In Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Skeleton Jack is the unfulfilled, soul-searching Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. (Stay with me here.) Despite leading the hoard of ghouls who are responsible for annual Halloween spookiness, Jack feels that his life is incomplete. When he accidentally discovers Christmas Town, Jack is completely bewildered by the “children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads.” Though he cannot completely comprehend the sights and sounds of Christmas Town, this new world ignites life and excitement in his bones, and Jack wholeheartedly dedicates himself to celebrating the holiday as best he can.
I experienced these feelings yesterday on my first Diwali. I felt the joy of the holiday without understanding it. (see postscript)
Many of you who are reading this have never celebrated Diwali. I’ll attempt to describe an American equivalent… If you were to amp up the cheer and minimize the bitter-sweetness of Christmas and then pump up the noise and color of July 4th and finally top it off by celebrating both these holidays simultaneously, that was Diwali for me.
Our Diwali season started on Tuesday, when we were sitting drinking chai at our kitchen table with our cook and cultural ambassador Anita. Wanting to adequately prepare for the holiday, Reena and I asked, “What do we do to celebrate Diwali?”
“Well, you’ll need to do a puja and [a lot of other Hindi words I didn’t understand],” she told us. After further animated discussion between Reena and Anita, the result was…we were going on a field trip.
Anita led us down the street to the bus stop, where we stood in the road (this is normal) waiting for my first Indian bus. When it pulled up, we clambered aboard and stood in the sweaty, crowded aisle, since seats on the bus aren’t easy to come by. Nor are foreigners, for that matter. As the only white person on board, I garnered a lot of stares (also normal and socially accepted here).
Anita immediately befriended the women around us and explained to them that we were headed to the market to buy supplies for our Diwali puja. Judging from the giggles and smiles, this was a source of amusement for the bus riders. After a ten minute trip and many “Theek-hai?-s” (“Are you Ok?”) from a protective Anita, we arrived at the Chirag Delhi bazaar.
Anita herded us into the market, where colored strips of tinsel hung like a shiny, fluttering canopy over our heads. With Anita telling what sites were photo-worthy, we ambled our way through the market, teeming with Diwali shoppers stocking up for their pujas.
The puja is the prayer ceremony that plays a central role in Diwali festivities. With Anita as our haggler-in-chief, our Diwali shopping began. Anita stopped at a small stall, laden with marigold garlands, statues, incense, and lamps, as well as several shopkeepers, one of who was crouched inside the inventory. After much cajoling, tsk-ing, and whining at the salesman, Anita procured us twenty-two terracotta lamps (called diya), a pack of fifty cotton wicks, soapy-smelling incense, a silver incense holder, a surprisingly large bag of puffed rice, a chicken figurine molded from sugar, a statue of Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, and another of Ganesha the elephant-headed Lord of Beginnings.
We now had our puja supplies. We just had no idea what to do with them.
To be continued…
P.S. The Nightmare Before Christmas is just so good.