“But it’s our first Diwali.” Her usually mellow tone altered.
“So? What’s the big deal?”
The conversation ended with me booking premium priced air tickets to India. Actually, I wasn’t too keen. For starters, I grew up outside India. Second, being from Kerala, we didn’t celebrate it with as much pomp and splendour as we did Onam or Vishu.
Besides, my wife is from a rather conservative Tam-Bram family in Chennai. I was not a Tam-Bram, and therefore unfamiliar with their customs and rituals. Since we’d left for London almost immediately after the wedding, this would be the first time that I’d be spending a few consecutive days with my in-laws and I felt like a lamb going to slaughter.
Despite our late arrival on Diwali eve, we were welcomed with much fanfare. I was a bit overwhelmed as well as excited. On one hand, I was going to get a first-hand view of what made Diwali so well loved. On the other, I just wanted to lock myself in a room until the next day was over, after hearing the list of the relatives and friends expected.
Within minutes of our arrival, my wife melted away, and I stood there alone wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Fortunately, my father-in-law sensed my discomfort and ushered me into one of the bedrooms. Since it was likely that I wouldn’t see my wife till later, as she helped her sisters and mother with the arrangements for the next day, he suggested I got some rest.
‘Tomorrow’s a big day!’ he added rather ominously, shutting the door behind him. In a few minutes, I was fast asleep, tired from our long journey.
I jumped right up, one hand clutching my chest. It was still dark, and I hunted for my mobile phone. Just as I found it, there was another loud crash and I went momentarily deaf. Had there been a break-in? Was there a gunman on the loose? What was that sound? Despite the air conditioner, I was sweating. My senses on edge, I gingerly walked to the door, opened it and looked out. And gasped.
The hall was filled with enough people to fill a small movie theatre, all talking animatedly, oblivious to the loud crashes and booms reverberating throughout the house.
I glanced at my phone – 6 am. Before I could slip back into the room, someone shouted out my name and pulled me out in my pyjamas, amidst smiling people all decked up as if they were attending a wedding.
In a previous life, I might have actually run away. Now I stayed, whispered a few greetings from behind my hand to prevent my morning breath from knocking people out, and then quietly retired, on the pretext of freshening up. As I contemplated my next move, my wife knocked and peered in.
“What am I supposed to do? And why are there so many people so early in the morning?” I asked her in confusion.
“It’s Diwali. And it’s already late - we’ve all been up since 4. And the kids are bursting crackers. I’m surprised you didn’t get up earlier, with all the commotion they’ve been making. Now go! Get ready quickly – wear that kurta in the cupboard. You should wear new clothes for Diwali. Oh, and ignore the yellow colour behind the collar; it’s turmeric and it’s a custom,” she said, and disappeared.
About 40 minutes later I finally walked out, my ears still buzzing. My father-in-law introduced me to a few more people, with whom I was forced to make really uncomfortable small talk.
The rest of the morning passed in a daze of strange poojas, more greeting of strangers, lots of food, a rangoli competition that gave me serious art-envy, more food, a helpful power nap and the bursting of some small crackers. Since I’m not a big fan of crackers, I decided to retire to the safety of the balcony. I wondered why it was called the festival of lights, when all I’d heard were booms and blasts.
But as twilight took over, every house, including my in-laws’, slowly lit up in a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns.
Night brought with it spinning chakras, shimmering sparklers, multi-coloured fireworks, and of course, the true light and spirit of Diwali – the reflected happiness of the entire family, of being together once again under one roof.
And that’s when I had my Christmas Carol moment. I’d pegged Diwali as just another ‘show-off’ event. But the true soul of Diwali lies not in the extravagance or opulence of the celebration, but rather the oneness we experience, irrespective of age, caste, religion, creed and everything else that divides us.
I’ve celebrated every Diwali with my in-laws since then.