I am not particularly fond or sentimental of any Indian festival. My stand on Holi is “I am Assamese, and I am not therefore familiar with the customs” and on Bihu (the traditional Assamese New Year) my line is always “I don’t live in Assam, so….” As you can see it aligns perfectly with my un-social skill development. My excuse for Holi, while true also coincides with the fact that I think it’s one of the most random of festivals, like the Spanish Tomatina. This could also have something to do with the fact that I have OCD like feelings towards neatness.
But Diwali is a whole different thing altogether. The closest I came to celebrating this Diwali this year was yelling “Happy Diwali!” to Naina every time a leftover Guy Fawkes Night firework went off last weekend. Fireworks are fireworks, they are adaptable and unconcerned with who lights their behinds for which occasion, so, there. I grew up loving the day. My earliest memory of this was in Nokhroy T.E. (I must have barely been 2!). Me and my brother sitting on the front staircase of the bungalow while Buttons (or Batuji like we addressed our Lhasa Apso) sat cowering under the drawing room furniture inside and 20 odd Bungalow staff (gardners, chowkidaars et al) going at the fireworks with child-like glee!)
Later on, when I was older the ritual of lighting hundreds of diyas and arranging them all over the huge lawns of the tea bungalows and for that matter more recently in Jorhat, and bursting crackers (boxes of) was something I would look forward to. Even when firework boxes stopped arriving home once we moved out of the estates, I would plead with Ma to get some phuljharis and ‘Tiger’ chilli bombs (my maid had taught me the exact science of bursting them one at a time without burning the tips of your fingers… one ALWAYS burns the tips of their fingers but then that’s the thrill). That blue polythene packet and its contents and the promise of an exciting hour on Diwali, oh boy, that was the stuff to light up a 16yr old girl’s heart! Boys? Who boys?
And, of course, the elaborate Diwali dos at the clubs! Those were the most exciting bit of all, as after a few mad hours of bursting crackers, jumping to avoid being in the path of an errant chakri spiralling out of course and being chided by the ladies to be careful (there were always minor casualties),we all had to observe the solemn ceremony of lighting (and burning down) a huge effigy of Ravan on the club grounds. Assam at this point in the year is bitterly cold and yet everyone would line up, uncles with glasses of the good ol’ amber stuff and aunties in beautiful silk sarees and elegant pashminas and the rag tag bunch of us kids who had to be cautioned back from the Ravan by the club babu ( I suppose the manager of sorts) lest we all burn down alongside (for the record, all club babus hated the sahabs’ children as they usually stole into his office and messed with his paperwork – err, or so I have heard… :D). This highlight was ever so exciting mostly because of the manner in which the Ravan had to be lit. Usually someone would light a ‘rocket’ which would launch from a half buried Gold Spot or Thums Up bottle and bury itself deep into Ravan’s evil heart (or eye – whichever to my mind seemed more dramatic at the time) thus symbolising good’s victory over evil. More often than naught, the repeated attempts failed and the rockets either found trees to light up or fizzled out two metres before the Ravan, and some scared groundsman would bravely go with a lit mashal and light the evil one’s legs. We would whoop and jump with enthusiastic applause and cheer each time a limb caught fire and the crackers inside went off. That was then, and I suppose I know I can never come close to that. I suppose a belated disclaimer at this point would be that Chai ka babas and babies are the most nostalgic breed. We grew up in ivory towers surrounded by endless lush green dotted with shade trees, had idyllic childhoods, and every day since seems less somehow. Just, disappointingly, less.
The interesting fact about these Diwali functions that my father told me just yesterday was that they started only in the ‘80s! Before that, when the British were still a bigger part of the tea industry, they used to have Guy Fawkes Night and wouldn’t allow for a separate Diwali function. Seems ironic to me now, that I am at a place where I can only substitute the Guy Fawkes fireworks for Diwali and recall my childhood night sky vibrantly lit up, believing that there is still a place for good to prevail. Since both occasions celebrate the failure of plots, with firework and effigy burning, I think it only befitting.