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.

Devin Does a Delhi Diwali: Part 2 (Firecrackers, Ice Cream, and Elephant)

The day before Diwali is called Choti Diwali, which means “Little Diwali” or, in my lexicon, “Diwali Eve.”  The traditions of Choti Diwali are teasers for the celebration to come on “Diwali Day.”

On Tuesday, Anita set up our puja before she left to celebrate her own Choti Diwali at home.  At six p.m. on the dot, just as Anita had specifically instructed, Reena and I began our puja observance.  Being Diwali novices, however, starting our ceremony promptly was just about the only instruction we were able to authentically follow.  Here are instructions for a Reena & Devin-style Diwali puja.

Step 1- Admire the puja set-up: five small terracotta lamps each filled with oil, a few grains of puffed rice, and a cotton wick, laid at the feet of Lakshmi and Ganesha.

Step 2- Realize you don’t own matches with which to light the lamps.

Step 3- Light the gas stove with the igniter, rip off a piece of cardboard, ignite the cardboard.  Voila – “matches”.

Step 4 – Carry terracotta lamps over to stove, and light lamps with the “matches.”

Step 5 – Return lamps to “altar”.

Step 6 – Sing “Happy Diwali” to the tune of “Waltzing Matilda.”

Step 7 – Bring lamps outside to the balcony and place them close together. (Anita informed us the next day that we should have spread them out.) Wonder why no one else in the neighborhood has gotten to this step yet.  (Answer: Because actual pujas take far longer than 6 minutes.)

Step 8 – Admire the flickering lamps and the strings of twinkling Diwali lights that neighbors are turning on in the twilight.

Lighting lamps for Lakshmi

Diwali lamps on our balcony

With our first puja officially and creatively completed, Reena and I decided to go on a joy ride to admire the strings of colorful electric lights that illuminate Delhi on Diwali.  I called Raju, a rickshaw driver who Brian and I befriended during our first few days in Delhi.  Side note: It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that Raju loves Brian and me because we are “good and honest.”  He is convinced we possess these traits because we agreed to let him take us to a shop where, in return for our browsing, Raju receives a present to give his young daughter.  Unfortunately, I have to admit that the first time Raju asked us if we would go to this shop, we had just smiled and nodded without actually understanding what Raju had said.  So when I called on Choti Diwali, Raju, laughing jovially between every word, agreed to take us on our excursion.  He also suggested that we start our excursion by visiting two shops, on behalf of his daughter of course.

After our browsing duties were complete, we were off on our adventure.  As we drove through the streets of Delhi, the wind whipped our faces, and we noticed for the first time that there was a chill in the air.  The Diwali celebration ushers in a new season.

Raju raced his rickshaw through the city, telling us about the tourists he has befriended (“I took a picture on my phone of this woman kissing my cheek.  I showed it to my wife, who is very happy I am making a good business.”), the sites we passed (“There is the Air Force on your left.”), and his family (“You will come to my Eid feast!”).

Diwali is the Festival of Lights, and the city was outfitted in a riot of electric “Christmas” bulbs, some casually looped around balconies, others hanging from roofs and straight down facades like Technicolor bangs, many haphazardly thrown up into trees.  Just as we were mesmerized by the lights flashing past the rickshaw – BANG! – a firecracker would explode, disturbingly close and surprisingly loud.  (“We can’t go down that street.  Kids will throw crackers at the rickshaw,” Raju informed us more than once.)

Raju was determined that Reena and I enjoy ourselves.  He pulled over at a stall selling crackers, and he bought and lit us a sparkler that looked like a magic wand caked in silver glitter.  When we drove past India Gate, Raju pulled his rickshaw up alongside an ice cream cart and treated us to dessert: pista kulfi (pyramidal pistachio ice cream) for Reena and the equivalent of a Dove bar for me.  As we lounged in his rickshaw, Raju showed us mobile phone pictures of his family and his home village.

Ice cream cart/rickshaw hybrid

Back on the road, Raju sought out the most illuminated attractions in the city for our entertainment.  We stopped at a Sikh gurdwara, traced in bright white bulbs.  Reena and I explored the perimeter of the temple, preferring to quietly observe the scene from the shadows and listen to the sermon blaring from speakers.  Raju waited patiently for us, sprawling in the back of his rickshaw and sipping a cup of chai.  At Lakshmi Temple, Raju ushered us out of the rickshaw and suggested a mini-photo shoot.  Reena and Devin in front of the temple; Raju and Devin in front of the temple; Reena and Raju in front of the temple; Reena and Devin in the rickshaw; Reena and Raju in the rickshaw; Devin and Raju in the rickshaw.  At one point, Raju even physically pushed his rickshaw a few feet so that we would have better light for the photographs.

