My brother crept up to the Vishnu bomb, paused for a moment, lit the fuse with an incense stick and ran back to where I was standing. There was a chill in the air. The sun was yet to rise and the street lamp cast our shadows on the street. The bomb exploded with a flash and as the sound shattered the stillness of the night, my brother and I exulted. We were the first to usher in Diwali on our street!
Diwali or Deepavali is by far the coolest Indian festival. As the festival of lights, it symbolizes the victory of good over evil. As a celebration, it is a happy mix of good food, lights, parties, and firecrackers. Young boys are pyromaniacs at heart and Diwali is the perfect outlet for their evil designs. When we received calendars for the new year, my brother and I would flip back to the end of the calendar to figure out the date for Diwali . The festival is based on a lunar calendar and hence the date varies each year. We would start planning about 2 months prior to the actual festival. It would start with me pestering my dad to take me shopping for the firecrackers (crackers/pataki as we called them). We would head out on a Saturday to Janata Bazaar. Janata (People) Bazaar was the department store long before department stores of today made their advent. I think it was run by the government and sold goods at a subsidized price. It had the appearance of a drab government office with listless salesmen who hung behind the counters.
My dad would tell us his budget as we headed out. We would set out on his scooter with my brother and I sharing the pillion seat. We would have already planned out our purchase and it would include Vishnu Bombs (among the largest of the bombs size wise, though the atom and hydrogen bombs made the loudest noise), Airguns, Aane pataki (elephant crackers), Kudre pataki (horse crackers), flower pots, sparklers and last but not the least, the “caps” and rolls to be used in our guns. The prices would have invariably gone up and after some more pestering, my dad would relent and buy us some more crackers.
Once we returned home, we would spread out a plastic sheet and divide up the fireworks between us. We would then each set aside some crackers to be given to our domestic help’s children and a smaller packet to be saved for the Tulsi puja that would be celebrated a few weeks after Diwali. The crackers would then be wrapped in a plastic sheet and stored in an old school bag on our balcony Each weekend, they would be pulled out and placed in the sun ostensibly to dry them out but really for us to admire longingly.
As Diwali neared, my mother would embark on a “Diwali Cleaning” spree. Also, aromas of sweets and savory snacks would fill the air as she made “Kare oondo” (laddus), Chakkulis and so on. The sense of anticipation would build up each day and conversations with friends would revolve around plans for the big day. We would keep our fingers crossed and hope that the rain gods would cooperate. There is nothing more crushing to a young boy’s soul than a damp Diwali.
The day before Diwali would be the “cops and robbers/chor-police” day. The neighborhood kids would split up into two teams, with one group being the robbers ,and the other group, the policemen. The robbers would go off to hide while the policemen searched for them. We lived in Kumara Park, where the houses were so close to each other that you could start at the beginning of the street and by jumping over compound walls or by climbing over low balconies, make it to the other end of the street or to the parallel street. The fun was not in hiding, the fun was in shooting at each other and smelling the acrid smoke. You could be Raj Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan or Clint Eastwood…depending on your taste and the movies you watched.
We would return home after the game to find the bathroom cleaned. The taps and vessels in the house were also cleaned, polished and adorned with small garlands of marigolds. It was the “filling of water” ceremony – a throwback to older times when water was stored in a large vessel that was heated with firewood – the primary means of heating water for bathing. We would apply oil to our bodies and then have a bath. We could not wait to start lighting our crackers and there would be an informal competition to be amongst the first ones.
My brother and I would wake up at about 4:30 am to try to be the first ones on the street. After that first cracker, our friends would slowly start streaming in. We would burst crackers till about 7 am and then head back home for breakfast. We would usually have “Khotto” (steamed rice dumplings wrapped in jackfruit leaves) and a variety of sweets. The tradition is to don new clothes for Diwali, I don’t recall if we followed it every year. Throughout the day, boys and girls in rags would wander through the streets looking for the odd firecracker that failed to combust. This bounty would be their celebration for Diwali. When I reflect on those days, it saddens me to think of these children but growing up in India at that time, we were unfortunately inured to these sights. I remember handing over the odd “Kudre pataki” to some of these kids. I was selfish no doubt in sharing the firecracker that was the lowest on the totem pole of firecrackers, but they accepted them gratefully. We were literally burning money when I come to think of it now. There was a dark side to our celebrations too. The fireworks that we lit were manufactured in places like Sivakasi where young boys and girls were employed. Every now and then, a fire at one of these factories would maim or kill children. While I was aware of these facts, at least at that age, I continued to light firecrackers.
