I woke up startled from my sleep cursing the phone. My mom came into the room and handed me the device. It was my paati* on the phone. I got up, still in a trance. And glanced around to get a glimpse of the time. It was 10:30 am. And there was just a feeble sound of firecrackers in the distance.
It was Diwali day, I realized. I wished my paati & thaatha ‘Happy Diwali’ and tried to get back to my sleep. But I could not. Lying down on my bed, I started wondering… Wondering about those Diwalis many years ago
I was probably in my 3rd standard, when the earliest memories of Diwali strike me. It was my paati who would light the first pattasu* in the house. 3:00 am was always the time. It was a custom followed for many years. We would all wait eagerly for the sound of that first one. It was our cue to wake up. And pronounce to the whole world that we were the first in the locality to wake up. There was a big competition in the neighborhood for being the early bird. The earlier the time you could state, the more your social standing was for the day.
In the next room, I could hear my mom shouting out to me to wake up. This was probably her 20th call out to me. I had obviously not paid heed to any of it earlier and was blissfully sleeping on my bed. My father was banging on my bedroom door to force me out of bed as well.
In those days, we had to run around the house and create a racket to wake up everyone. We would shout out to our parents to wake up. We would always wonder how they did not share the same enthusiasm to wake up and burst crackers. My dad would be the problem child. He just did not feel the importance to wake up early. I would do my level best to wake him up to make him ready along with us by around 4 am at the least. But the earliest he would have probably seen was 7 am.
As I woke up and brushed my teeth, I called out to my mom to put my dress in the bedroom so I that I could use it. I was just about to pick up the soap and shampoo for taking bath when my mom called out to come to the puja room to get the dress. I was too lazy to walk out and refused to oblige.
If there was one part about Diwali that I hated then, it was the oil on the head bit, and something worse – the black colored Diwali medicine called the ’legiyam’*. A drop of oil is all that I would get on my head. And there was absolutely no way that the black colored semi-solid legiyam was getting into my mouth. A sound of irritation, turning the face the other side, running around so that no one could catch me, holding my breath so that I could keep the thing in my mouth and spit it out later – all these were the tried, tested but unsuccessful methods of not having the dark concoction. On the other side, the new dress was our pride for the day. The same dress would also be used the next day in school for showing around on the one occasion when students were not required to come in white and blue.
After taking bath, I dressed up and came outside. My eyes immediately went towards the boxes of sweets that were lying around. The variety was pronounced. Laddoos, mysore pak, badhushah, mixture, thattai* and more assorted sweets. ‘Grand Sweets’, ‘Surya Sweets’, and ‘Krishna Sweets’ read out the sweet boxes. A solitary bowl of home-made semiya payasam* was lying next to these boxes.
The sweet / savories making process in those days started more than a week ahead of the actual festival date. Elaborate arrangements were made to source the various types of dough to make the home-made delicacies. My grandma’s mysore-pak was a super specialty. So also her thengozhal*. My mom and aunts would help her make all the items for all the households. Just watching them gave the feeling of the approaching festivities. And the sampling of the items was a fantastic opportunity to get your mouth full of lip-smacking sweet dishes. All the items had to be home-made.
As I walked around the house, I could hear the sound of the pattimandram* on Sun TV in the background. My dad was laughing out at how Solomon Pappaiya* was summarizing the discussion. I picked up the paper to see what new movies were getting released – only one Surya movie called ‘Aadhavan’. Rest all, absolutely junk.
I remember one of those last few exciting Diwalis when Manirathnam’s Roja was released. Along with Kamalhassan’s Devar Magan. I think I was in the 9th standard then. We were all taking the customary break from firecrackers for the special screening of ‘Oliyum Oliyum’ on Doordarshan. This was the programme where they were going to play the latest movie songs from the flicks that were getting released that day. We were looking out for the name of Ilayaraja on the movie banner that they displayed for the movie ‘Roja’. Some ‘new actor and actress’, someone claimed. ‘A.R. Rehman’ displayed the banner. ‘Who was this new music guy’, someone remarked… And then started ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ and all of us were glued to the TV, mesmerized…
I then took the one single 56 wallah Red Fort and the box of matches lying next to it. I went outside and the street was more or less calm. There was still that firecracker noise from the distance, not so far away as was the case when I was in bed, but still some distance away. I kept the cracker on the ground, lighted the match-stick first, then used that to light one of the multiple threads that was sprouting out from the red-colored pieces of gun-powder that were just about to blow up. I could hear the sound, this time much closer, as I turned my back and started walking back home.
The ordering process for the firecrackers was a mammoth exercise. We were given a budget to work towards. This hovered from around Rs. 150 upwards of Rs. 400 sometimes. Finalizing on the combination was an exercise in optimization. Finalizing on the supplier was an exercise in keeping your ears and eyes wide open for the cheapest deals. The Rs. 10 packets of loose bijilis and the roll cap along with the toy pistol formed the starters for the 7-course sumptuous fire-cracker spread. Other parts of this included the flower-pots very early in the morning when it was still dark, the Lakshmi / Sparrow single bursts around dawn, the atom / hydrogen bombs around early morning, the red-forts later in the morning, the innovatively used coconut shells around various types of firecrackers in the afternoon and the flower-pots and the rockets reappearing in the night to close out the bursting sessions. We also stored a few items for the upcoming Karthikai Deepam*. Out of the 24 hours in a day, a good part of 15 hours would be spent amidst the bang-bang sounds.
I then went up and took out my laptop from my bag. As I logged on to the internet, I could see a whole lot of status messages on Diwali wishes. This was from my world wide web of friends and relatives. I could also see a lot of SMS wishes on my phone that was sitting on the side. I started typing out my own Diwali poem for me to send out to the hundreds of my contacts across Facebook, Twitter, and my mobile.
The one break we took in the afternoon from bursting was to go meet all the relatives around. This started with my uncles / aunts and culminated in my other grandma / grandpa’s house. Across all of these houses, we were fed more sweets and other delicacies. We were also given the remaining firecrackers that were not utilized, especially in the homes of the elderly. We were also supposed to burst a couple of crackers in those houses where there was no young one. Diwali was an occasion to go meet all these folks. And to exchange pleasantries… The contacts-circle was typically limited to people staying within 1 km of you…
As I finished typing out my messages across these various sites, I started wondering what was it that had changed in my celebrating this wonderful festival across all these years... I guess it was around the 11th standard when I suddenly lost my excitement for bursting crackers. And now, it was another holiday off from work, to take rest at home. I realized that most of us have grown up. And priorities have changed. This is probably true of our fathers when we were kids. And it is probably true of our kids when we grow up too.
But remembering those moments always brings out that smile in me. After all, this is what nostalgia is about. And that is what gives you ultimate fun when you think of those years gone by… Those years, when no one was too old, to wake up early and start bursting firecrackers at 3 a.m. in the morning…
*Key (Tamil Words)
- Paati = Grandma
- Thaatha = Grandpa
- Pattasu = Firecracker
- Legiyam = Semi-solid concoction of medicinal herbs
- Badhushah & Semiya payasam, Thengozhal & Thattai = South Indian Sweets, Savories respectively
- Pattimandram = Debate; Solomon Pappaiya = Moderator of the debate
- Karthikai Deepam = Festival in November / December where houses are completely lit in the night