Gurdwara, luminous

 - Lighting candles at the Sikh gurdwara

Lakshmi Temple

And as we sped through the streets, listening to the din of firecrackers bursting in the sky, we saw what I have been waiting to see since we arrived in Delhi: an elephant ambling down the avenue.  With firecrackers bursting and sparking overhead, I watched an elephant four times the size of our rickshaw plod by, and I had an “Is this actually happening?” moment.  These are the moments to live for.

An elephant walks in Delhi

After an eventful evening, Raju dropped us off back in Lajpat Nagar, where fireworks  exploded and startled us every few minutes.  We grabbed a quick, late dinner at Bikanervala, our favorite local food chain, and headed home.  Tired, happy, and ready for bed, we stopped to chat with our landlord and his family who were congregated outside our front gate.  As it turned out, they were headed to the local “firecracker factory store” to stock up for the Diwali cannonade.  In the typically warm and inclusive Indian way, they invited Reena and me along.  As we are in the business of “minimizing regrets” during this Fulbright experience, we forewent bed and hopped in the car with Mr. Garg (our landlord and a lawyer at the Indian Supreme Court), his son Aashish (who trained as a doctor in the US), Aashish’s wife Meesha (also a doctor), and two young cousins.

The scene at the firecracker depot was riotous.  A hundred male customers pushed and shoved to get to the sales counter where salesmen shouted at twenty-five smallish men staggering around in orange and red shirts while carrying boxes of fireworks from the store room to customers’ waiting cars.  Since Mr. Garg knew the owner, our crew slipped behind the counter where we selected our fireworks.  I would love to meet the person in charge of naming and branding the firecrackers available in Delhi on Diwali.

A sampling:

"Puppy Love" & "Narnia"

"Miami Night" & "Glitter Flitter"

Yikes.

Bart Simpson, Arsenio Hall, Ahhh-nald, Julia Roberts, and Whoopi Goldberg. Obviously.

Creepy.

Pinocchio = Bimboo?

FYI, this law is completely ignored.

After selecting enough fireworks to fill an extra-large potato sack and implode a small building, we piled back into the car and headed to “The Laj.”  Reena and I said our goodnights to the Gargs who kindly invited us to join them for their Diwali puja the next day.

This seems like a reasonable amount of fireworks to purchase in one evening.

Our first Choti Diwali had been eventful and entertaining, and as I fell asleep, I wondered if Diwali could top Choti Diwali.

It did.

Our neighbor's Diwali lamp, set outside on the stairs

Devin Does a Delhi Diwali: Part One

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).

Where’s Devin?

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.

Decorations screaming cheerful

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.

Photo-Worthy Temporary Diwali Temple

 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.

Shopkeeper in his shop-cave

 

 

 

 

 

 

Puffed rice for Lakshmi & Ganesha


We now had our puja supplies.  We just had no idea what to do with them.

To be continued…

Market Moments

Sand for mandalas
Boys selling cotton for lamp wicks
Marigolds soon to festoon
Curiouser…

…and curiouser.
The crowd parts.

P.S. The Nightmare Before Christmas is just so good.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaxKiZfQcX8]

Happy Place

If only Dastkar’s Nature Bazaar could go on forever.  I may have to make a special trip back to India next October just to revisit the show.  Here are more pictures of the crafts on display.

 

 

This wooden furniture was all intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

 

Many of the textiles at the show are naturally dyed, giving them these absolutely saturated and rich hues.

 

Grrrrr!!  Roar!!!

 

Artisans from Kala Raksha design their own products, including the most endearing cloth “board” games.  Women fashion game boards out of patchwork and embroidered fabric.  The pieces are leather or cloth figurines.  I should have bought “Chutes and Ladders.”  These games were among the most creative products I saw at Dastkar.

 

Patel Handlooms produces Maheshwari sarees in Madhya Pradesh, the region south of Delhi where I will be conducting my field research.  My first trip will be in a week or two!

