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?


  1. What should say Ara after reading ur post !! tears were rolling down unknowingly as I recall how we ( me with my entire family) used to celebrate Deepavali (not Diwali) back home with ammama and tatayya around.. , litting up crackers and sparklers in the front of ammama's big house.. I missed all that this Diwali and When my mom asked - "How was ur Diwali ? What did u do? " I had no answer for her.....:(

  2. We were never big on any festivals in my parents home. so no special memories as such except few in my grandparents homes.
    Not that I regret my parents didn't do anything special, I didn't care and I still wouldn't if I was in India. But here, I have to make an effort to do something because of the kids so they remember.They used to get excited about Xmas, then I made Diwali as alternate Xmas, so they can get presents and tell their friends when they brag about their Xmas gifts. Clever, huh?:D
    You shouldn't feel guilty sra, do what you like when you are just 2 adults at home. When kids come, life does feel different!! Enjoy the memories for now and create your own! Hugs:)

  3. How was my Diwali? completely tiring! i reached home pretty late and plus it was a weekday. I am lazy, don't do much for any festival, except meeting up with friends, if we get a chance :). The exception is Durga Ashtami when i make some halwa. Even back in India, our Diwali was just getting all the kids from the whole mohalla together and sharing sweets and fire crackers. And i understand how annoying it can get when people try to poke their nose in how you choose to live your life! I wish people would let others be.

  4. i think it has become a must to spend diwali in a set-norm..and if you deviate from the general way..there is this creepy feeling of guilt that comes over u which makes u feel like u have done something improper..don't worry have many friends here who feel the same way.
    I agree with asha tho..that when there are kids, the equation changes a little. I had asked my sis about how she keeps her enthu going with the tons of sweets and khara she makes..her answer was simple..for my that they get to enjoy all the treats we have had when we are kids :)...i guess it makes sense huh..
    I look at it this way..we have one life to live and till we do not harm to anybody we are not answerable to the society for enjoy ur diwali with eating old rice and pickle..who cares...

  5. maybe, sra, yo should start your own tradition - one that reminds you of the past, but with your own twist. like adopting a family for deepavali, or celebrating by yourself in your own way. it does not have to inolve crackers or a home-cooked meal if you don't feel like it.

    in india, i used to take a lot of pleasure shopping for the family of the lady who worked at my house. that was my tradition. here, we just call people who we need to catch up with, and maybe buy some goodies from the indian store.

  6. what a heart rending post sra...

    I have had some v v v good memories of celebrating festivites with my grandparents along with all my uncles aunts and cousins! I do try to do my best here in US to keep up the tradition, but compared to those, mine seems nothing!

  7. lovely write up!! I feel the same too... But I dont think theres much we can do :(

  8. Make your own traditions , the two of you, doing things which are special to you and what you care about! That's how you will like this festival or any other; following rituals which are meaningful to others and not to you leaves one feeling empty I think.
    And even when one has kids, it doesn't have to be what the others are doing, it can continue to be what is special to you as a family - and then that will become their family ritual!

  9. what just two adults can do on deepavali and that too when it comes on weekday? come bk home from hectic office day and sit and eat any left overs or got out and eat. back in india it was fun because we had families with us. but here when its just 2 of us we are neither in a festive mood nor have enough energy left. its not because we r lazy its just is not possible. and just imagine the quantity of food we need to cook for just 2 of us.
    i celebrated diwali by going out and watching movie. made obbattu the next day just because i felt like eating it. for me, the best way to celebrate diwali is to just sit back, relax and let the nostalgia take over:) what matters is the happy memories of that festival.
    hugs to u girl...

  10. here's my take:

    once upon a time:
    festivals = social/political/economic ends.

    and then with time:
    festivals = holidays
    holidays = full of fun
    fun = fill in the blanks

    the grand menus and traditions are people created - for people to have fun - but if one doesn't have fun (i hate holi colours and have a ideological issue with crackers) i think it becomes pointless to follow. angst as an emotion should be reserved only for if one is afflicted with laziness to have fun :)

  11. Beautiful post Sra...although, I have fond memories of Diwali back home, it was of course a less commercialised was Durga puja which was the main festival for us, ,but that too, when we moved out of Guwahati, I was appalled to see how commercially it was celebrated in some other places...which somehow makes it lose it's charm...I feel a bit guilty to say that in the last three years, we have not had the darshan of the goddess...although it was mainly because we didn't have any in our neck of the woods( we could have made that trip to witness another spectacle of commercialism), but probably because both me and D are not that concerned about where we long as the feeling is there in our hearts...but then,again, as Asha mentioned, when you have kids, you do tend to behave a little we just bought a few sparklers and lit a few lamps...and that went for Diwali.So don't fret over what others think...I used to, but have learnt my lesson.

  12. Great read, Sra... not unlike the pressure I often feel around this time of year, hurry up after Thanksgiving and get that Christmas tree up *quick* because there are only x days left till *the day*... I'm sure that guilt gnawing at our insides, whether real or imaginary, is universal!

