Thursday, November 15, 2007
How Was My Diwali?
“How was your Diwali?” asked K. I was on the way out, she on the way back home from work. “Oh, nothing much,” I said, with a weak smile. “What did you do?” “The usual, cooking, frying, eating more heavy food than I should,” said K, before I cut in to ask if she really enjoyed all this.
“Yes, I do. That’s the one day I try out new recipes. I made X, Y, Z … It gives me immense satisfaction. You DO have to slog, even for the Puja, but you have to work hard to get something, don’t you?” she said, with a “this is natural” smile.
Could I feel myself cringing, even as I told her I too loved cooking but only at my own pace? Over the years, all the “How was your Diwali?” questions are something I’ve come to field sportingly – sporting not because I think it’s none of their business but because the truth is that I don’t do anything much, which amuses or surprises people – but I’m always embarrassed to own up to it in the face of such enthusiasm.
As a teenager, soon after our home got its first TV, I was surprised to hear the sound of muted sniffling. A quick glance around the room revealed nothing – there was my grandmother and a couple of others watching the drama unfolding on the screen dispassionately, there was me, and my grandfather. Whom we had never known to watch a movie before the arrival of the TV into the house. And who was now struggling to maintain a straight face, lips pursed, his red nose the only giveaway. Tatayya cried?
One sleepless morning, at 5 a.m., curled up in a dark corner of the living room, I witnessed him stir, get up, go through the darkness of the dimly-lit room and straight into the puja room, put on the light and fold his hands in prayer. Tatayya prayed?
Till then, the only person whom I had known to do anything approaching a puja at home was Mother, who lit a lamp and sat in the small puja room for a few minutes every morning and evening. My grandmother would tinkle the brass bells hung in the bell-shaped cut-outs on the room’s door and I don't remember if I prayed at all.
The only time we had a puja was during Vinayaka Chaturthi and that was only family – grandparents, brother, father, mother – we would take turns reading the story of how Ganesha was created, beheaded and restored to life, how it is considered bad luck to see the moon on that day and how performing the Puja and reading the story would prevent you from being blamed for something you did not do – till today, this is the main reason for which I do the Puja. Selfish, hardly the true spirit of worship. But … once bitten, twice shy, a story for another day.
In my home, festivals were a day for gaarelu (vadas) and payasam. Sure, each festival came with its own prescribed pujas and sweets, but Mom’s lamp in the puja room, vada and payasam it was for us! As in most other homes I was familiar with. Sankranti was the harvest festival, which we town-bred ones looked forward to only for the sights – the Haridasu, the Gangireddu, the muggulu (rangoli). Dasara was a day for the Dasara puli, of thanking helpers and worshipping the tools that helped us ply our trades and get around – vehicles would get a special wash, be anointed with turmeric, kumkum and flowers, and a few coconuts would be broken in thanksgiving. And there were gaarelu and payasam.
And Deepavali? It was a day for decorating the house with earthen lamps, one for the groove in the Tulasi stand at the rear, the nod to Goddess Lakshmi; a day of insufferable noise, beautiful, often blinding, lights and fumes, of a tour of the neighbourhood, a day that ended with a vigorous shampoo to get all the chemicals out of your hair. And gaarelu and payasam, of course.
Several years later, Deepavali is Diwali, even in the South, and is more than crackers, feasting and family time. Back home in Andhra Pradesh, I was not aware that people had to formally exchange sweets for this festival, or others, for that matter – whatever we got or sent were homely affairs from close family in steel boxes, usually because they had been made, not because they had to be made. Hopefully, those home cooks did it out of their own free will and not out of guilt, not out of I-shouldn't-deprive-my-kids-and-grandkids and associated feelings but I will never know as they will never acknowledge; only laugh and say there was nothing to it, that it hardly took them any time. So is it just staying in a different region that puts the pressure on me to buy new clothes, make stuff to eat for the festival, and observe it in some way? Nobody forces me to do anything, so why do I feel I have to commemorate this now highly commercialized festival in some way?
This year, I didn’t have the time to buy fireworks, sweets for the neighbours (so I put them on a diet with some fruit), new clothes or the fixings for a grand feast. I didn’t plan a menu for the festive lunch, though I hazily intended to do something – how could I not, it was Diwali, after all, and I’ve already forgotten how we observed Dasara, just a few days earlier. Come morning, late rising and general lethargy, and The Spouse saying Hey, let’s get out of here fast, I don’t want to spend the day sitting at home, we find ourselves sitting in the food court in the relatively deserted mall, eating Mexican rice and tandoori vegetables. Was I for real? What happened to Diwali? All my plans for a festive meal?
Then after some rounds of stores to check out the festive season discounts, we come back home with an acquisition and light some candles, only to go out again, watch the fireworks, return, and eat the cold rice that I had cooked that morning (to salve my conscience – that I hadn’t totally ignored the festival) with some pickle and leftover curry and chutney from the fridge.
Then I see Bee’s post on her blog and it only intensifies the welter of emotions I already feel – which run the gamut from guilt to vindication - from wanting to eat old favourites, light a few sparklers, hunt for the earthen lamps somewhere in the belly of my storeroom but being too lazy to do this to wondering why I feel so much pressure to observe the day when there is none, except in my own mind.
Could it be that I wanted to observe it for the memories, to recapture a bit of the past, to celebrate a day off from the routine? I think so. I didn’t want the day to slip through my fingers like every day that has its own high points but doesn’t get recorded in a diary despite the best intentions; I didn’t want to smile feebly at people who asked me how my Diwali was and tell them that it was no big deal.
Arguably, the most visible face of Deepavali, the fireworks, is fading, and I miss that, though I myself buy only a packet of sparklers, and even then, rarely. More than the vadas and payasam, I miss seeing the houses lit up with rows of lights, a popular practice back home. I dislike the commercialization, and the lurid and loud character this festival has acquired. But, somehow, despite myself, this question, How was your Diwali, did work up some angst in me this time.
Note: This was what I wrote last night and debated posting - I'm posting it anyway. And oh, we went out for a walk tonight, in the inner lanes off our busy main road, and the air was cooler than usual, and the nightqueen's fragrance continued to accompany us even after we passed the house it grew out of, and I came home, took out my big blue diary and jotted the day's high points down. I've always wondered, how do you continue holding on to a nice experience, ensure it always stays with you?
Diwali Deepavali Musings