My experience of Diwali has gone through its own little process ever since we first arrived in India, five years ago. I must say that UNICEF basically parachutes its staff and their family in their duty station without so much as a booklet about the local customs (I’m not even asking for cultural training, here), so you’re basically to fend for yourself, and that’s what we do, learning by trial and error.
When my husband first arrived in Hyderabad, in May 2004, he spent a month trying to find a house. Without success. Most gated communities which have since sprung out were not built yet, and all he could find were monsters of houses, some complete with ball rooms, three or four floors, ridiculous layouts (kitchen miles away from the dining room), or houses that were more the type of things we were looking for, only, the owner wanted us to keep his furniture, and we didn’t want that. So, when I landed in August, with our 4-year old, and six-weeks old baby, we settled into a hotel room, where we ended up spending two months, until we moved into what is still our house, on October 16. As an aside, this is the longest I’ve spent in the same house in thirty years !
One of my prerequisites, when looking for a house, is light. I need lots and lots and lots of it. And one of the things that I loved when we visited our house was that it has huge windows everywhere. Light comes pouring in from practically every angle. Of course, it’s a nightmare, in the summer heat, but I wasn’t thinking about that. And anyway, I’d rather be hot than live in the dark.
So, we move into our brand new house (the reason it took so long was that it was still being built), and of course, there are NO curtains anywhere, no blinds, no nothing. The first thing we did was order curtains rods, buy fabric and have curtains made. As the taylor actually comes to your house with his little sewing machine, that was done quite fast. But we didn’t want curtains in the living-room. We wanted blinds made of wood or bambou. The guy who came to take the measurements promised they would be ready in two weeks, and, well, these two weeks turned out to be two months.
Now, here I am, in my very pretty, still very empty house that feels somehow like a glass house, especially when it’s dark. The nanny and the housekeeper have left. I’m giving dinner to the children. My little one is three and half months by then. She’s holding her head, but not sitting yet. It is quiet out there – much more than it is, nowadays. My husband is at work.
Suddenly, I hear shooting and explosions. And I don’t mean a lonely shot or a single explosion. No. I mean Beyrouth ! The sounds surround me and go staccato all over the place, and I don’t know where they come from, what it is, and what the hell is going on, except that it feels like what I imagine the middle of a war zone must be like. So, I grab my two kids, run up the stairs to the Master bedroom where I can quickly draw the curtains, and we sit on the bed. Baby is in my arms, crying. Kora is scared. And I’m so totally freaked out, I’m going out of my mind.
Happy Diwali !!!
Now, I hadn’t been living in a vacuum, and I knew that the Festival of Lights was coming. But no one had told me that the lights come with a deafening accompaniement of firecrackers, fireworks, and what not. We found our rooftop carpeted with all the junk left by the various firecrakers and fireworks the following day. I mean, buckets and buckets of the stuff. And it went on for a whole week.
This is a story I like to tell, now, but I wasn’t laughing that night. So, when time came for Diwali, the following year, we decided to go and visit Kerala, which is a mainly Christian state, and where Diwali is celebrated here and there, but in a nice, low-key fashion.
In 2006, we went to a beach resort just outside of Mammalapuram, in Tamil Nadu, and visited Pondicherry, and again, it was a lovely, reasonably quiet Diwali.
In 2007, we escaped to ICRISAT, an enormous campus outside of town, where we rented a small flat, and enjoyed another peaceful Diwali. And finally, last year, I was either preparing the blog tour for Amadi’s Snowman or smack in the middle of it, and it is a proof of the kind of timewarp I was living in that I cannot tell when or how Diwali happened, and what on earth we did, and I don’t find anything in our photo files. What I do remember, though, is that I decided that we needed to buy diyas to take with us, because I was sure that I’d want to celebrate the Festival of Lights once I was no longer in India. I might not have actively partaken in the celebrations, but I already felt it had become a part of my life.
Well, as it turned out, we are still here. Also, our children are growing. Both of them go to school, and they made their own clay diyas (oil lamp as seen in the pictures), heard about the victorious return of Rama to his kingdom, etc, etc. On the morning of Diwali, they were both very secretive. We didn’t hear them. And when they finally emerged, they were both wearing an identical salwar kameez, they had flowers in their hair, and bindis on their forehead. And the older, when she saw that I was wearing Western clothes, frowned, and said : “Today is Diwali, you should wear Indian ethnic clothes to show respect.” Oups ! I was made to go and “at the very least” get a bindi. And my husband and I were also told that we had to buy something new ; whatever, clothes, bangles, earings, something !
In the evening, I took out our diyas, and we set them on the steps outside our house. We lit a few fire crackers (not too many, because these things are just sooo bad for the environment, not too mention earsplitting noisy), and, well, this was our best Diwali, so far.