Diwali is at our threshold and I’m not sure that any of us even realize! It’s not like it was when we were kids: Loud, smoky, glittering and fabulous- spotted a month before, coming round the corner.
Diwali would seep into every sense of yours. The sounds of Diwali- hearing the explosive firecrackers, the laughter of people screaming and fighting while playing cards during unending card parties, the aartis* sung as soon as the final countdown towards D-day would begin, with the onset of Dhanteras.
You could smell it everywhere: marigolds being strewn into garlands and being sold on the roadside, the fragrance of mithais* and experimental snacks that moms would come up with to outdo each other when people would come visiting on New Year’s Day, the lung-throttling smells of anars* showering sparks all around glorious Marine Drive; and all that dust flying, as you sneezed incessantly, while you helped your mom with Diwali cleaning.
Diwali was tangible: not just a concept like a lot of holidays in other religions are. You could feel it in the smooth powders that streamed down from your fingers as you designed a different rangoli* for each day; you felt it in the heat that burnt your fingers as you tried to get the wick’s placement and the ghee’s proportion just right in order to have a long-lasting diya*; or in the manhandling of your chubby cheeks as each relative came and told you, “Mujhe pehenchante ho?” (“Do you recognize me?”) knowing fully well you hadn’t a clue; you touched Diwali in the crispness of your grandma’s new organza sarees that magically didn’t move no matter how much work she did, and in the gathering of food, money and your old possessions which you would hand away to those more needy.
The visuals of Diwali: oh so grand! There was colour everywhere, diyas lit outside houses and gates bedecked with flowers, families (from the poor to the wealthiest) out and about in their fanciest, newest buys- so sparkly you thought you were looking through a kaleidoscope into a jumble of colours that were Diwali!
And last but not the least: the tastes of the festival. The oily splendour of the first bite of the dal ka pakoras* that were your Pali Hillwali Bhuaji’s* Diwali specialty (which you had waited a year to sink your teeth into); the chalky sweetness of the cheap prasad* ka pedas* picked up by the pandit on the way to the Office Pooja; the taste of the ‘kadak* notes’ as you used your spit to aid you in counting all the money ‘gaddis‘* your dad had gotten home to make envelopes for his sisters and you for Bhai Dooj.*
Diwali was fabulous! Lakshmiji* came in, the elephants trumpeting her arrival so loudly that you couldn’t bear to think of anything else. From a month prior, your life was single-mindedly focused on the preparation of its onset.
These days you can’t feel Diwali till it’s actually here, on your doorstep, desperately knocking so that someone answers the door. The holy days seem to have become simply holidays, with parents looking for the best deals to fly abroad once their kids break from school: no flying for family (Diwali reunions with parents and/or in-laws). Dhanteras is spent dispersing of dhan* by buying designer wear at Dubai Mall, and kids are happy having known Diwali through the one token sports club Diwali party they are taken to before they jetset off to an exotic destination.
Schools and parents must be lauded for their efforts at reducing the usage of firecrackers and such pollutants but in our increasing practicality, have we forgotten our own culture? We seem to lay out elaborate Christmas Eve plans with cookies and milk left out for Santa, stuffing the bottoms of our plastic Christmas trees with gifts but have we forgotten to teach the kids about the gifts Lakshmiji brings when she too, silently, comes into our houses every Diwali? Have we forgotten that we need to keep our houses clean and light them up with diyas and flowers, so that as she passes on such a hectic day, blessing each person’s house, she does not miss seeing ours from the sky? After all, we must attempt to make them gradually understand the abstract value of blessings too.
Food porn used to be the dishes that you saw lined up at Diwali parties rather than Instagrammed pics of Thai Sticky Rice with Mango while people holiday. Nowadays there’s more concentration on securing Halloween costumes than buying our tots new clothes for Diwali. I’m not a gazillion years old and against playing along with Western traditions, but I feel like our own traditions must be instilled as well, with more vigour, because they are as resplendent and attractive, if only we expose our children to them.
Diwali isn’t tangible any more: I don’t feel the heat in my Chinese-made electronic diyas, and I can’t privately chuckle at my tone-deaf brother’s voice when I listen to the You-Tubed aartis. My house, after our pooja, is filled with the ringing of mobiles where we call in-town relatives and what’s app friends Happy Diwali messages, rather than indulge in cheerful banter with each other like we used to. In fact, we no longer attempt to visit my Pali Hillwali Bhuaji (“So much traffic in Bombay you know!”), but I hear her dal ka pakoras don’t taste the same anymore, either (“Aaj kal, koi fried nahin khaata. Yeh maine air-fryer main banaye hain.” Nowadays, no one eats fried food. I have made these in the air-fryer)
New Year days are empty, with most of our cousins having flown off (their Marwari families managing to have kept them local at least till Diwali night), and Bhai Dooj even more boring, because plans are postponed to weekends weeks after, to be celebrated at impersonal restaurants.
It’s just us (all the members of my household) trying to figure out how we should celebrate Diwali? The African saying goes, “You need a village to bring up a child”; just the same way, you need a village to celebrate Diwali (and teach your child customs and tradition). Otherwise, it’s just you holding your child’s hand in your sparkly little house, weaving a tale about the importance of Diwali, wondering if Lakshmi even bothers to leave Vishnu’s* side and come on her rounds, to see who bothered to stick around in your ghost town to be blessed by her non-material gifts.
aartis- prayer songs
Dhanteras-is the first day of the five-day Diwali Festival. It is usually considered auspicious to buy metal on this day.
mithais- Indian sweets
rangoli- a motif made on the floor, outside houses, with colored powders
diya- a small oil-lamp
dal ka pakoras- a fried snack made of lentils
Bhuaji- father’s sister (or grand father’s sister, in this case)
prasad- food that is a religious offering
pedas- Indian sweet
gaddi- wad of notes
Bhai Dooj- On this day, sisters pray for a long and happy life for their brothers, by performing the tika ceremony.
Lakshmi- Goddess of Wealth
Vishnu- is a central God in Hinduism and is Lakshmi’s husband.