Whether it is Diwali in India or Christmas around the world, festivals bring a lilt to the voice and a lift to the step. During X’mas, I roam the streets of New York and wander in and out of stores with a goofy grin because, to borrow a phrase, the vatavaran is cheerful. (Let me put it out there: Yes, I saw the movie and YES, I LOVED IT!)
Landing in India and driving out of the airport brings the same goofy grin to my face, be it the twinkling lights on buildings and trees, the colourful lanterns fluttering from balconies or the large hoardings offering special Diwali rates on literally everything from underwear to sanitaryware. And what is a festival without any shopping? A last-minute purchase, the hunt for that special festive outfit or the mandatory silver to be bought on Dhanteras ensures I make a pilgrimage to Pune shops and jostle with the Main Street brigade. Judging from the crowds, there is no dearth of spending ability unless it is the glittering displays that has shoppers ensorcelled.
This year, I was pleasantly surprised to hear very few crackers in the run up to Diwali. It is heartening to note the exhortations to reduce noise pollution, go green, be safe and protect the environment have actually made an impact. I did have a twinge of nostalgia in a throwback to my growing up years where all the kids in my Bombay building gathered on the terrace, every night for two straight weeks to burst crackers. It was a time for bonhomie and celebrations at another level. It was also a time of innocence. As this year’s Nobel Prize Winner for Literature has said, ‘The times they are a changin’. We are learning to adapt.
Except for Diwali Day. My allergies had been activated ever since I touched down in India but went berserk on Diwali Day with non-stop sneezing fits, itching eyes and scratchy throats. I also noticed something new this year. People were bursting crackers on the road. I was driving on Diwali evening and had to stop three times to chide people. The first batch of kids were lighting fountains and said they were scared of snakes in the open area on the other side of the pavement and figured the road is a safer bet! Go figure.
Another group of young men looked at me like I was crazy and stated, ‘It is Diwali” as if to say do not be ridiculous woman, how can you even ask that question! Another group rudely asked me to stay home if I did not appreciate a bomb bursting beneath my car!!! I let loose a few choice expletives to the last two groups as I drove away. I almost took myself to the closest police station to complain but realised I would only be a source of mirth and the police would expect baksheesh to boot. Later, I was informed many buildings and societies have banned crackers on theirgrounds and thus roadsvhave become the default playground. Indians are nothing if not innovative.
In New York, where I live, such a situation is unthinkable. Civic-mindedness is ingrained and while there are parades and festivals that take over roads, they need stringent permissions and have to stick to a certain time frame. Cars are not allowed and bursting fireworks on public streets is a complete no-no. It is a fire and safety hazard. Imagine if one of those bombs on South Main Road had not yet gone off and a car unknowingly drove over the bomb just as it burst. The revelers were not even bothering to inform cars and stop them while they were bursting crackers.
To give Pune revelers the benefit of doubt, the long weekend meant many Punekars had taken off on trips. The roads were empty and maybe they thought it was ok to take licence. The lack of traffic actually made city driving a pleasure.
However, something else made this time not quite so pleasant. Late on Diwali night, as I stepped out of a building, all I saw was a haze. The buildings on either side of the Kalyani Nagar bridge were not even visible. It was like the Death Eaters were about to descend. All around was a hazy, surreal darkness. The crackers had caused a blanket of smog over Pune. I sneezed my way back home and buried myself under the covers. Bursting fireworks in public the way we do in India, is banned in the US and even displays such as the July 4 fireworks show, never cause such excess smog and pollution.
One of the best and worst parts of Diwali is the gourmandising. Diwali is one big food fest. Mithai and fried food are de rigueur. It is five days of feasting whether at home, at a friend’s home, at restaurants or when people come visiting bearing more sweets and fried offerings. As a token gesture to healthy eating, there were those Diwali baskets that had ladoos with cranberry and flax seeds, some with olive oil and others with an assortment of nuts. After these five days of feasting, I feel like I need to swear off food for at least a month!
Another special treat during Diwali is offered by our biggest industry, Bollywood. It is a time for a big blockbuster release and this year was no exception. There were two big releases. One of them I was not going to bother with but the other movie had been marked on my calendar while I was still in New York. And it did not disappoint me. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil created just the right vatavaran to make my Diwali extra-special.
Now if only Hillary trumps Trump, my new year will have got off to a good start.