Devin Does a Delhi Diwali: The Final Chapter

Diwali dawned loudly.  I woke up to fireworks exploding in what sounded like and turned out to be my backyard.  Our neighbor (or perhaps our neighbor’s servant) was lighting off crackers; not the sparkly, pretty kind but the loud, nerve-jarring, and wake-you-up kind.  And Akash, our landlord’s nephew who is approximately a junior in high school watched from our building’s patio and literally paced back and forth in anticipation of taking a match to wicks of his own.  (The previous night on our excursion to the firework depot, I had confirmed with Akash that Diwali is his favorite holiday.  What teenage boy wouldn’t love a holiday that culminates in detonating your own personal store of explosives?)  Having grown up in a fire-safety-minded home, watching the neighbor hastily sweep unexploded duds off the patio, under the fence, and into the road, induced some mild concern…I’d be walking in that road later.  Happy Diwali!

Over the course of the morning Anita swept the floor and mopped the balcony, as cleaning house is part of Diwali tradition.  (Diwali is the Hindu New Year, so a clean house is a fresh start!  At least this is my interpretation.)  During the rest of the day, Reena and I sat on our balcony working on our Fulbright projects and watching the Diwali world go by.  Women in sparkling, jewel-toned saris, men in fancy kurtas, and children with kohl around their eyes walked down the street to visit friends, deliver sweets and presents, and enjoy time with their families.

As the afternoon deepened, Reena and I prepared for our Diwali puja.  Anita had draped marigold garlands over our Lakshmi and Ganesh; filled 19 small lamps and one large lamp with wicks, oil, and puffed rice; placed one sweet dessert at the gods’ feet; and instructed me in pantomime what to actually do.  (This pantomime had included Anita dragging me to the balcony and indicating that Reena and I had failed the previous night to spread the lamps adequately along the length of the balcony.  Leaving them cozily together was BAD!)  At 5:45pm we found a Diwali puja YouTube video (yay technology!) that provided a soundtrack and some explanatory text, and we kicked off our celebration in much the same way we had the previous night…except we spread the lights along the length of the balcony.

At 6:15 we knocked gently on our landlord Mr. Garg’s door.  The door swung open into the living room to reveal Mr. Garg’s daughter-in-law Meesha and sister, sitting on the flooring filling oil lamps; Ashok, the Garg’s cook, busily frying something in the kitchen; Mrs. Garg fussing over the flowers on the altar; Mr. Garg filling a metal firepit with wood; his two nephews milling about; and Mr. Garg’s son Aashish overseeing the general festivities.  The warmth, serenity, and cheer reminded me of my own family’s Christmas Eve.  The Garg’s Diwali celebration was the most intimate family moment I had yet experienced in India, and I felt grateful to have been invited.

When the preparations were complete, the puja began.  We sat on the floor in a circle gathered around the fire pit container in the living room (yes, fire pit in the living room).  Aashish poured a bit of oil on the wood, and we began to chant.  (Rather the Gargs chanted, and Reena and I listened.)  The family recited the prayer to Lakshmi, as Mr. Garg used his prayer beads to count our recitations; we would repeat a total of 111 times.  With each repetition, we threw a handful of what seemed like the matter you find on a Maine forest floor into the fire.  (I still am not sure of this earthen mixture’s significance.)  Over the course of this recitation, intermittent giggles erupted when the family fell out of unison.  Cell phones kept ringing.  (I’ve observed a national opposition to “silent mode.”)  We kept running out of the “earth mixture” and needing a refill.  All the while the living room was filling with smoke.  Given that we had essentially created a homemade fire-starter with the pine needles and oil, this was no surprise.  However, I was surprised when no one moved to open a door or a window, though everyone was visibly affected by the smoke.  Aashish wiped his eyes beneath his glasses.  The younger nephew kept turning away from the fire for fresh air.  I took the approach of closing my eyes with my hands held together ostensibly in prayer, hoping that I might look spiritual rather than smoked.  Reena at one point turned to me and through tear- and smoke-filled eyes asked, “are you ok?”  Finally, giving up on the prayer pace of his family, Mr. Garg sped up the proceedings and raced unintelligibly through the remaining repetitions.  As soon as he finished, doors were opened, and we headed onto the balcony to admire the neighborhood Diwali lights and gasp for air.

As we socialized on the balcony, Mrs. Garg, her sister-in-law, and Ashok busied themselves in the kitchen, preparing a spread of appetizers, including jalebis (the same fried-dough-drenched-in-sugar-syrup we enjoyed at Dessehra); pakoras, flavorful fried dough balls; and papard, crispy rice flour chips (which you’ve probably had at Indian restaurants in the States).  We sat and ate with the family.  Aashish and Meesha appeared after donning fancier clothes; they were off to Meesha’s parents’ and grandmother’s houses for two more pujas.  For their sake, I hope they didn’t have to survive more indoor bonfires.

After devouring some food, Reena and I said our thank yous and headed to our next Diwali celebration: a roof deck party at “surrogate mom” Christine’s house.

Walking out of the house on Diwali night bears some resemblance to traversing a minefield.  Several feet from our front door a father and his two children were dancing among the sparks spewed by a spinning ground wheel.  We had to wait for five minutes before we could walk past the roundabout on the corner because a string of crackers exploded deafeningly while throwing shrapnel into the air.  At every turn, another explosion of light or sound made us jump and set the festive tone for the evening.  But walking through the neighborhood, the big booming Diwali began to reveal more intimate Diwali moments as well.  A man and his aged mother lighting a lamp in the middle of the roundabout.  A husband and wife gazing at the fireworks from their balcony, illuminated pink with Diwali decorations.  A lit lamp sitting at the base of a telephone, alone but illuminating the night for strangers.

