Diwali on Two Continents…
There is the sound of one match strike in some remote corner, a murmur of an ardent prayer, a curve of lips and suddenly, like a revolution, my entire country is blanketed by little trembling flames.
It is the Festival of Lights – Deepavali or Diwali. It is magical, the only time I wish I had a photographic brain to flip over these images for the rest of the year. For nothing on this mortal earth can capture what we see on this night. Honestly for me, the minute Diwali starts, I dread that it will end, that we will be left in the darkness again, that life will return to the meager electric street lights.
Diwali is one holiday I sorely missed when I lived in the US. I remember visiting the Indian stores in the neighborhood to buy my earthen ‘diyas’ (lamps), calling my cleaning service to come and give our home a professionally cleaned look, buying sweetmeats from wherever it was possible. But I also remember being alone while performing these rituals. I would sheepishly light the diyas on my deck, the window ledges, and the house entrance, guilty that it was against the rules for being a fire hazard!
The lamps in the balcony agreed with the authorities and would go out almost immediately after I lit them! I would try in vain to keep the flame burning for a while before I would just give up. Like everything else in America, the celebrations were conveniently pushed to a weekend when we met with other Indian Americans for a regular get-together, drinks and dinner. The only reason we remembered that it was Diwali that we were celebrating were the traditional clothes we would wear. Even this was enough reason for us to look forward to. Only now I know what I had been missing those years!
Here in India, the arrangements start early: Diwali is the only thing on everyone’s minds and I really mean everyone when I say that. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists all look at this as an opportunity to party and get together. I would even give Diwali my personal name – Festival of cards (teen patti mainly but over the last few years poker has established a strong presence here too). While the puritans still stick to their board, blind, raise and pack, the new clan draws two cards for hold’em.
People are loaded during Diwali and they like to gamble to pay respect to the Goddess of wealth – Laxmi. She is said to be around and each fervently pray to her to bring the money to them. I can imagine Ma Laxmi being torn between people for her blessings and finally just blessing someone with the most virtues.
Firecrackers Burning Bright at Diwali
Every market is filled with the hustle and bustle of special stalls for firecrackers. The newest ones, the most expensive ones, the most innovative ones, the cheapest ones – they are all available and most people make a beeline early so that they get the best. I remember being shocked when I first heard that burning firecrackers was a right reserved only by the authorities in the US. I almost cried!
Here everyone has the right but not without precaution. There are regular advertisements on the television giving instructions on how one should handle crackers. Crackers have more of a significance here than just sound and light – we believe the smoke emitted by them has the power to kill all kinds of germs in the air. So with the coming of Ma Laxmi, evils such as dengue, malaria, hand, foot and mouth disease seem to all make an exit till the next year. Yes India is as complex as that! Goddesses have to make annual trips here just to eradicate germs beyond people’s control!
Germs or not, I get into a rather sentimental state of mind in Diwali. The sight here during those two days makes me feel cleansed, makes me want to be a better human being, of doing good things for others and mostly of never letting go of the moments I experience then.
Ma Kali, Fighter of Evil
Being a Bengali, I also look forward to Kali Puja. Every year around the same time we celebrate the manifestation of Kali, the first of the ten incarnations of Goddess Durga.
My fierce Ma Kali is a fighter of evil, she is angry at injustice and is depicted by the terrifying face she has when blinded by anger and uncontrollable rage against the demons. Legend says while fighting evil she got so carried away that she started killing anyone who came on her way. Lord Shiva had to lay down at her feet to stop her on her mission.
When Ma Kali realized that she had stepped on Shiva’s chest she stuck out her tongue in shame and repentance! Ma Kali is the Goddess I pray to for strength, she gives me the power to fight little troubles in my life and when I have to wade through hurdles I sometimes feel like I have a little of her in me. Only I do not have the right to slaughter the evil ones in my way; just trample upon them sometimes. I cannot help but wonder what the fate of the rising faction of rapists would be if every girl became Ma Kali when faced with the demon!
I live these legends here during these festivals, it’s hard not to! I remember the culture I am born in and the strengths (weaknesses) imparted in me from them. I am curious about every little thing that people follow and want to know the history behind it. I feel empowered and privileged every day of my life when I see my Shiv Linga and chant “Aum Namah Shivaya Aum”. It’s just a piece of stone but I have imparted it with the power to give me mental strength, Ma Kali blesses me with virtue, Ma Laxmi has taught me not to waste, Ma Durga reminds me of the supremacy of women and what she is capable of.
With the millions of Gods looking out for me and the zillions of diyas lit on Diwali I cannot help but remain virtuous and proud. The Festival of Lights departs, leaving each of us in gloom when the last diya goes off. But I manage to keep one lit in my heart just for the feeling of exuberance it evokes and the values that I remember it for. And strangely enough a Christian hymn comes to mind – “Give me oil in my lamp; keep me burning, burning, burning; keep me burning till the end of day…”
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