My calendar on the laptop says it 32 minutes until Diwali/Deepavali and my FB feed is filled with wishes for a safe and prosperous new Diwali. It’s one of my most favourite festivals and once again, I find myself far from home. This is a pretty big festival in our household and one for which preparations begin much earlier.
The weeks preceding Deepavali is filled with cleaning the house. At least for my mum it is. I get too distracted discovering half forgotten things found during these cleaning sessions. It means moving the showcase on which our TV stands and finding the million pens my mum loses, or the rubber bands and hair clips that my sister and I do. Climbing the attic to bring down the giant mandap and in the process finding some old books or photos.
Cleaning the mandap and fitting the pieces back to actually make it resemble one is another one of the very fond memories that I have of this festival. Its pretty hilarious trying to fit the columns into their holes on the roof as my mum and sister hold the base and the columns together. And it never works on the first try. Several failed attempts and many nearly crushed fingers later we manage to put it all together.
The market near our house is always abuzz during festival time but Deepavali adds a certain charm to it. The overcrowded streets, vendors trying to get you to buy their wares, people bargaining, the autos and other vehicles trying to make their way through the cacophony of it all, just add to the festivities. I find it incredibly amusing and fascinating as my mum manages to bargain four stalks of the banana plant, a dozen banana leaves and mango leaves all for the price of one. Let’s not even discuss her skills when it come to flower and vegetable vendors.
After finally managing to get home the chores are set aside for the next morning. Of course, it all falls to Ma the next day but she likes to think she’s incharge and we let her. Waking up to the house in Deepavali mode is one of the best experiences. It’s never before nine, you didn’t think I’d rise earlier did you? it’s a holiday after all, the house is filled with music (devotional songs of course, I actually like these and can sing along to most of them but I resist the urge) and delicious smells. After brushing my teeth and washing my face a good part of the next half an hour is spent trying to annoy Ma by trying to touch her (You see, she’s been up for probably 3 hours now, had a shower, cleaned the front yard, drawn a rangoli and got started with the cooking for the day. Since everything she cooks is first kept in front of God, we’re not allowed to touch her without taking a bath because we’re still dirty.) It’s more exciting than it sounds trust me.
When I see that she’s not amused anymore and her face is starting to get that annoyed look, I escape into the bathroom to take a shower. After I’ve had a shower I’m immediately put to work. Decorating the front door with the mango leaves (it’s called making a toran), cleaning all the portraits and decorating them with flowers is all my work. It’s actually harder than it sounds and takes me a good hour to be done with it all. Then there are small chores and errands like cutting some vegetables or running to the store to buy some last minute things we forgot. By one in the afternoon we’re free to do whatever we want and this time, of course, is spent sprawled on the sofa watching some mindless Diwali flick playing on TV while waiting for lunch.
Lunch is always a late affair on these days, what with all the cleaning and decorating, and usually happens after the pooja. Even though it is late, it lasts quite long. Ma then retires to her room to read something and the sister and I follow suit. We lounge around on the bed and read until Ma falls asleep and we make fun of her snoring noises. After a quick ten minute nap Ma is up and refreshed (I don’t know how that woman does it but I hope that gene was passed on to me). She then starts preparing stuff for the evening pooja. I find most of this stuff irrelevant to this post except for one – kajjaya. Kajjaya is the sweet Ma makes every Deepavali. This means the gas stove comes down on the floor, Ma sits in the centre and is surrounded by banana leaves with kajjaya batter on them. It’s quite difficult to make and takes longer than any other sweet she makes but it’s all worth it!! It’s crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Easily the best sweet around during this time.
Promptly at five in the evening when the noise of crackers starts to increase and the sister and I realise it will all go faster if we help, we offer our services to the mother. She begs to get ready and a round of arguments ensue over what to wear. After wasting an hour on it she makes us visit all the neighbours’ houses with sweets. By the time we’re back she has everything ready, I’m beginning to think she sends us out just to get the work done. I can’t believe I always thought we were being helpful!!
Now this is the best part of the day, there is normally a pooja again after which we can go light the diyas. Ma reads a story from a very old book. This book belonged to my grandfather and is so old that it’s yellow in colour and so brittle that it’s falling to pieces and don’t even get me started on that handwriting! Its all written in old Kannada and yet Ma reads it flawlessly! She thinks about writing it all out again before the book actually falls apart but so far every year has been a false alarm. I’m actually going to miss it when she gets around to doing it. The story she reads is about the rituals we follow during Deepavali and why its important. It’s one of the most beautiful stories I’ve heard and even though I’ve heard it year after year I never tire of it. Once she’s read it she ties the nopi thread around each of our wrists.
Now these nopi threads are different from the normal threads you get outside every temple. They are only available in a handful of colours and they bleed on contact with water. So of course, we are picky about the colours we want. The threads also have a gold cylinder threaded into them, these are reused every year and we all have one which is ours and insist on just that one being threaded on. These nopi threads stay on all through Deepavali and my hand actually feels quite weird once its removed.
After the thread drama there is the lighting the diyas drama. You see, there are two parts to lighting the diyas. Step one: Fill diyas with oil and put the wick in. Step two: light the diya. Step one is boring and not to forget quite messy and hence, neither the sister nor I want to do it. Cue fight. Until Ma intervenes and manages a compromise. Diya lighting is my most favourite part of Deepavali. There’s nothing quite as beautiful as watching your house all lit up and beautiful. Year on year, its the same house, more or less the same pattern but ever beautiful.
As kids we used to play with crackers but not anymore. I gave up on crackers twice. As a kid I was very fond of the sparklers, flower-pots and chakras. I always had a love hate relationship with those gun cracker things. Every year I’d see other kids playing with it and be tempted into playing with one myself, sometimes it went okay, other times I ended up hurting my hand and swearing off it until the next year. Anyway, as I said I was very fond of flower-pots. When I was about eight, and lighting a flower-pot, it suddenly burst like a bomb. Fortunately, I wasn’t hurt but needless to say I was traumatised and couldn’t stop crying. Even watching my little sister have fun while playing with crackers was not enough to change my mind. Taking a pledge to not burst crackers the next year at school ensured my abstinence from fireworks but pretty soon I was back to bursting crackers. It was only when we got a dog and I watched the poor thing shake in fright that I swore off crackers for good. The pleasure I derive from bursting a cracker is no where close to the pain that these poor animals go through. It’s just not worth it.
One of the best parts of Deepavali is the oil bath. Traditionally, on the first day of Deepavali, you massage your entire body with oil and take a hot water bath. In my house, we have an additional tradition of drawing on the bathroom walls after massaging the oil and waiting for the water to heat up. We had a traditional fireplace and the water used to get heated up from the fire we made from the coconut husks in our front yard. Both the sister and I got half of the bathroom walls to draw on and it made us feel like artists. We drew diyas, flower-pots, rockets, chakras and everything else associated with the festival. Poor Ma who had to clean it all up later. This is all part of the Ganga pooja where you worship water.
It’s been three years since I’ve celebrated Deepavali at home and while I miss the noise and the general exuberance during the festival, I miss the little things more. Of course, I try to celebrate a tiny part of Deepavali by lighting candles in my room but I still miss the general brilliance of my house. I guess it is one of those festivals which you have to be home to really celebrate.
Happy Deepavali to you all!! May the festival of lights bring new light into your life and fill it with brilliance.