Chicago Blues

This blog is an online repertoire of my columns that run in the Indian Express, North American edition. Here I rave and rant about life, mostly as seen from the large vistas of my little world.

Location: Chicago, United States

Friday, December 21, 2007

Deliquescing in Diwali Dreams

With Halloween around the corner, and the barrenness of Fall settling in, there is not only enough spookiness in the air; but if you put your mind to it, you might hear, along with the haunting hoots of owls and hum of fiendish tunes, the clamor of firecrackers cannonading somewhere faraway; you might smell, along with the sugariness of candies and pumpkin pies around, the sweet essence of milky, cardamom-laced halwas and kheers permeating through the walls of Indian homes. Of course, the aura of scented candles that burn slyly behind closed windows, functioning as makeshift diyas, are bound to suffuse your senses too, but there is no patisserie that comes even close to our good old Indian mithais when it comes to bringing to us the spirit of the festival we miss the most being where we are - Diwali.

My earliest memories of the festival comprise mainly of cartons of firecrackers stacked away on an unreachable, cozy attic in the guest room at my parents’ house; early morning Pujas - where one woke to the mellifluous sound of the sacred bell ringing, and the whiffs of burning diyas and incense sticks; and an assortment of special dishes, eaten and relished with the family huddled up under a reverberating roof that was exposed to shrieking, fired-up “rockets.”

How that carton of firecrackers would get up on the attic was a mystery to me for years, but when I persisted once during the detective-minded teen years, I found out that it was actually a yearlong plan - there was actually a “fund” allocated especially for the festival - the typical proletariat way of maximizing efforts and investments in those days - this monthly fund would be deposited in a box at my father’s office, and at the end of the scheme, there would be a sweepstake, with no losers, for there would be only one winner each year who walked away with the big prize, but every participant would walk home with a kitchen appliance, a cutlery set, or a household item of their choice, plus, the big bonus, a carton of firecrackers. The carton would only be opened on Diwali, and the firecrackers would be rationed among the children, with the eldest, sober sister choosing her share of enormously risk-free, long-handled “sparklers,” the daredevil brother getting all the big, “dhamaka” bombs, and I, being the smallest, having to make do with teensy packs of the less-dangerous red “patakas,” the spouting-hissing “snake-tablets,” and “flower pots” that spewed smithereens of glittery-lighted sparks.

As for the Pujas, the three days of Diwali (as well as several consecutive days that led up to “Tulsi Puja”) were each auspicious in their own merit. The sound of the sacred bell, a prelude to the “aarti” would begin filling the house on the first day of “Naraka Chaturdashi,” flow into the following evening, when Goddess Lakshmi would be worshipped, and resound through to the following day, when the culminating Puja would be offered in the name of “Bali” on “Bali Padyami.” In the days leading up to the festival, the house would be transformed into a pandemonium of marigolds (which would be tucked in little cow-dung pyramids, embellishing the wooden ledge at the foot of the main door) and other flowers, fresh fruits, and a load of ingredients for the festive fare, including but not limited to dry fruits, Milkmaid tins, lentils, and herb varieties.

The kitchen fires would light up right at the crack of dawn - pots and pans clanking away as if rhythmically, the gentle crackling of butter as it melted down to take in raisins and cashews, the sickly sweet smell of milk as it boiled down, browning up the sides of the container, the smokiness of chillis as they roasted in oil, the pungency of asafetida as it disintegrated into seasonings with sputtering mustard seeds and cumin…would kindle enough hunger to keep the entire family hogging relentlessly for days, with steaming cups of coffee or “badam milk” dispensed tactically to fill the gaps when the “idlis” took longer than anticipated to steam up for breakfast, or the spicy savories were taking too long to fry up at lunch hour, or sweets soaked evermore lazily in their ghee or syrupy coatings before hitting the dessert table.

With all the manner of things here - Diwali celebrations restricted to hushed little cracker-simulations fired off furtively in secured basements; Diwali cleaning pre- or postponed opportunely to Springtime; Pujas scheduled for weekends to suit conveniences; candles and electric lamps lit and turned off strategically, alongside spooky lanterns; sweets either exclusively store bought, or readied in a jiffy from thawed, frozen packs; and new acquisitions in the form of handy dust-busters that seldom get used, or cool new laptops that connect us to the folks back in India so we can see and hear about the whole ten yards of full-blown celebrations from them - it simply makes me cringe, and hum this old Lata-Mukesh number, melancholically…

“Lakhon tare aasman mein, ek magar dhoondhe na mila…Dekhke duniya ki diwali, dil mera chupchaap jala…”


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