As we walked down the road, we quietly observed these sights and sounds, as fireworks exploded overhead.  Sometimes you stop trying to understand and just start feeling the significance of moments and days.

We managed to hail a taxi who drove us through the detonating streets under the bursting sky.  We arrived at Christine’s just as the “show” was really getting good.  (Check out Christine’s blog for shots of the fireworks.)

Christine and her husband Himmat’s roof deck has a 360 degree view of the city skyline, which offered a perfect vantage point to watch a fireworks show like I’ve never seen.  In the distance on the horizon, in the neighbor’s backyard, and on every block of the city in between, pinksgreensorangesredsgoldsblueswhites exploded for three hours.  The neighbor’s fireworks detonated basically on eye level with Christine’s roof.  To top off the sensory experience, dinner was a goat roasted on a spit before our eyes.  We chatted and celebrated into the evening with a fascinating and kind array of guests: a quick-to-laugh English couple, friends visiting Christine & Himmat; an American foreign service family whose fifteen year old daughter goes to the American school where sushi is served in the cafeteria (Reena and I were jealous); an Indian couple who love Vancouver because a Canadian doctor fixed the husband’s broken wrist in time for him to leave the next day on a cruise to Alaska; a bearded and boisterous man who called himself the “Chief Rhinoceros” because he organized a trip for the group to Kaziranga National Park, where two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos live; and an English gentleman who sells fighter jets for a living.

When our stomachs could take no more food or drink and our ears could take no more explosives, we bid our goodbyes to the partygoers, thanked Christine and Himmat for our best Diwali ever, and headed home.

It’s an odd thing to celebrate a holiday for the first time as an adult.   The traditions, the foods, the smells, and the sounds, and the songs that make our holidays special are like nursery rhymes.  We don’t know when or how we first experienced them, but we know them by heart.  Experiencing Diwali for the first time, I learned these age-old traditions all in one evening and, with my adult mindset, asked the significance of each one.  But only when I stopped asking questions and sat back to observe and experience the holiday without thought did I finally feel the significance and joy of Diwali.

4 thoughts on “Devin Does a Delhi Diwali: The Final Chapter

  1. Marvelous. Loved your final paragraph. I am wishing I was there. So on to my first animals in India memory. You know the length of the flight. When, in January 1973, I arrived at Palm Field in Delhi and we deplaned a good quarter mile walk from the “terminal” which was in fact a quonset hut of some dimension. It was about two AM there. I was quickly passed through customs by a languid and ill dressed official and followed others to the exit. I was greeted there by taxi wallah touts yelling phrases in english,european languages and some Russian too I think. Overwhelming, the touts pulling on me and my duffle and pack. I was swept along into an aging Tata and I offered in slow over articulated english “Hotel Ranjet.” I then noticed there were no exit handles on the back doors. We had begun to move, making our way through the throng of the dissapointed. The tout, toothless with a wide grin, twisted in his seat, kept intoning “Hotel Ranjet, Sahib, Hotel Ranjet.”
    I knew we were to proceed on the left side of the road from what I had read. This did not prepare my autonomic system for the cars, trucks, carts, bicycles, cows and walkers oncoming. I was now quite awake, ill prepared for my final moments, about to die in the company of the the ripe smells of dung fire filled India which, unknown to me then, was quite sweet. This fragrance calmed me. I still remember that. There then appeared on the road a column of elephants carrying I knew not what. The only time i saw elephants on that trip. This filled me with a sense of wonder and confidence and then the sudden knowledge certain we would collide, they or the Tata would swerve. This passed without incident and I again regained my calm.
    We ultimately entered Delhi and I began to direct the driver, “Old Delhi, Old Delhi” as if I could(hopelessly) appear to know what I was about. The streets became darker and there were small fires in the street. I quickly realized that the forms were people, people living in the street. Some time passed and the taxi came to a stop and there was nothing resembling the Hotel Ranjet and I directed “Hotel Ranjet” and was greeted with pointing(in opposite directions)”Hotel Ranjet Sahib, Hotel Ranjet”) and with the universal gesture of the outstretched hand. I had never traveled outside of North America. There had been no negotiations and there was no English from them and no rupees with me. Then the four fingers held up and “Four dollars, four dollars.” Relieved of white privileged guilt , I handed the money over with no thought given to the actual whereabouts of the fabled Hotel Ranjet. I began to walk, reminding myself to look firm and stride confidently and soon the outstretched hands, caechetic forms and all manner of strange voices, words and phrases animated the dark street, the smoke somehow thicker and the smell still sweeter, and I knew, without abstraction, the people were hungry and I was well feed, and this was without reason to my Western mind. And I then heard bells, and they truly were tinkling bells, and I saw the large forms moving towards me and those forms moving gently side to side seeming to part the smoke as they came closer and I was truly in wonder and then a voice from behind “Camel train Sahib, camel train from Rhajasthan coming. And where sir going, sir, and what is your program?” And then, for the last time, the sun beginning to rise and the night turning to morning I smiled and said.”Hotel Ranjet.” The man and his bear led me there, just some few blocks away in Old Delhi.

  2. Pingback: Diwali redux | reena|in|india

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