Friday, November 05, 2010

Deepavali during simpler times!

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Deepavali! No other festival is as...well...festive as this one! This is one festival which I look forward to with a child-like enthusiasm (and will continue to do so, no matter what age!)

Back in the 80s, when apartments were unheard of in Bengalooru, Deepavali used to be a very homely affair. Take for example my road in Malleswaram. I think barring a couple of families, majority of the residents were tenants. All this 11-month rental contract business was unheard of in the eighties. My family was in the same rented house for over 15 years. So were most of my neighbours. So yes, neighbours were as good as family – and there was such an emotional bond that it disproved the notion of blood being thicker than water.

Quite naturally, Deepavali was a communal affair. Of course, all the families did their puja and bought their own fireworks; yet, some of the fireworks were bought with contributions from everyone. These were the ‘dangerous’ ones, which only the local boys could handle. There were the rockets. And the atom bombs. And the Pataki sara. And then the ‘train’. All this somehow increased the ‘shaan’ of the road. People from other roads would come and watch, while dhonnes filled with kosumbari and usli would do the rounds.

For us children, this was the time of delirious happiness. It was a lower-middle class neighbourhood, and new clothes were bought only two or three times in a year. Deepavali was one of those festivals which called for new clothes. On Malleswaram Sampige road, there was a clothes shop called T.D.Shah. It was run by the Shah family (who also resided in the same neighbourhood). Most of the parents would get the clothes on instalments from here. It would invariably be Garden Vareli saree for the Mom, Vimal shirt pieces for the Dad (those days, ready-made shirts was a ridiculous concept – it just did not exist), and some garish frocks for the girls, or equally garish t-shirts and shorts for the boys (I am talking about kids less than 10 years). The fireworks were usually sold in the Malleswaram ground near Circle.

Deepawali was just three days (and not the extended version we see these days). There was the Naraka Chaturdashi, the Amavase, and the Bali Padyami. The day prior to the festival, in fact, in the night, the women folk would clean the road in front of their house vigorously and draw complicated and beautiful rangolis. At the crack of dawn, we children would wake up (I don’t think any of us kids ever slept!) to take the ritualistic ‘oil bath’. Castor oil would be massaged into the hair and body with a vengeance. Hot water would be boiling away in huge copper pots (there were no boilers, geysers those days). The oil would be washed away using ‘seegepudi’ or soapnut powder. Invariably this would get into the eyes stinging us, making us bawl. Then, it would be time to wear the new clothes and prostrate before the deities in the puja room. By 5:00 AM, we would hear the first crackers; filling us with glee!

For breakfast, it would be Nucchinunde – steamed toordaal dumplings spiced with green chillies and hing. Lunch would be royal, with ghas ghase paayasa, obbattu, and so many other goodies. There would be a constant flow of visitors – exchanging sweets and gossip, inviting the ladies for ‘arshina kumkuma’.

All the traders and Marwaris (all clubbed under the name of ‘Setus’) usually would do their Laksmi Puja on Amavase day. The rest of the ‘non’ Setu families observed a quiet day on Amavase. But it never deterred us children. There would be some rumour about some Setu’s house several streets away where the Setu had put a garland of 100 rupee notes on a Laksmi idol. So all of us would troop to this house, and unabashedly ask if it was indeed true. We would be let into the house, allowed to gape at the spectacle, fed with goodies and sent away with some more goodies. Every year it was a new Setu. Every year the loot would be kadubus, kallepuri, chaklis, kodubales!

And then, there was always the warning – ‘Don’t burst all the crackers at one go – you have to keep it for Bali Padyami too’. So there would be firecracker rationing. There was the ‘kudre pataaki’ which was a mild cracker – fit for girls and kids (according to boys and elders). The next level was the ‘Aane pataaki’ – higher decibel, and therefore meant for boys above 12 years. The atom bomb was for guys who had started sprouting facial hair. This last day of Deepavali, the ‘communal’ pataakis would come out. The cracker ‘garlands’ – strands of 10000 crackers. It would be laid lengthwise in the middle of the road, traffic would stop, and all of us would clap our ears shut and watch spectacle.