    And so too, is the commercialisation.

    I'm so glad I just realised we have till January to do a grindless gravy -- am I right there? Have a great weekend :)

  13. and the cartoon is really cute sra. r u planning to change from food blogger to cartoon blogger? ;)

  14. I am not fond of huge holiday celebrations. Of course, I cannot speak for Diwali, but my favorite Xmas is a very low-key one, one that I miss now that I am married and outnumbered by extended family who take the overeating and shopping very seriously. How I deal is to have Easter my way, w/out family, fancy clothes or feasting. Excellent post, Sra. Thanks for putting it out there.

  15. Such a nice reading. Same here all our celebrations especially b'days were just payasam etc.
    I think the only big celebration we had at home was for Onam and for Christmas.
    I try to do special things for my daughter.

  16. Cute cartoon Sra... I like the old hair though... this is a bit too traditional ;)

    You know, my family was not big on any tradition... After coming here, I feel sad for my American friends, during Xmas time...They are always so stressed out, buying gifts, decorating, cooking etc... But I never realized a major population in India go through the same routine during Diwali! Festivals are supposed to be fun... So, don't sress out and do what makes YOU happy... Looks like you did have the perfect Deepavali...

  17. Siri, sorry to have touched a raw nerve, hope you get to have such Deepavalis again.
    Asha, same at my place - no big fuss except for some fun. This year, I didn't give myself any time for anything, I guess, just too busy with work and then wanting to make the most of a holiday without proper planning.
    Musical, me too, don't really do anything much. so maybe I wanted it to be different this time. And I don't mind people asking me how the festival was celebrated - it's just that I feel a bit awkward confessing that I didn't do anything.
    Rajitha, that's sweet, I think I was so hung up on 'enjoying' this holiday that it became more than it ever was in my mind.
    Bee, I've already done some of those things - just that I didn't want to feel like I'd frittered a holiday away ... the analysis continues. :)
    Divya, sorry! Hope it gets better with time.
    Ramya, thanks. You'll find a few suggestions in the comments :)
    Miri, that's a nice answer, thanks for the viewpoint.
    Sia, I know, I'd have like to watch a movie and then eat a calorie-free obbattu too - that's a perfect Diwali, esp the calorie-free. And no, I love doodling - even my profile pic is my own. Even at work, my notes are full of doodles of faces, flowers and geometric figures!
    Lakshmi, you are right.
    Sunita, thanks. I wasn't really bothered about others, just felt that their polite questions showed up my lethargy :)
    Linda, it IS universal - and in a developing country like India, Halloween, Mother's and Father's Days, Valentine's Day - these are the new commercial opportunities. X-mas has been commercialised for a long time. Now even small, regional festivals and practices like fasting for the husbands' welfare are being commercialised.
    Grindless gravy - you have until Dec 22, hope that's okay.
    Susan, Diwali has steadily acquired the magnitude of Christmas in the West - only difference is we don't seem to have sales labelled as post-Christmas sales!
    Sagari, thank you.
    Happy Cook, thank you. Yeah, payasam is standard celebration fare.
    Sig, I like to doodle but am not good at it, and holding the mouse for a long time is stressful, so the simplest hairstyle - in reality, I have v v short hair - shorter even than in my profile pic! Deepavali was never a big deal for us too, mainly the crackers, you know!

  18. Very beautifully written Sra. loved the last line
    " how do you continue holding on to a nice experience, ensure it always stays with you?"...really how do you ?

    Shouldn't we make memories too instead of just relying on nostalgia. Now with the daughter around, I feel the urge to make memories for her, things she can live by. Nothing that takes the fun out of it though. Amazingly the Durga Puja doesn't involve much work by the women folk...ah bliss

    We put out lights for deepavali but of course no crackers and yesterday she argues with me "Diwali doesn't have crackers" she insists *sigh*

  19. SRA...beautiful write-up as ever dear...Loved the post.....We had a great Diwali this year....A couple of families gathered and fired a lot of crackers until a neighbouring American lady came and started whining abt the noise we were making........Had good Diwali this year :-))

    Sra,Please don't mind If I don't comment the next few months as I would terribly busy with my academic work......Hope u understand dear....I will be back in no time :-)

  20. Thoughtful and provocative, Sra.

  21. I know what you mean - it seems like I'm constantly looking for ways to hold onto memories - waves of nostalgia hit me on some festival days just because I miss the togetherness. But I've finally come to realize that I can make a tradition and create my own comfort zones. And that has seemed to make a huge difference.

    Maybe you should find your special way to celebrate a festival. Or even start your own new celebration - am sure several of us will gladly join in :)

  22. Sandeepa, thanks, little S can only believe what she sees!
    Sirisha, best of luck with your work, come back soon!
    Cynthia, thanks, just wanted to record the pressure I drove myself into feeling.
    Kaykat, I'm sure it will be a more cheerful post next year! :)


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