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.
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.