I have a habit of finding secluded places – mostly hill tops – places where you get a good view of your surroundings beneath. As far as I can remember, I have always found this haven – wherever I have lived. Me and my friends used to call it – ‘The Spot’ - a place where we used to come to – to get away from the troubles of the world for a while. It is this place that I chose to write this article at …. For today’s article demands complete solidarity. It is upon a subject I hold very close to my heart – ‘Deepawali’.
I was asked to introduce the festival of ‘Deepawali’ once, when I was hosting our annual event. But under the pressure of time and existing circumstances, I could not express myself as fully as I would have liked..
It used to begin with the end of our middle semester at school. The beauty about being in a catholic school was that we used to get two long holidays in addition to the summer vacation: Diwali and Christmas!! Around October, the school would conduct its semester examination, which used to be followed by three weeks of vacation – encompassing the Diwali festival.. It was the most fun I remember having, as a child and was no less anticipated than the mangoes of summer…
Hardly being able to concentrate on the last exam, we used to run out the minute the last bell rang .. all kids would fall out with an ear shattering cheer. The last day of exams – had a tradition associated with it .. we used to come home and collect all of our used notebooks and strip the cardboard off them.. we would use these to make play mansions and kingdoms of ‘He-man’ and ‘Skeletor’.
On my way back home, I used to stop at the local ‘Garni’ – the guy used to ground flour for a living, but he also had a most exciting side business – that of selling kites and ‘manja’ – it used to be the best in town.
Every semester end, I would exchange all my savings for the finest kites and manja he could offer. Flying kites was a most popular game after school hours.. As Diwali used to come closer, the kite-flying would continue into late evenings and eventually nights. Using the day light as best as possible, we would pitch our best kites, as far off as we could – these were ‘Kandil-Patangs’ - or ‘Lantern-Kites’ – and they were off-limits to others for competition – in that you could not attack a ‘Kandil-Patang’ – anyone who used to break this most sacred code would pay for it – with his teeth – the more the loss – the more was the number of missing tooth.
At sunset, we used to light our set of paper-lanterns, sometimes as many as a dozen. This was a tricky business, since an incorrectly lit lantern could catch fire mid air – burning itself and severing the string with it – leading to a total loss. Hence the candles within had to be of perfect height and be placed in the exact center. The lantern would then be tied to the lead string and sent aloft … this needed a steady pair of hands an excellent wind-judgment..
When done correctly though, it was all worth it. Under the blanket of night and in the cover of darkness, all that was visible from the ground was a series of lanterns – magically floating in the sky … Just one of many sights to behold during those splendid nights…
Everything in Diwali used to be brighter, more colorful and in every way better than it was before. The television channels used to be punctuated with ads of ‘Nerolac Paints’ – exuding with vibrant colors, lively music and catchy tunes, they used to be the ‘peacock’s cry’ signaling the arrival of our most beloved – festival of lights – ‘Deepwali’!
On the first dawn of ‘Diwali’ – I would rise early with my dad and my little sister – this was a hard task for us kids – for we used to stay up late into the night talking about what this year’s diwali would bring. After dinner, I would tell my sister tales of my adventures, which fort was the best in town, which kid was rumored to have the fanciest fire-crackers and who had the most kite wins of the season – often times exaggerated – usually a little dishonest and awarding me more than my share of credit. My sister would promptly listen to all of my stories with rapt attention. Intruding questions and scrutiny were strongly discouraged – and so long as she stuck to the rules, our proceedings would be peaceful.
The first dawn was always the morning of a ritual bath. Which used to be always a most boring and suffocating time for us – for we would be dying to get out our fire-crackers and be the first to break the silence of the morn… the only saving aspect of the morning bath was the use of specially – reserved scented soaps – saved exclusively for the days of Diwali. As I would take that first bath, my heart would always be torn in two, one half wanting to get out and start the fireworks – the other wanting to stay in the cozy warmth of that beautiful soap-scent…
Dressed in newly bought colorful clothes – I used to prepare myself rigorously – like a soldier going out to war. One pocket filled with sparkles – the other with a matchstick box and a cheap candle, an armed toy fire-gun in my belt and a cardboard box of that days fireworks. Being the elder sibling, it was my duty to ensure that my kid sister not get any physical harm – and that she enjoy Diwali safely.
Placing the firework strategically, I used to warn her and then go out to light the firework, she always had her little fingers stuffed in her ears – long before I lit the fuse - and the minute she saw the firework lit, she would cry out – “Dada – dhaav!” – "Run!! – its lit" – it always used to strike me – funny – and I would want to tell her – “I was to one to light it – I know its lit!!” – but I would never snap at her – I could see the worry in her eyes – and I would come back to her – and stand with open ears – bracing for the sound – but never letting my face show - that at times, even I was afraid. And she would watch me with wondrous admiration – often times forgetting to see the actual firework explode.
At night – after I put her to bed, I would often come to the roof of our building. On a diwali night, it used to offer a most spectacular view of the city..
And you could see every house – from every building – until the very ends of the horizon – lit with lanterns and diyas – each street glittering like a spike of burning flame – streaks across the sky from rockets fired late into the night and hear distant echoes of people and their merriment – still unfinished.. and the city would look as lovely as a bride on her wedding night…
Its been a long four years, since my eyes have held Mumbai in that glory – since I have silvered my hands in gunpowder – a long time since I have cut my fingers flying kites – or have lost myself in that divine music – which only a Diwali night can offer..
My friends often ask me – what do you miss about Mumbai ?? I can never fully tell – except to say this – ‘When I stand upon a hill here – in the United States – I see massive highways – and street lights – but hear only the rhythmic swish of fast tires – rubber on concrete and an occasional police siren, in Mumbai you would hear a cacophony of sounds, of people fighting, of vehicles honking, of your neighbor’s TV blaring some soap opera title and a distant horn of night railways – you would hear the city talk. What do I miss about Mumbai ?? I miss her voice, I miss how she looked on a Diwali night!!