Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Deepavali Nalvazhuttugal

(Heavy nostalgia ahead)

When did I stop believing in celebration?

This year Deepavali resulted in a four-day weekend that I swore I wouldn't spend in Hyderabad, specially in the absence of The Roommate and Mommy. I spent it in Bangalore, dividing time between aunt's house and various friends. The house smelt of sweets and ghee the entire time, and the aunt was absorbed in mysterious alchemical activities that made my mouth water.

I didn't have any new clothes, so the aunt promptly packed me off to Shoppers Stop (apostrophe-free and hilariously oxymoronic) to acquire some. I actually found a kurta that [a] fit [b] was tasteful [c] was festive and [d] cost less than Rs. 1000. That evening we put on nice clothes, stuffed our faces and danced about in the living room - just the aunt, the uncle, one cousin and meself. It was lovely.

The next morning, levered out of bed at 7am, I had oil put on my head (having flatly refused to go the whole hog) and stumbled into the bathroom to shower and wear the new clothes before I was allowed any tea (oh cruel cruel). Then we spent the day eating. Seriously. Periodically the aunt and uncle would pop out to visit someone and take them sweets, only to return with more sweets.

It made me wonder. I don't think I believe in god, and I definitely don't believe in religion. If we have a religion in my family (Mommy, Appa, Scoo and I) it is skepticism. But we used to celebrate things, even Christmas, with gay abandon. Every year Scoo and I would torture some poor potted plant by draping it with nonsense and plot and scheme and save and buy presents, and my mum would get us plum cake. No one asked for a second about the god aspect of it. At Ganesh Chaturthi I would insist on acquring a really pretty new ganesha and then refuse to do the visarjan, having grown too attached in the intervening ten days. Pongal involved the ritual of whining and protesting and choking down the yezh-curry-kootu before I was allowed any sakrai pongal, and Holi involved tossing dry colour at people and hiding from the driver who would show up with a ton of gulal just after I had gotten clean. When we got older, Scoo and her friends used to do wild things for Holi.

But Deepavali was the thing.

I would plan and negotiate for days with my mum over the clothes, and heaven knows how I survived that much incredible excitement at the shops and the tailors. Then there were the giddy hours of choosing crackers, and of course, more negotiation. My mum, the poor valiant woman, would try and try and TRY to make us buy rockets and bombs and other Exciting Crackers, but all we wanted were sparklers, flowerpots and chakras. She would buy the lone bomb or rocket, and as we cowered in some corner, set them off. I remember I loved the black snakes! What a struggle it was to get me to hold a sparkler (yes I was a fraidy (you guessed it) cat). For the longest time I would only hold the long ones, until the sparks got too close. And how I HATED the coloured sparklers with those unpredictable bursts of light. One year my grandfather coaxed me into holding a normal sparkler with its tip stuck into a badaam fruit, and thus arrived my liberation. He also taught me to bend the tip and spin it to get circles. Of course we'd write our names in the air as well. Oh the woe if it rained at the time, and the tension while waiting to see if it would let up. And then, when it was all over, a big bonfire for the leftover paper and boxes.

The other excitement was the sweets. My mum would make chocolate barfi. *drool* Even once we went away to college we'd make her make it around Deepavali just so we could eat it. Once again the alchemy: how does besan (yuck) become that gooey joy! I remember skulking about the kitchen waiting for a taste, burning my finger trying to scoop some out of the plate as soon as it was spread, and ah the nirvana when she gave me the scrapings from the kadhai. The barfi would be jealously guarded as the days went by and the stock got lower.

One year, my friend who lived upstairs and I decided to go for a walk and collect spent rockets the day after. We amassed a huge collection that then lived in the musty "back-kitchen" with the cats for a very long time. I don't know what we did to it finally.

Deepavali was also the only time of year our darling doggie was allowed in the house, and she usually spent it cowering under the dining table in terror at the crackers.

As we got older and were allowed to handle the lamps there was the discussion about how many we should buy, where they should go, what the pattern would be, to pour oil before or after setting them out, who made better wicks, who got to light which ones in which order, whether we should paint them or not, what we should paint on them, whose were nicer, ad infinitum. One year I painstakingly learnt to write out Happy Deepavali in Tamizh, so I could put it in cards. We also used to SEND cards! Which meant more excitement in picking which patterns and who got to write out whose cards and what to say.

In all this, there was no god.

In the past few years I have done nothing for Deepavali. Well ok, I hosted a dinner in New York, and wore a sparkly salwar kameez and put candles in the window. Last year I forgot about it entirely. Both years I went to the fireworks and desi mela at Water Street in early October. I put it down to my lack of interest in religious things, how much it pollutes, child labour in making crackers, and so on. But I seem to have forgotten all the things it stands for that are important to me: family, love, food, planning, coming together.

This post is to remind me why I love festivals. If I worry about how religion is beginning to destroy my country, then I take this pledge right now: I will celebrate life and love and togetherness; I will take it upon myself to remember that we have festivals to rejoice in life and its patching-together-ness and therefore do all I can to live, rejoice and patch together.


  1. Luffffly! :)

    (Though I'm a bit miffed that you never once sent me one of these famed diwali cards...:D)

  2. hey hey HEY! you came alone after the cards stopped. and heaven knows how many friendship bands I made you :P

  3. Indeed. I still do many of those things, maybe because of years of deprivation in college. And Minkie? Next time, enjoy Deepavali present instead of mourning Deepavali past.

  4. Sigh. Ya. You know I never realized through these years that I ALWAYS went home for Diwali? And now I feel the pain. All the food, all the excitement of all the food, the customary oil bath, the 'who wakes up' first challenge. Sigh. I miss it all now.

  5. patching togetherness eh? I second it. now come home so I can work on my version :)

  6. indianabroad, i did too enjoy present, it just made me realise how i haven't the past few years. to wit the first 2 paragraphs!

    nandu, its ok you can become stud like Scoo and start making kalakhand and whatnot!

    dragonfly, im cominnnggg im cominnnggg only 1 week left :) jib