Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Diwali!

When I returned back to Delhi from Kolkata at the beginning of October, I saw that the marketplaces were starting to put up lights.  I also noticed a whole host of “Diwali sales” advertised in stores and newspapers.  People explained to me that Dussehra (celebrated as Durga Puja in Kolkata) marks the day on which Rama killed the demon Ravan.  Exactly twenty days after this battle, Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshman returned to their home city of Ayodhya.  It was a moonless night, so the people of Ayodhya lit thousands of lanterns to welcome Lord Rama home.  Hindus now celebrate this day (which is governed by the lunar calendar, but tends to fall in October or November) as Diwali.  This year, it fell on October 26th.

For years, people have been telling me that Diwali is the Christmas of India.  The legends are different of course—the birth of the Christ child and the homecoming of Rama, Sita, and Lakshman differ quite a bit—but the theme of light overcoming darkness occurs in both stories.  Also similar is the excitement surrounding both holidays.  In a conversation about Delhi weather, one person noted: “October is when Delhi starts to cool down.  The beginning of the month is still not so pleasant.  But you can start to feel the weather change; and, more importantly, the holiday season is coming, so you can smell the excitement in the air.”  Cooler weather?  Smell the excitement of the festive season in the air?  Sounds like Christmas to me.  Except here, rather than the peppermint, gingerbread, and pine needles associated with America’s holiday season, the festive season here brings the equally wonderful and intriguing scents of freshly exploded, smoking fire crackers, incense, cardamom, and mithai.  

As the shops were readying themselves for Diwali with sales, promotions, and decorations, the festive season was also in full swing at my school.  Starting after the Dussehra break, classes would frequently be interrupted by loud explosions.  At first I was confused, but then I learned that no, we were not being attacked.  Some pranksters among our students were simply setting off firecrackers. The teachers conducted “bomb checks” ever day, which consisted of pat downs and random backpack inspections, but a few firecrackers always managed to make it into the school.  As Diwali drew nearer, the explosions increased, both in decibel level and frequency.  Naturally, this made it difficult to teach, as loud bomb blasts during school tend to be distracting.  I secretly didn’t really mind though, as the kids’ excitement was so contagious. 

The day before Diwali is actually also a festival, known as Choti Diwali (literally, “Little Diwali”).  To me it seemed equivalent to Christmas Eve.  Nevertheless, my school was in session on Choti Diwali.  In my opinion, this decision by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation was a very poor one.  Most of the students did not come to school that day, and those who did acted as any culturally Christian child would act if made to come to school on Christmas Eve.  The teachers seemed to know that this was going to happen, so, rather than waste time trying to teach, they allowed the children to decorate their classrooms, and have free time.  I had a wonderful time walking around the school, admiring the rangoli (colorful designs on the floor, made with colored rice powder or sand), and elaborate wall hangings created by the kids.  I also had a really nice time just sitting in the classrooms, playing games and chatting with the students.  I was pleased to see the other teachers doing similar things: even some of the strictest teachers were doing crafts and organizing charades games!  The atmosphere was relaxed and jovial.  Deafening cracker blasts were going off continually, but the teachers just chuckled (“Wow, who set that one off?  Vikas Sir I think that was your class!  Well done!”).  I chuckled as well, and was glad to see that the teachers seemed to be having as much fun as the kids.  Even teachers were young once, after all, and it’s these kinds of holidays that tend to bring out the kid in all of us.

After school I went to my coordinating teacher’s house, where I had a wonderful meal, and had the opportunity to meet her family, all of whom were very kind to me.  I especially enjoyed talking to her daughter, who is a college student, and around my age.  She also happens to be a very talented artist, and was busily working on a rangoli design when I arrived.  She patiently taught me how to position my hands to allow the powder to run through and create a neat line on the ground.  After a little practice, I was in no way perfect, but definitely hooked.

After returning home, I went for a walk with a few other ETAs around Malviya Nagar, so we could admire the lighting displays.  This was particularly nice for me, as taking “light walks” during America’s holiday season is one of my favorite parts about December.  And these Diwali lights were definitely on par with some of the best displays I experienced both in Philly and in Potomac.  Our walk also took us to the Malviya Nagar main market, which was beautifully decorated, and packed with shoppers buying last minute gifts, sweets, and puja items.  Despite the madness of it all, everyone seemed excited and happy, and I was glad to be able to soak it all in.

Our house! (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

Stall selling decorations (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

Malviya Nagar main market (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

The next day, I woke up bright and early and walked to the gym.  The streets were lined with vendors selling flower garlands., and the steps up to the gym were lined with lighted diyas (oil lamps) and marigolds, which was a nice surprise.  After coming home, my roommates Jessica, Krish and I got to work on some rangoli designs.  Very soon, we were joined by Ananya, a five-year old girl who lives next door, and our landlord’s daughters, Manvi (10) and Chaittali (5).  Together we made quite a nice display in front of the house, if I do say so myself.  Below is the proof:

Ananya, Chaittali, and Jess, hard at work.

My rangoli!

Manvi and her masterpiece.

Our rangoli.

That evening, Krish was nice enough to let Jessica and me sit in on his Diwali puja, despite the fact that we kept on peppering him with questions.  Krish patiently endured our curiosity, and we had a really nice puja together.  Below is a picture. 

Krish's shrine.

At about 9:30, all four of us roommates went upstairs to our landlord’s apartment where we enjoyed a delicious dinner together.  Of course, we experienced the classic Indian hospitality, and I know I at least ate far too much for my own good.  All throughout our dinner, Manvi and Chaittali were restless, constantly making faces at their father and telling him to hurry up.  For the best part of the Diwali—the fireworks—was yet to come, and they did not want to wait another minute.

Soon enough, we all headed out to the rooftop terrace where Manish (our landlord) and some of the family’s friends exploded all kinds of fireworks and firecrackers.  Some of them were a little scary, but the whole experience was a lot of fun.  Eventually I learned how to avoid the scariest, loudest crackers: if Manvi ran away shrieking, I knew it would be wise for me to do the same.  We also got to light sparklers, something that I hadn’t done in years.  So much fun!  The whole neighborhood, and no doubt the whole city, was an explosion of light, sound, and color, as every other household was doing the same thing that we were doing.  From our high perch, we could see families down on the streets and up on their balconies lighting all kinds of explosives, as well as the fancier, larger fireworks being set off farther away.  Certainly not eco-friendly, but very enjoyable.
Jessica with her sparkler. (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

Manvi and Chaittali lighting their sparklers. (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

Fireworks! (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

As my last time in India had not coincided with Diwali, I was delighted and grateful to be able to experience the holiday this time around.  I was especially grateful to be able to celebrate with a family, as this is such a family oriented festival.  And though I suppose I could have used the five day weekend to do some traveling, I am extremely satisfied with my decision to stay in Delhi, which is becoming more and more like a home as time goes on!  

1 comment:

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