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Food, Fun & Firecrackers

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October 2003
Food, Fun & Firecrackers

What does Diwali mean to children?

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Few festivals capture the imagination of children as Diwali does. The very word conjures up images of pure joy and unbound festivities. Each child has a bundle of favorite Diwali memories. For me, it was the preparations building up towards the main event, which were in themselves so electrifying. My brother and I would join in along with the maid and other help brought in specially for the annual Diwali cleaning and help mom transform our home into what can best be described as ?showroom condition'. We'd be on all fours, gliding over the tiled floor with wet soapy water. The mattresses would be pulled out and taken to the terrace so that we could give them a good ?beating' till they literally ?gave-up' and no longer coughed any dust! Furniture, the other side of which I would not have seen all through the year, would be pulled out and overhauled. And for all this work we would be rewarded with special Diwali goodies for snacks.

Hoping to capture such special memories for the readers of Khabar, I rounded up a bunch of kids from our colony which has four apartment blocks with many flats. It was a rich pool of very eager participants, and before long many interesting favorite Diwali stories were being rattled off. But before that, let's begin with a verbal snapshot of Diwali for the benefit of those Indian American friends who have yet to actually experience the festival in India.

This is how Karanna Thakur, a writer, describes it:

"In India, you know Diwali is around the corner when you begin to hear the first firecrackers, often nearly a week before the festival. It's probably a child too impatient for D-day to arrive, who has sought special permission from his parents to burst one (?just one') cracker. Stocking up for Diwali begins almost a fortnight in advance. Every other lane in the city or town has a small feriwala (a person selling his wares on a hand cart) with crackers ? phuljhadis, saanps, anaars, rockets, atom bombs, and ladis. The first few days after the crackers make their appearance in the market, children repeatedly visit the stores just to see what is available and what is new this year. Then of course begins the tough task of getting their parents to the stores and convincing them to buy the crackers.

On Diwali night, cities and villages are lit up to look like brides in all their finery. Thousands of tiny lights are strung on apartment buildings and on trees by the sidewalks. Government buildings are lit up too. Nearly every apartment window or balcony has a beautiful kandeel (lantern) strung high up and swaying gently in the breeze. Sometimes entire apartment blocks have identical kandeels hanging in their balconies ? a touching display of solidarity.

Diwali, like Holi, is also a festival of colors. But unlike Holi where bright colors are smeared on one another's faces, in Diwali, you can see all the colors of the rainbow on the earth. Yes, it's time for the floor to be decorated. Every house has a beautiful rangoli placed outside the threshold of the main door. A rangoli is a kaleidoscope of colors created in a square or a circular pattern with fine multi-colored powders that are picked up in pinches and in a deft and practiced manner, gradually released by rubbing the pads of both fingers to conjure up some breathtaking designs.

As the sun sets over a Diwali day, a tiny earthen diya is lit and placed outside the door, right next to the rangoli. This is to welcome Goddess Lakshmi who is supposed to come and visit your home in this season. For some time in the evening when the diya is placed outside, the main door of the house is left ajar so that Lakshmiji can easily walk into the house.

On Diwali night, there are a minimum of eleven diyas; the one in the mandir (temple) of the house and one outside the door are the main ones. Nine others are lit along the pathway, on the windowsill and near the main gate. This is a throwback to an ancient time when there was no electricity in the villages and the villagers used their meager savings to buy small diyas that consumed little oil which could be used to light up the dark paths. But the diyas look so beautiful that all city slickers have at least a few of them in their homes during Diwali.

So what is Diwali all about? How did it all start? It is believed that Diwali marks the day when Lord Rama returned home after 12 years of exile with his wife Sita and devoted younger brother Lakshman. His return also marks the death of Ravana, the King of Lanka who had dared to kidnap Sita. Rama and his Vanar Sena (army of monkeys) had fought a valiant battle and wiped out Ravana. The lights not only signify a welcome, but also the victory of good over evil."

Now, it's the turn of the kids to have their say on what is their most favorite memory of Diwali.