 

The Nature Bazaar’s theme this year was the Camel.  “Be like a camel — carrying sweets but dining on thorns.” – Indian proverb

 

The art form of Kalamkari painting has existed in India for generations.  The name is derived from the Persian words kalam (pen) and kari (craftsmanship).

 

Kashmiri crafts seem to have had the most widespread success in international markets.  I have seen boxes like this for sale in the States for years.

 

Block-printers create beautiful fabrics, but I never considered the blocks themselves to be works of art — until I saw Mr. Tahir’s and his award-winning father Mr. Mohammad Ayyub’s masterpieces.  This block measured a foot and a half across, and its lace-like design was carved using metal tools as fine as dentists’ picks.  As I lingered over the blocks for sale, I chatted with Mr. Tahir the carver, a man about my age who provided me with a steaming cup of chai.  His family members have been carving wood blocks since the 1700s!

 

Swoon.

 

It’s high time I explained why, specifically, I have come to India.  But this explanation will have to wait until the morning.  It is 12:30am, and I am ready to be lulled to sleep by the artillery of pre-Diwali firecrackers outside my window…

Teatotaler

The ubiquitous chai is a staple of life in India. Our cook Anita brews a fresh pot for us every morning. (Yes, I feel spoiled.) Shopkeepers magically make tea appear if you’ve hung around their store too long. Chai-wallahs set up bunsen burner-like contraptions on the sidewalk, heat up dented metal kettles, and voila — heaven for 8 rupees. Paying 18 cents for a cup of fresh brewed chai is way better than paying 5 dollars for a Starbucks latte.

Here I am cooling off my chai and about to drink it like a pro.

Thanks to my “surrogate Mum” Christine for taking the picture and taking me out for lunch!

This is Indeed India!

“This is indeed India!  The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendour and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history…the one sole country under the sun that…all men desire to see and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give up that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”

- excerpt from Mark Twain’s Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (published in 1916…and still rings true)

P.S. I wish I could claim to have taken this picture.

Devin in Paradise

Slowly but surely, my Fulbright research is ramping up.  Each day, after three hours of Hindi class, a brief lunch, and wrangling with rickshaw drivers, I’ve been sneaking in research “field trips.”  Last week, I went to Dastkar’s Nature Bazaar — twice.Dastkar is an Indian “society for crafts and craftspeople…that aims at improving the economic status of craftspeople, thereby promoting the survival of traditional crafts.”  The organization annually hosts the largest craft show in India, the Nature Bazaar – just in time for Diwali shopping!

Dastkar brings together the widest array of high quality handcraft products and techniques that I have come across in one location.  If only the fair happened more than once a year!  To make up for this loss, I’ve been going as often as possible – twice so far last week and plans to go at least twice again before the fair ends.  (For research purposes, of course!)  The Nature Bazaar is both a direct-to-consumer retail opportunity for craftspeople, hailing from every corner of India, as well as essentially a tradeshow venue.  Buyers from all over the world travel to Dastkar to examine what innovative, creative items have been developed over the past year.  I spent my time at Dastkar ogling and petting every piece of cloth in sight and talking with as many artisans as possible.  I was surprised to discover that some of the vendors already sell at or have relationships with big American brands.  I talked with a weaver from Rajasthan (northwest India) who sells his gorgeous handwoven, naturally dyed shawls at ABC Carpet & Home in NYC (a drool-worthy store, to say the least), as well as Archana Kumari, a charming embroidery designer whose products may be appearing in Anthropologie this year.  (Fingers crossed!)  The Dastkar bazaar is my happy place.

Dastkar was hosted at the National Craft Museum.

Block printed & woven dhurrie carpets

Hand-stiched chappals (sandals) and slippers

New York, New York! Archana's embroidery may be featured in Anthropologie.

Yak Adventures in Middlebury sold similar pottery!

Pottery demonstration! Totally different than the wheels used in America.

Namdhas are unique felted floor mats from Kashmir.

In addition to the endless array of crafts, the Nature Bazaar features food and performances from all over India.  During my two visits, I treated myself to pyaz kachori (sort of like a fried pita pocket filled with onion and spiced deliciousness), stick kulfi (tall, thin, pyramid-shaped, cashew-flavored ice cream on a stick), and methi parantha with raita (fenugreek-spiced, bready pancake served with yogurt sauce).  I also watched and attempted to film traditional Rajasthani dance performances.  (You’ll figure out from the video that this is my first attempt to film live-action with my camera.  The film gives you an idea of what the dance and music was like, if you can manage to avoid getting motion sickness.  Future films will be better – I promise!)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTrtj9fuSE4]

Dastkar also features different types products that promote culture and more "organic" lifestyles. Loved these "seeds of wonder" from the Himalays.

