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