At night, we would place oil lamps/diyas on window sills and the wall of our balcony. We would start lighting the flower pots and sparklers. There were Bhoomi chakras too (earth wheels) and Sudharshan chakras (wheels that rotated around a metal wire that you could hold up like Vishnu’s Sudarshana chakra). There was the snake – a tablet that you lit and the ash formed a tubular mess that writhed like a snake. There were pencils and Hanuman’s tails – both could be lit at each end. Lakshmi bombs – in keeping with tradition where Lakshmi is the consort of Vishnu, these bombs were a tad smaller than the Vishnu bomb. The atom bomb was the most powerful bomb. Then there were the dangerous rockets which were placed in bottles and when lit, took a trajectory that was completely unpredictable. There were trains – you would tie a string between two posts and light a firecracker that would go from one end of the string to the other. There were interesting contraptions too. A small bolt with two washers and a nut at the end. The caps could be placed between the two washers, the bolt tightened and when flung to the ground, the caps would explode (if you could call it an explosion). Having been brought up on a diet of Commando comics where the soldiers pulled out pins and lobbed grenades towards the enemy, these made do for grenades in my imagination.
My mother would call out to interrupt our celebrations and hand me plates filled with goodies, covered with a lace cloth/doily to be distributed to all the houses in the neighborhood. The recipients would sometimes quickly replace the contents with their own sweets or send them later. At around 9:30 pm, we would gather all the scraps of paper as well as packaging material and light a large bonfire. Occasionally, my brother would make a “Frankenstein bomb”. This would involve keeping aside all the duds that had failed to explode, unwrapping the paper and collecting the gunpowder on a sheet of paper. Depending on the quantity this would then be either wrapped tightly in paper or placed in a matchbox with a fuse attached to it. When lit, the results were unpredictable, sometimes it would explode, sometimes it would just fizz.
At 10 pm, we would wait for the rich Sindhis on our street to start their show. There was a building on our street occupied by Sindhi families and they had a reputation of wealth that was on ostentatious display during Diwali. They had the fancy crackers that went up in the sky and made pretty patterns. I remember during one Diwali, this guy had a “garland” of crackers that was literally 6 or 8 feet or so in length. He lit it at the end and stood rotating it around till it was dangerous for him to hold it and he then flung it to ground with dramatic effect. The whole show lasted about 10 minutes and the air was filled with acrid smoke. We stood with our mouths agape. The cost of that single garland could probably buy us enough crackers to last 3 years!
My interest in firecrackers waned once I came to High School. I stopped lighting them all together after 8th grade. I haven’t been home for Diwali for over 25 years now and one of my regrets is that my children haven’t experienced Diwali in India. However, driving down one of the streets in South Florida in 2004 or so, I came across a sign in a strip mall that read “Happy Diwali”. My wife and I did a double take and we pulled in to the store. It was a fireworks store and when I asked the owner about the sign, he said that a few Indians had shown up to buy firecrackers and he heard about the Indian festival. So the enterprising businessman figured he would put up the sign and he certainly snagged a customer in me. We bought a few sparklers and that Diwali, our daughter got to celebrate Diwali in some small measure.
The town we live in now celebrates Diwali in a pretty grand fashion. We also have a Konkani Diwali where I get to savor traditional Konkani delicacies. It is a bit incongruous though, New England gets pretty cold and wearing jackets and having my breath fog up is a far cry from the Diwali of my youth. But the fire of Diwali burns brightly in my heart and that’s enough for me now. Happy Diwali!