The next one week would go in discussing which road had the longest ‘sara’ or garland. And of course, there would always be the news about some coconut tree that caught fire because of a mis-guided rocket (raaket). The usual nicks and burns. And the smell of burnol ointment in school...where at least a couple of kids would show off injuries.

Now, I feel lost. With every jeweller coaxing me to buy gold coins and necklaces on Dhanteras (when I was growing up, we had never heard of Dhanteras), with every small retail establishment coaxing me with their ‘Diwali Dhamaka offer’...I feel Deepavali is more like the annual Dubai festival. And yes, the climate has really changed, and more often than not, it always rains during Deepavali in Bengalooru. But those childhood memories are so precious! If I close my eyes, the fragrance of Vasu Special agarbathis, the smell of ghee smeared obattus, the fragrance of mallige on the ladies' plaits, the mild smell of turmeric and sandalwood; the flash of silk sarees - all these flare up making me feel so warm.

All my childhood friends, like me, came from lower-middle class families. Deepavali stretched pockets – but it would always be ‘adjusted’. Life with all its problems and irritations would be put on hold for a Deepavali celebration!

Deepavali means a lot of things to people – but for me, it is always about living in the moment, and making most of it. It will always be a time of unbridled celebration and happiness; of being thankful for all the good things in life, and letting go of all the negativity! Without the damned crackers though...hate the buggers, really scared of them.

Wishing you all a very Happy Deepavali!

 © Sumana Khan - 2010


  1. Ah! reminded me of my childhood days. very vididly explained here. you are so right. those days were simply amazing..
    though i am in blore now, i feel lost with the "new age festivals". it does not invoke the warmthness like before

    P.S. Happy diwali :)

  2. @Vikram - long time :) how have you been? Deepavaliya hardhika shubashayagalu!

    Bengalooru crowds...mindboggling. And splurging power is even more phenomenal. When we were in Blore, we would drive out to J'nagar 4th block. the traffic would be crappy, and we had to park really far away - but at least it would be all 'aunty' crowd and no one spoke of gucci and versace...and there are still so many 't.d.shah' type shops!

  3. Glad to hear your memories are pleasant.
    My childhood memories of Deepawali are most unpleasant.

    At the age of 7, in Mumbai, the firecrackers stored inside the house inexplicably caught fire and the neighbours rushed in and the room was soon flooded with pails of water as everyone pitched in to prevent the spread.

    At the age of 12, in Mumbai, I was sleeping in my room on the third floor and my grandmother was also sleeping in the same room. My head was close to the window. It was Deepalwali eve. A rocket fired by boys in the neighbouring compound did not go straight up and instead took a skewed path and penetrated our window opening and got stuck in the curtain that was hanging from the top of the window.

    The curtain of course caught fire and the flames were nearly licking my body, as I slept soundly next to the window. My Granny woke up immediately, pulled me off the bed and woke up the family. The neighbours too rushed up to our flat and soon the bed room was full of people all pouring water all over the place. The neighbours had done a competent job, ferrying water from our bathroom and the bathrooms of all the neighbours on the same floor. Buckets were poured on the burning curtain. They also dragged all the furniture away from the blazing curtain to prevent them from catching fire.

    The entire wall was charred black but they managed to contain the fire. A Fire engine arrived after twenty minutes and went back after surveying the damage. They had no work to do. Fortunately there was no structural damage. The wall and the windows had to be repainted. We lost only a couple of heavy curtains but my mom and grandmom took time recovering from the shock. We boys (my brothers and I )had a good story to tell in school and enjoyed the attention!

    To quote Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame)
    Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action.

    My family, unanimously decided that coincidence was enough. Fate was our enemy and we did not want to tempt fate again and allow it to indulge in enemy action. We forswore crackers for all time.

    After my marriage, my kids displayed exemplary maturity. Beyond some harmless sparklers and flower pots, they did not ask for anything noisy or dangerous. I had told them the story of my boyhood.

    They celebrated hardly two or three Deepawalis with crackers.
    Good for them. I spent lavishly on clothes and gifts for them.
    I have not spent on Crackers now for nearly 20 years. The last time was when my son was just five years old.

    I have no regrets.
    Deepawali is supposed to be a festival of lights.
    Why does it have to be a festival of noise?


    1. oh god! THat is really scary!

      We too stopped the cracker stuff. We enjoy lighting the lamps and some sparklers.