Growing up in India, Diwali and Holi were my favourite festivals. These were two occasions that were especially popular, celebrated together by families, neighbours and entire communities. Popularly referred to as the Festival of Lights outside India, Diwali will be celebrated this year on October 19.
I remember how preparations for Diwali would start weeks in advance. We would accompany our grandmother to select the most symmetrically-shaped “diyas” (clay lamps). Considered “pure,” a small quantity of unspun cotton fibre would be purchased to make wicks for the lamps along with a few bottles of unrefined “sarson ka tel” (mustard oil) to use as fuel. The clay lamps would be soaked in a bucket of water for a few hours to reduce oil absorbency. Grandmother would direct the process of making wicks by rolling wads of cotton between our pressed palms, continuously showing us how to ensure the final product was neither too thick nor thin as either would cause the diyas to light up unevenly and splutter off. Late in the afternoon on Diwali day, all the household kids would excitedly gather the diyas and mark each other’s “territory” to place them equidistant, on the parapets of the roof and boundary walls and, on either side of the driveway leading to the house. The wick would be carefully positioned in each diya and a quantity of mustard oil poured in, so that the soaked wick could be easily lit later when it started to get dark. We had a small “tulsi” (holy basil) bush in our backyard and our grandmother would ensure that four small diyas were placed in each corner around the sacred tulsi. Some neighbourhood “aunties” representative of states like Bengal, Rajasthan, UP etc., would make intricate decorative patterns (“rangoli”) on the floor by their main entrance, using coloured rice, dry flour, coloured sand, lentils and flower petals. Rangoli is considered to be auspicious and said to bring good luck.
Industrious ladies would set-to, producing an assortment of savoury and sweet delicacies according to individual family recipes and traditions. Most people would place orders for boxes of assorted “mithaai” (Indian sweets) with the local “halwais” (sweet makers) days in advance. Over the years, this simple ritual of extending goodwill and good cheer got transmuted into a more elaborate exchange of “corporate gifts” by way of hampers that included not just sweets, but choicest Scotch, dried fruits, Swiss and Belgian chocolates and an assortment of other hard-to-find, expensive goodies. Firecrackers were bought in sufficient quantities to outlast the “firepower” display of neighbours, well into the night. While the display of ostentatious behaviour continues unabated to this day, the use of firecrackers has been banned in Delhi this year to mitigate the already high levels of air and noise pollution in the city.
People often allude to the Upanishad shloka excerpt “Tamso ma jyotirgamay” (Keep me not in the Darkness (of Ignorance), but lead me towards the Light (of Spiritual Knowledge), when speaking to the ethos of Diwali. However, like most things – whether spiritual, religious or just plain common sense – the true spirit of Diwali has been eclipsed by ritualistic and populist symbolism. A display of our observance of so-called traditional behaviour takes precedence over being sensitive to and caring for those less fortunate than us. In showing off the glamor of Diwali we are forgetting its essence. Today, while the electric bulbs strung outside our houses are no doubt a lot brighter than the traditional diyas, I long to replicate the rows of those twinkling earthen lamps, each one bravely dispelling a small patch of darkness and in the process giving off a plume of thick soot, rich with the fragrant aroma of the combustible sarson ka tel. The essence remains long after a flash of lightning has passed, I think.
While not entirely relevant, for some reason the following lines penned by Gulzar or possibly, the scholarly Harindranath Chattopadhyay and delivered by the protagonist in the hit movie Bawarchi (The Cook) came to mind:
“Khushi ke gaane to phuljhari ki tarah hain; jalte hain aur bujh jaate hain. Udaasi agarbatti ki tarah jalti hai der tak aur bujhne ke baad bi mehekati rehati hai”
[Happy songs are like sparklers; they light up and get extinguished. Anguish is like an incense stick that burns for a long time; its fragrance continues to linger long after it has burnt itself out.]
Today, more so than ever before, perhaps it is important to remember what the poet Hafeez Banarasi has written:
“Sabhī ke diip sundar haiñ hamāre kyā tumhāre kyā
ujālā har taraf hai is kināre us kināre kyā”
[Each person’s lamp is resplendent; whether mine or yours
Brightness is all around; what is (the meaning of) this limit or that border]