"What I love about Diwali"

DIWALI GOODIES IN EVERY FLAT

? Kunal Swami, age 9

"I love waking up early in the morning on New Year's day to the sound of firecrackers. Our colony is famous for its 5-minute long lum (a long roll of firecrackers that go on continuously for that amount of time) which is burst exactly at 5:00 a.m. each year. After a quick round of early morning fireworks, everyone dresses up in their best clothes, usually new Diwali ones. I really love this custom of greeting each other for the New Year. As early as 6:00 a.m. neighbors, friends and relatives start coming in. We too start out early and first go to our neighbors' flats with wishes of Saal Mubarak ("Happy New Year"). Of course, the big interest for us kids is the goodies we can expect at everyone's home. Last year, my favorite was a date-candy stuffed with cashews. There are some homes in the neighborhood that are particularly famous for their mouthwatering Diwali spreads that kids can really get into."

THE SPIRIT OF DIWALI

? Kejal Shah, age 12

"Adults think that all we children are interested in is the firecrackers and clothes. But we do get involved with the higher spirit of Diwali as well. I enjoy most the fact that everyone is usually so happy and friendly around this time. Even the poorer people attempt to dress in the very best that they can afford. I was impressed with how our maid Laxmibai's family was dressed when they came to greet us last Diwali. The children had modest but clean clothes and looks. I had seen the same kids all the year round, usually in rags and looking unkempt. The transformation was wonderful. That to me says a lot about their spirit for Diwali.

Similarly, I see a lot of energy and enthusiasm when I go to my dad's office in the textile market. All the merchant shops are well lit; everyone is pleasant and welcoming, much more than normal. The families of many merchants are also present for the annual chopda pujan (religious rites for blessing the financial books). With all the kids in attendance and the younger ones running around the lobbies of the market, it seems less like a business place and more like one big joint family."

FIRECRACKERS, FIRECRACKERS EVERYWHERE

? Adil Lakdawala, age 9

"For me the most fun thing about Diwali easily is the firecrackers. I like everything about them, beginning with going to the market to choose them. I also like the way the entire city comes alive during Diwali with the sound of firecrackers. It is fun to dwell on the sounds of bombs bursting, some close by and some in the distance. And once in a while, suddenly when you least expect it, there's a big bang right in or around your building. Then you wonder which one of your friends is still up.

In our colony a bunch of friends gets together and plan our evening session so that instead of everyone randomly bursting their own crackers and getting done in just half an hour or less, we are able to use one friend's set first, then another's and then another's. This way we can be having fun with firecrackers till late at night. We also play many games like bursting bombs in tin cans to make a louder noise. We join many lums together to create a long sequence of noise. After making sure that we are wearing shoes, we also like to dance in the middle of many zamin-chakardies (floor spinners). I know it is supposed to cause pollution, but I even like the smell of firecrackers!"

THE FAMOUS JAIN FAMILY AND SWEETS

? Ami Jain, age 13

"Normally, I hate to help in the kitchen, but during Diwali, my best memories are making the many special snacks and sweets with my mom, cousins and aunts for our joint family. In today's hectic times, rarely do all our aunts and cousins get together in such an unhurried fashion. The chorafadis and ghugras, and ladoos that we make are so famous all around our neighborhood that we suddenly become extra popular at this time of the year. Normally, the ladies in our family may have minor squabbles going on, but this is one occasion where the chatter is always pleasant, and everyone is helping out. In fact, it is my elder aunt who pretty much takes over control of our kitchen. At any other time of the year mom might not like that. But this is a tradition that has been going on for many years. The new wives in the family soon learn to like this annual food fest. Strangely, many of my bhabhis and aunts have tried to make the same snacks and sweets by themselves, but for some magical reason can never duplicate the taste of our group efforts.

To show their appreciation, the men folk of the house even make tea for everyone in huge containers. Of course, there is a lot of ?quality control' and ?testing' (tasting?) during these afternoon tea seasons.

The whole atmosphere is so festive, that to me and many of my cousins, this is the highlight of Diwali."

SO MUCH TO DO AND ENJOY

?Bobby Ramani, age 8

"I like to receive money from my elders. During Diwali, my piggy bank gets full. I am allowed to spend half of all the gifts I get in any way I want. I feel like Bill Gates, I can buy anything. I also like waking up early and wearing new clothes and meeting all our relatives. Only on Saal Mubarak day, you get good food and drink everywhere you go. I like to collect the chocolates and sweets because I can't eat all of them at every place we go. I also like (fire) crackers very much. The rockets with parachutes are my favorite. We burst these only when my uncles are present, because the parachute can go anywhere and they are able to run and catch them before anyone else gets them. I also like to drive with dad everywhere in the city to see the lights and decorations. My sister likes rangoli very much. Almost all the flats in our building have a rangoli."


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