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Vol. XXV No. 16, December 1-15, 2015

My first Diwali

An occasional column by a British freelance writer on her eight years in Madras
Fireworks boom, flames flicker and bulbs flash all over Chennai. Around India and the many parts of the world where Indians live, Diwali is a cause for celebration and an excuse for elaborate food, clothes, and parties. The first time can be frightening! Looking back at my diary for the year 2006 and my first experience of Diwali I was clearly overwhelmed. This is what I wrote:

“All night long noisy fireworks, mainly bangers have been going off and its not even Diwali yet! I begin to empathise with people living in war zones. Despite being mainly Christian the staff seem reluctant to work, but in anticipation of the Diwali bonus they battle on with one eye on the kitchen clock. Josephine asks me:
“Madam work long?”

“Yes I say, “Finish your work and then you can go home early”.

“The children arrive for their first visit to India tonight. I can only imagine how they will react to seeing people wearing plastic bags on their heads as they drive the hundreds of motorbikes that roar through Chennai’s flooded monsoon streets, to the accompaniment of violent banging noises.

“The streets are littered with the debris of bangers, which seem to be mainly made of paper. Many of the booze shops are shut but the ones that are open are doing a roaring trade.

“Having waited weeks for numerous household goods to arrive at our new home, there is a sudden rush of deliveries and workmen. The elusive carpenter appears, as does the electrician and the air conditioning operative. The doorbell rings every five minutes and I begin to suspect that their charm and enthusiasm may be related to money. It is. Everyone becomes very obliging around this time of year, there is much nodding of heads, standing around and well wishing, I get the idea and reach for my purse.

“The big day arrives and we are overtaken with the madness that is Diwali. All day the city has been booming with the dull thud of fireworks. Even closer are the heart-stopping explosion of bangers behind every car and fence, wall and street in the city.

“The dog is having a breakdown, she has managed to wedge herself under a piece of furniture on the terrace, and I sympathize and wish I could hide from the noise. There is nothing much to see in the sky and the air is thick with smoke like an old fashioned London smog, but when darkness falls the whole city is transformed and the true beauty and energy of the festival of lights is revealed.”

“This then is the greatest festival of the year. The return of Lord Rama with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana from a 14-year exile after vanquishing the demon King Ravana. And to light his way all the houses around us have lit small clay lamps called “dyas”.

“Diwali or Deepavali is the biggest and brightest of the Hindu festivals and seems to be a mixture of our Christmas and harvest festival all at once. The madness goes on for four days, each day separated by a different custom and I am wondering if every day will be as noisy?

“Traditionally everyone spring cleans their house at this time. In preparation for the visit of Lakshmi, doors and windows are left open to let the goddess in (assuming she can get past the security guard) brightly coloured chalk drawings, Rangolis, are drawn at the entrance to all the houses in our street including ours. (Who did that I wonder? Maybe it was the gardener).

“We and some other Westerners go to the Residency Towers, a star hotel with acres of marble flooring, palm trees in the foyer and tinkling piano music. After a drink at the ubiquitous pub (every country in the world seems to replicate our shabby English drinking establishments) we go to the 21st floor, the highest spot in Chennai, to watch the fireworks. I can hardly believe my eyes!

“The complete panoramic view is lit up with thousands of exploding colours. Fireworks as far as the eye can see. As the whole city explodes it has a psychedelic quality. I know that fireworks are cheap here by European standards, but nevertheless this is a hell of a lot of Rupees going up in smoke! I am impressed by this ostentatious devotion to the Gods; it goes on for several hours and has an almost Ancient Roman excellence. Wherever I look it seems as if buildings are literally on fire, and I guess this must be a busy night for the fire brigade.
“The children are predictably bewildered when they arrive in the middle of the night, but they find it fascinating and proclaim it better than Christmas in England. Rita, the cook, has made them a special chocolate cake, especially heavy and inedible, which I manage to dispose of at a friend’s house where we go for further celebrations. On their tennis court, fireworks are let of in a controlled Western manner. All the children squeal with delight as bangers shoot out at every angle and rockets soar into the sky and fizzle and die or burst into a hundred colours, a happy ending to our first Diwali experience.”

Cloaked under celebrating the various Gods and Goddess’s Diwali is really a social occasion. In former years it had stronger religious connotations, but now like Christmas it has become a commercial enterprise on a massive scale.
It marks the start of the Hindu financial year, no doubt for many people with a debt! The traditional gifts of new clothing and sweets have been inflated. The pressure to buy gold, clothing, and household items has increased, and economic liberalisation has had its effect on fashion too. Bling is everywhere and where once a girl might expect a new saree now she will be hoping for a visit to a high-end fashionable shop where she can snap up a mini dress or heavily embellished ensemble by a top Indian designer. While urban dwellers splash out on gold jewellery and expensive electrical items, in the poorer countryside and in tribal villages humble offerings and wholesome feasts resonate with the original religious meaning of Diwali

Festivals, and in particular Diwali, must be difficult for families with no money, living in poverty. Street kids have little enough to wear and a yearning for sweets and new clothing as they watch their better of neighbours who can only compound their misery.

While the many rapacious dentists in Chennai will be rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of the damage all those sweets will do, it is still worth celebrating the fact that in the modern world where everything is changing, festivals are one of the few ways to keep families together and cultural traditions alive.

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