perfect time for some family bonding. Holidays were ample and all cousins flew in from different parts of the country, to set up fort in the ancestral home. We had spent most of our toddler and growing up years in that house; so nooks and knacks for mischief abounded. Most of the noise and the ruckus was accepted and ignored during the festive season. It was once in a year after all.
There was a preparation for this visit as well, something that began weeks before the actual departure; there by months before the actual date of the festival. A list of every known cousin, uncle and aunt was consolidated and gifts were bought for each. There were strict and yet hidden guidelines around the act of buying. You always had to make sure that everybody got something, everybody got something equivalent and no gift to one could offend another by virtue of quality, quantity or value. How the mothers managed it is still a surprise to me, but there were very few squabbles at the end of it.
Added to these gifts were the new crackers local to the place of origin, something that put fireworks set x different from the set y that was already present at the destination. Again, the logic of repetition here beats me, but there was no reason for us kids to complain. More the merrier.
New clothes were a must, a good omen of sorts. If you wore a new dress on this auspicious day, you were supposed to be blessed with new ones through the rest of the year, I guess. Then again, who’s complaining? There were usually more than one sets bought, one to be worn early in the morning, immediately after the bath. It was usually something intricate, heavy and closely treading on the gaudy territory. Then there was the play dress, ones convenient for all the running around you had to do with the fireworks. A little less complicated, these were worn more often in the rest of the year than the first one, and are the ones that could be compromised in case of a cracker-accident. There was usually an evening wear too, you couldn’t visit all the aunts and uncles in the same dress you wore for lunch, could you? If I remember right, all this complicated buying was only for the girls and ladies in the family. The boys chose to buy different kinds of t-shirts, while the men simply changed from veshtis (the dhoti) to trousers.
The main pooja room was cleaned and every moorthi sparkled from the fresh bath and dressing. The day before Diwali, the men in the family would visit the dedicated flower market, to pick up the best flowers in town. Multi colored garlands and loose flowers were bought back, to be put up on every available picture of any available God in the house. Some were saved carefully in the fridge, to be reluctantly clipped into the hair of the girls, only to eventually end up with their mothers.
All the new dresses bought were stacked in front of the Gods, to be blessed by the pooja before being worn. Each pair of cloth had to be religiously adorned with a pinch of sandal, highlighted by an equal sized pinch of vermillion. I still remember those dresses from where the mark would not wash off, even months after Diwali. Dresses bought for the occasion had to stand out, dint they? The stack of dresses would then be flanked by vessels and containers with all the sweets prepared. I love Diwali for being the only festival where you could eat the prasadam before the actual pooja. Waiting for the neyvedyam in the end was always a test of the power of devotion over sheer hunger.
Once everything was in place for the Diwali day, we all went to bed (pretty late in itself), with a mental note to wake up as early as 4 in the morning. The aim was to be the first family in the neighborhood to burst the crackers. The loudest and longest running fireworks would be saved for this early morning ritual. The sound of the lone cracker in the wee hours of the morning still rings in my head. Technically, this early morning affair of fireworks was supposed to signify the victory of light over all the dark around the world. I understand it now, who really cared about trivial technicalities then!
We would wake up groggy eyed and run to the pooja room, where a quick set of matras would be chanted, arati sung and a handful of oil emptied on our heads. Seeta kalyanammm..vaibogame…Castor oil (equally viscous as its automotive counterpart), heated with some black pepper, was specially prepared for this early morning ritual and we had our hair oiled in order of our seniority. The production line process consisted of us getting our hair oiled by Super Goddess, waiting for ten minutes to let any good of it soak in and then running to have our bath, where a bucket of hot water and freshly ground shampoo powder (of sorts) waited.
Once done, we went back to the pooja room, collected our new dress, gathered any little bit of blessing and good will. Once ready, we would be made to eat a spoonful of ‘the medicine‘; a home made remedy to counter any ill effects that the over eating of sweets, over a very short span (a day, literally), would cause. It had multiple herbs and spices in it, went down with a burn in your throat and you knew you had grown up when you began to savor its taste. It was a huge parameter of comparison between different households and aunts discussed the secrets of the extra zing in theirs over others’.
Under strict adult supervision, the comparatively older kids would step out and light the dawn breaker cracker, while the smaller ones would stand around, ears and eyes shut hard. With the incense stick still in hand and hand covering both ears tightly, the first round of fireworks would signal dawn, a new diwali dawn. Sounds from fireworks from nearby streets would slowly get louder and the day would be on full swing.
Lunch was an intricate affair, a typical feast served on banana leaves and comprising of multiple courses over rice. The ladies usually served in the first round, while the men and the children ate. It would then be the turn for the older girls in the family to serve the women and clean up, a tough act after the sumptuous meal that one had just consumed. Post lunch, the kids would go back to fight their battle against the world, armed with crackers appropriately named atom bombs and hydrogen bombs. The bijilis were the little temptresses, urging us to tread on the forbidden path. Meanwhile, the elders would settle on the house floors, reminiscing weddings and past love affairs. It was their chance to be young again, to relive the days where electricity and an uninterrupted supply of water was a luxury.
Evenings were usually spent visiting families of friends and exchanging sweets. There would be subsequent rounds of fireworks when there. The fireworks in the night were the more elite and elegant ones. The whole family would gather in the terrace, children excited about the new choices of crackers. The women, still light from their conversations, would slowly trickle in, in time for the stage to be set. That’s when the rockets and fancy air-launching fireworks would be set off, one by one, giving each enough time to bask in the colors up above us.
This is also when youngsters, bored with all the crackers, would prod their mothers to the sparklers and ‘snakes’, too static and dull for the young minds. There would be memories caught on tape and film, framed for years to come. There would be singing and games to liven the evening, only to be followed by a comprehensive dinner. Based on the number of people and the space available, it would span across different rounds, but not once lacking in options of dishes.
Late in the night, gifts would be opened and their details revealed, goodbyes and pleasantries exchanged and we’d head back home. I don’t really remember any part of post-Diwali. I guess we would have woken up the next day, with a hangover from the saccharine overdose. A day or two later, gone back to our individual towns and flaunted the diwali exploits in school. I don’t know.
A Happy Deepavali to all of you and your near and dear ones.