Vegetables just taste better here.

I’ve been in India for a month now, yet I have to keep pinching myself to make sure this is all actually happening.

Hips Don’t Lie

When the “curry western” Sholay hit the box office in 1975, the movie ran for five years straight.  As you might guess, the film is an all-time classic in India.  Watching the movie is on my “cultural research” to-do list, so I asked for the DVD (in Hindi!) at a local shop.  The proprietor instantly became my best friend.  Almost everyone in India has seen Sholay, and you can too…on Youtube! 

Here’s the clip of the scene “Mehbooba Mehbooba” (“My Beloved”).  And damn, can the dancer shake it.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PCxTGZynpo]

Good Versus Evil or Barefoot in India

Good triumphed over Evil last week here in Lajpat Nagar.  In Hindu lore, Lord Rama rescues his wife Sita after the demon-king Ravana has abducted her.  The festival Dussehra commemorates Rama’s defeat of Ravana and is also evidently a perfect excuse to light off a lot of firecrackers.  Here’s what happened this Thursday on Dussehra.

For the last week, men and boys have been painstakingly creating twenty-foot tall effigies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhkarna, and son Meghnath.  On Dussehra, they erect these effigies, made of bamboo, paper, and straw, throughout the neighborhood.

A bit of rope trouble caused Ravana to sway before...

...standing up!

In the afternoon, a jumbled parade winds its jubilant way through the streets of Lajpat Nagar.  A sparkly man who I assume is Ravana rides his throne atop a horse-drawn carriage and calls out to onlookers.  He manages to entice some of them onto his float for personal attention and perhaps some demon-king curses.  (Similar to Santa Claus during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, if Santa spoke to you directly and if Santa was evil.)  Kids dressed as demon lackeys (maybe?) toss fruit – fruit! – into the crowd.  A marching band does some playing and some marching and a lot of posing for my camera.

A curse upon you! (I think...)

Souvenirs!

In the evening, the real fun begins.  Just as the sun begins to set, firecrackers begin exploding, frequently, loudly, and disturbingly close by.  Music blares, and horns honk as cars inch their way toward the central square of Lajpat Nagar, which is filling with festivalgoers, anticipating the show to come.  Reena, David, and I arrive in the square and deduce from the energy of the crowd that this show is going to be good.

On a stage in the middle of the common, male and female dancers swing their long black hair around and around their heads and spin in ecstatic circles to reenact the final moments of battle between Rama and Ravana and to excite the crowd.  And what a crowd.  People seem to be sitting on every flat and semi-flat surface, crowding around the roped-off area near the effigies, jostling for a better view of the stage.  Sparks from fireworks are spraying into the air in rather close proximity to the onlookers, and I can’t help but think to myself that in lawsuit-ridden America, festivals like this would never happen.  Which is definitely a shame.

 The battle rages on the stage, and finally the rescued Sita emerges.  The crowd roars, and a flaming arrow is shot into the effigy standing about twenty feet from Reena, David, and me.  The effigy ignites slowly and then…..did I forget to mention that all the effigies are filled with firecrackers?…starts to explode.  (Before continuing to read, parents should take a deep breath.)  The deafening noise and bright light starts to get closer because the pink, glittery, giant Ravana is toppling toward us.  The crowd surrounding us turns and runs.  In this flowing sea of people, I somehow manage to lose my shoe.

Post-explosion wreckage

Ravana hit the ground and burned out without really getting too close to anyone.  (Parents: I’m sure the turn-and-run instinct was more precautionary than necessary.  I have a feeling that the falling effigy situation is normal for Dussehra.)  So the excitement died down, and with the help of some giggling kids, I miraculously find my shoe!

The other effigies are subsequently burned, as are effigies throughout the neighborhood.  We can’t see them, but we can hear them when they are lit.  After all the Ravanas, Kumbhkarnas, and Meghnaths have been burned, a spontaneous dance party breaks out in the street.  (I’ll load a video of this tomorrow.)

And this is only the beginning of Festival Season in Delhi.