Diwali meant a lot of things back then. It was not just about new clothes, firecrackers, or sweets. Every Diwali, I go back in time to those moments when every single thing around the festival was filled with hope. I’m sure though that at the age of 10 or 11, I would’ve never thought of calling the days leading up to and the days after Diwali as ‘hopeful’ Other festivals like Varalakshmi Pooja and Vinayaka Chaturthi make me nostalgic too. Particularly a longing for the soft, fluffy *kozhakkatais my mom used to make for both these festivals. However, Diwali was very special.
Diwali was THE festival of the humble, single-bedroom HAL Colony inhabitants in Bengaluru. Another festival that led to a flurry of activities was the Bogi Pongal where a lot of old stuff was piled up into a tall and huge stack and then set on fire. A symbolic riddance of all that’s old, bad, useless. I have a very vague memory of this bonfire ending in a fire accident and probably the practice was later abandoned. Being raised in a colony or ‘quarters’ as it is still called, provided the distinct advantage of having a cosmopolitan upbringing. I’ve absolutely no memory of Diwali or Bogi being ‘Hindu’ festivals. The same mood and festivity were seen around Christmas where we’d all gather to set up the manger. Most households sported the mandatory star, ushering in Christmas.
My mom used to stir up a magic concoction that would solidify into soft and porous Mysore Pak for not just our family, but also for ‘Joy’ aunty, our loving neighbor. Her name was Rosamma, but her children were nicknamed Joy and Chickoo. By virtue of being their mother, she became ‘Joy’ aunty. Mysore Pak was accompanied by a ‘Mixture’, a popular Indian savory. The process of making this ‘Mixture’ used to be fascinating. For it was really that, a mixture of a lot of fried savories. Unlike today, the ‘Mixture’ from my childhood never had cashews, almonds, or raisins. Fried peanuts and finely chopped coconut pieces in this ‘Mixture’, were considered a jackpot. My mom and my grandma tried in vain to shoo us away. There is this myth (even now in many households) that watching it during preparation would jinx the making, or it’d jinx the festival! However, we paid no heed and hovered around them and were willing ‘tasters’.
The foremost duty assigned to me the evening before Diwali was to gather or buy cow dung. Yes, you heard me right! Cow poop was and still is sacred among many households. I don’t ever remember feeling repelled by its texture, color, or odor. If we got lucky, the cows grazing in the open grounds in our colony would drop a generous helping of dungs. There’d be a few others waiting to strike gold With a small plastic bucket and a spatula to scoop, we’d rush to the spot and mine the dung. If we don’t get lucky with the free droppings, we could always drop by our milkman’s house and he’d dispense off some dung for a few coins. This dung, so painstakingly obtained would be mixed in a bucket of water to a consistency that was probably a little runnier than the dosa batter. Every home had a small front yard of caked mud. Beautiful rangolis adorned this front yard. During Diwali, this small area got a thorough cleaning. This surface would then receive a fresh cow-dung coat that’d firmly seal the cracks and give it a darker sheen. This also prevented the dust from rising as all the loose mud would be firmly sealed in. The rangolis looked brighter.
My friends and I would then embark on the Rangoli project. This also included the cow-dung coat and rangoli for the neighbors, particularly Joy aunty. We’d shortlist and practice a few rangolis a few days before Diwali. In about 3 hours on Diwali eve, most of our front yards would be decked with beautiful rangolis. If I were to give the feeling a name, I might today call it both therapeutic and cathartic.
Another task where we (my sis and my friends in the neighborhood) showed equal or more enthusiasm in was the act and art of drying firecrackers. This would start a week before Diwali! We’d fervently pray that the rain god steered clear and the sun god blessed us with a copious amount of sunlight. We each had a palm winnow in which we’d dry our share of crackers. There would be one portion that was meant for pre-Diwali use. We’d religiously tug-off a bit of the paper wrapped on the wicks so it lights faster. I’d save up a few Waterbury’s Compound Red Label bottles ( a tonic usually prescribed back then in the HAL hospital to ward off cold or cough) and empty coconut shells. I’d arrange the rockets from the firecrackers in a way that they snugly fit into the mouth of the tonic bottle or underneath the coconut shells, and just pull the wick out.
