The biggest religious festival of India is round the corner. My daughter was describing the festive spirit of Delhi during Diwali and I thought about the spirit of this festival in the southern part of India. As we were discussing how this festival encompasses almost the entire country, we also realised that the same fervour may not exist in the north eastern part of the country or in Kashmir. However, the point is that this festival of lights is celebrated in most parts of this country.
After I spoke to her, I thought about the memoreis that I have had of this festival. My childhood memories of Diwali are of in and around Kolkata, and have different flavours.
One was, of course, puja of Goddess Kali. Traditionally, the Goddess is worshipped in eighteen forms although among them, one form is the most popular and worshipped the most. As I heard in my childhood from my uncle (who worshipped her) that one must take utmost care is worshipping this deity (he also told me that she was one form of Chandi who is also worshipped as Durga, Jagatdhatri, Basanti and in many other forms) as she did not like being taken for granted.
In kolkata those days, Goddess Kali was worshipped mostly at traditional homes, temples (there are many in Kolkata), a few collective pujas (people get together, pull in money, called “Baroyaari Puja” in Bengali), and at the crematoriums; yes, you read it right, at the crematoriums. The ones worshipped at the crematoriums are called “Shamshan Kali” and has a different form from the ones worshipped at home. Anyway, when my uncle did the puja at home, I would be mesmerized with the colour and sight of the goddess and the sombre atmosphere that would prevail around with smell of incense, flowers and chanting of slokas at the dead of the night.
To me, during the puja, at the dead of night, the goddess would come alive amidst all the lit earthen lamps, the fragrant smoke of the incense sticks, the offerings of flowers, fruits and other items. Everyone’s faces would wear a solemn look of devotion and prayer and the night would join us in celebrating the goddess.
On the night of the puja, people would decorate their homes with earthen lamps and candles (for the modern ones) and burst crackers at night. We were told that crackers were burst to keep the evil spirit away. Recently, I attended a workshop conducted by an American Lady with Indian American ascendence and she taught us very similar things with lights, sounds, incense etc to keep evil spirits away in the Indian American way.
During Diwali, I remember being very, very afraid of the sounds of fire-crackers, hence people would often find me under the bed, crying and refusing to come out (may be my spirit felt driven away by the noise!!). However, even if I was dragged out from under the bed, I would be scream and keep my ears closed with both my hands to ward off the sound. That did not really help and people had lots of fun at my cost. I, of course, hated every minute of it. I still dislike loud sounds of fire crackers.
The other memory of Diwali was about our neighbours – one was a Palghat brahmin family from Tamil Nadu. They had a factory adjacent to their building and all workers were from Tamil Nadu. During three days, one prior and one day after the puja day, the road used to reverberate for hours, with the sounds of long strings of little red and green firecrackers, tied together and be about ten to fifteen meters long. I still remember the faces of the young workers from Tamil Nadu who had to spend “Deepavali” (as it is called in the southern parts of India) away from home – their white or light coloured shirts, white lungi/vesti worn in traditional styles and often folded above the knees, nicely oiled hair and shining faces, having massive fun at bursting the crackers. The Pillai Uncle and Aunty (the neighbours) used to come visit my Aunt and would do a shantang (prostrating in full length to offer respect) pranam to her as they used to call her “Ma”. Pillai aunty would be all decked in her sparkling diamond ear studs, two huge diamond nose pins on both sides of her nose, huge gold chain with the thali, lots and lots of gold and diamond bangles and of course her beautifully coloured Kanchipuram sarees in hues of red, maroon and gold. Her daughter and daughters in laws would be equally dressed with gorgeous coloured silk sarees, diamond jewellery and be decked from head to toe. I remember being fascinated by the toe rings, the anklets and various other jewellery that used to adorn their bodies during festive seasons (they looked like that even without the festivities :-)) and not to forget the flowers, umm … sweet smelling jasmine and mogra flowers adorning their long black tasseled hairs. They all looked like human version of the goddess. The added attractions were trays full of traditional tamil sweets, murukkus, other condiments along with betel leaf, betel nuts and a coconut – signs of goodwill and festive offering from one to the other.
That was the most tempting part as far as I was concerned.
Then there were the Nahars, Poddars and the Jains (people from north and west of India) who lived a little away from the Iyars. Their Diwali used to be celebrated at a grand scale, with various kinds of fire crackers lighting up the moonless night on the Diwali day – some sprayed silver rays, some golden, some wove stars in the sky, some whizzed past with colourful arrows and other different shapes, and some were simply full of loud noisy ones.
Sometimes, I would be dragged to the neighbours’ houses by my cousin for doing the neighbourly pleasantries during the festive season and my heart would to be in my mouth in fear, lest they burst any crackers near me.
The men in Nahars, the Poddars and the Jain household would be dressed in suits and traditional dresses, the children would be wearing colourful cloths with silver and gold threads woven in them, and the women of the house would be wearing fine muslin or georgette or chiffon or heavy silk sarees with traditional kundan, diamond and gold jewellery. They would move around slowly with the pallu (the colourful and often beautifully worked end of the saree) on their head, smelling of foreign perfumes, offering the guests sharbats, mithais, dry fruits and nuts, asking us to stay for some more time. I remember staring at them shamelessly as they spoke to us in soft voices in their sweet sounding language, with folded hands and bowed heads in front of the men and the elders (a sight I hardly ever saw in our household) and giggling softly when some one said something funny.
The reason I used to stare was because they were in such a contrast to our household where women spoke, laughed, loved and fought in loud voices and while they were respectful of elders and fussed over their men, they rarely showed overt signs of respect to any one. Also they dressed in cotton sarees most of the time and wore less jewellery. Hence those women from both the Pillai and the Nahar, Poddar and Jain households looked like exotic images of goddesses or people from distant land to me. I remember soaking up every smell, sound and sight of them.
The last were the Bihari kamars who resided just in front of our house. Their profession was working with iron and making various things out of it. Usually throughout the week, the kamars would be working from 7 in the morning till 8 or 9 p.m and after that would sit with dhols and may be a out of tune flute and something else to sing songs mainly praising Lord Rama. On Diwali day, however, they would be wearing colourful cloths, close their work stations and burst crackers and exchange greetings with their neighbours. They too loved bursting crackers, especially the louder ones and often some elder from our house would have to ask them to stop doing so after eleven p.m in the night.
As I sit in Bangalore in 2011 and look back at the 60s and 70s spent in Kolkata, I can see how in a sense, the world has changed … while the close knit ties with the neighbours have somewhat loosened, some of us seem to have tied some other knots over the electronic medium … like my writing this blog, remembering those days and sharing with you.
This is to wish all my blogger friends and readers a very happy Diwali, Deepavali and Kalipuja and wish all the very best for this festival of lights. May all our hearts and being be full of the goodness of light.
But before I end, I would also like to know what memoreis do you hold of Diwali from your childhood days? Would you care to share?