07 November 2010

Tis the season (of Diwali)

Diwali has a nice tagline; it's the "Festival of Lights." In Hinduism, it commemorates the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom after fourteen years of exile and an epic battle with the demon Ravana. But just as Christmas as celebrated today has a tenuous connection with a guy born in a shed in ancient Palestine who may or may not have been God incarnate, Diwali, which fell on 5 November this year, is about eating good food, spending time with family and, of course, blowing stuff up.

Traditionally it is celebrated with simple oil-burning lamps called diyas, which are placed in rows. (The word Diwali is a contraction of "Dipavali" meaning "row of lamps" in Sanskrit). A diya is just a wick and a reservoir of oil. Now of course strings of electric lights are everywhere, and Delhi becomes a riot of colours. Exactly like Christmas, commercialization means the rich compete with each other to put the most kilowatt hours on display in front of their homes and the simple gift boxes of yore have been replaced with overflowing monstrosities. (A friend of mine received a couple of gifts in the latest fashion: Rather just presenting sweets in a box, as in the old days, the giver had bought crystal dishes, had a sweets-maker fill them and then offered the whole ensemble.)

The symbolism of the lamps, the triumph of good over evil, is evocative. A lamp is placed in the darkest part of the house to banish the darkness from it. In Hindu homes, such as the one I visited this Diwali, a simple puja (prayer) is performed once everyone has put on nice clothes. Incongruously the altar in this particular home was in the teenage daughter's room, so I had to keep reminding myself that we were praying to Ganesha and Lakshmi rather than to Hannah Montana or the Jonas Brothers. I received the traditional vermilion dot on my forehead, and felt a strong connection to this family I had only met recently and to Hindu culture more generally. (Because I study Urdu and Persian, I tend to identify with Indo-Islamic culture.) I had the thought that I really want my (as yet imaginary) children to spend Diwali in India so they have the full experience.

After the visiting of friends and relatives, the event all the boys have been waiting for takes place--and continues until about four in the morning. Fireworks of every kind are set off. There are sparklers, loud crackers, bottle rockets, cones that burn with a solar intensity in phosphorus white and green, red balls called anaar (pomegranate) that live up to their name by scattering exploding "seeds," and big fireworks that shoot a few hundred metres in the air. I've celebrated Diwali in New York but with the City's restrictive laws on things that explode, it was all very tame. Here on the other hand you can look in any direction and see fireworks going off. In fact, one ended up falling on a car on our street, adding a car alarm to the cacophony. When you look around, you know that people are doing the same thing as you not just in Delhi but across India, and you feel part of a much larger whole. A couple of months into my long stay here that sense was just what I needed. The exuberance of the night before was still on display when we drove home in the morning, and saw Delhi blanketed in smog from the fireworks.

Bonus: A sign at the security checkpoints on the Metro: "No crackers on Metro" Being an American, I couldn't help but imagine security personnel confiscating packets of saltines.

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