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The bottle would sometimes burst into shards along with the rocket. A very dangerous and senseless thing to do, I know. This was totally unsupervised and my parents had no clue whatsoever. A tiny shard once cut into my wrist and that was the last time I used the tonic bottle. My mom was sure that it was the work of some ‘rowdy’ kid and wondered on several occasions in the weeks that followed, on how people raised devils for kids. Also, for some reason, she assumed the rowdy was a boy. I never mustered the courage to own up and it’s one of the several things I regret not having told her.
Another thing to look forward to on the dawn of Diwali was the nice oil massage our dad used to give us. He would take a handful of warm gingelly oil and drip it on our heads slowly and would pat them down hard on our skullsHe’d say something about the oil cooling the hotheads he had for daughters 🙂 After the mandatory oil-bath, we’d be administered the Lehiyam/Legiyam/marundhu, a paste made of several herbs, jaggery, and cooked in ghee. My grand-mom made this from scratch.
Diwali was the only occasion when we got new clothes. It almost always was the same fabric, color, and pattern for both my sister and meThey were always tailored. If we got a little lucky, we’d get different colors. The tailor used to get our dresses ready just the night before Diwali. The anticipation of how the dress and pattern would turn out when it would be ready, and when it’ll dawn, made us at once happy and restless.
Our grandma would pluck the mehendi leaves from our backyard and grind them to a fine paste on a stone pestle in the afternoon. After dinner, she would apply it on our palms even as she narrated the story of Narakasura for the umpteenth time. We never challenged the right and wrong: ) One well-guarded secret around this time was who’d set off the first firecracker. We’d wait for the alarm to go off at 4.00am. However, it would invariably turn out useless because someone always used to beat us to it. We’d be woken up as early as 3.30am by the loud noise of someone in the colony setting off the ‘atom bomb’ at that unearthly hour. We’ll join the ruckus right away by adding our own share of noise, explosions, and litter.
I don’t remember anything of the Diwali feast that must have been cooked because all the kids would be hopping in and out of the house with firecrackers and never seemed to tire of it. Though we never purchased a lot, we purchased the ones that came in several numbers and in bulk packs. The most favorite was the ‘bijli’- the famous, small singles. With about 3 or 4 packs, one could go on all day, bursting them one by one. The guns and capes were another favorite too. Pounding the capes with a stone seemed more fun and noisy than using the guns. The best was reserved for the evening. Most homes in the colony could not afford a decent television. So there was no lure or addiction. We spent most of the time outdoors and didn’t know otherwise.
There would be slight signs of withdrawal on the night of Diwali but we’d pretend that the day would still go on. The days that followed would involve sharing a lot of real and made up stories of the exploits and adventures of the firecrackers. None of us bothered to validate the accounts of our friends though. The innocence and guilelessness of that time make it surreal.
I can’t help but compare to the Diwali now. New clothes aren’t rare anymore while ordinary, quiet days have become rareNew movie releases, TV channels hopping, out-sourced sweets and savories, expensive fireworks, a night sky lit with aerial shots, whatsapp-ing, facebook-ing, instagram-ing, Netflix-ing, mark Diwalis now I’m sure that this is an outlook of a boring adult, but I still think my children miss out on the simple joys that I was lucky enough to have as a child.
So, if you’ve been patient and kind enough to read until here, what were your favorite festivals? Do you have fond memories as 10 or 11-year-olds around Diwali or any festival that you’d care to share? Are there things you miss now? What aspects of the different festivals we celebrate do you enjoy now?
Wish you all a very happy, fun-filled, safe, and peaceful Diwali people!
*Kozhukattais– South Indian variation of momos filled with either spicy lentils or coconut and jaggery :))