A festival of light

As a child, I waited for Diwali all year.

Mom would be dressed in yellow.  I always thought she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen.  I still do.  Small-boned, wrapped so elegantly in the several yards of cloth that most Indian women wear, called a sari.  She’s dressed in yellow this year too. I can tell from the pictures. 

This was the festival where we lit diyas in the evening, those small unglazed earthen clay lamps from the local market  My grandmother rolled the cotton wicks by hand, and laid out the diyas in silver platters.  My dad, lit them one by one, dressed in a crisp kurta-pajama.  What Diwali was about: the lighting of lamps, I learnt, and of welcoming the light.  You prayed to Ganesh, the beloved elephant god and the goddess Lakshmi, bringer of wealth and prosperity.  There’s a story about the return of the god Ram from exile, and how the lamps were lit to welcome him back.

The first year after my son Agastya was born, Mom came to visit and we returned home in time for the celebration.  It was my first time back for Diwali in ten years. With enough time to prepare: to buy new outfits and to dress the baby in a little yellow tunic with gold tassels.  Agastya sat in my father’s lap at the ceremony and stared at the priest chanting mantras into the glowing fire pit, smoke rising up as my dad poured spoonfuls of ghee into the fire.

But today, I am far away. 

It is dark and cold in mid-November.  This year, we have to work harder to find the light. I am looking ahead at months of darkness, regressing instead of progressing.  

Yesterday, we went to a small gathering at Charu’s home.  We hardly know Charu, but she is so warm that I am drawn to her as though she is the flame that I am missing.  At the party, I am introduced to a set of women that I have never met before.  I sit in that crowd of women in bright silk saris with pretty earrings and sparkling bangles.  One said she went to work in a hotel as a receptionist and had to wear a crisp sari everyday.  “I’ve never lost the habit since.”  Somebody giggled and said “The first time, when I got married and moved to Bombay, I draped my sari on the wrong shoulder, and everyone thought I was bringing a new style from Delhi.”  Another talked about how she finally now felt comfortable in a sari, although not like her mother-in-law who spends twelve hours in a sari with not a pleat out of place.  I wonder what skipped me?  Why don’t I know how to wear a sari.  Yet I’m finally feeling closer to home, at the weddings and festivals where I would be sitting similarly, in a circle of women.  

This Diwali I am trying to find a ritual that is mine, that Agastya and Vasisht, my two sons, can call their own.  We can’t paint the bright red and orange rangoli patterns outside the house which I loved doing as a child.  I have no idea where my tea lights are.  My tiny silver Ganesh and Lakshmi are languishing somewhere.  I rummage through my cupboards, turning everything upside down in a search for Ganesh and Lakshmi, for an outfit that fits, for those missing lights. 

I step out of the house.  It’s getting darker, the autumn air is crisp and dry leaves stir in the light breeze.  Today there is a farmer’s market.  There are baskets laden with newly harvested pumpkins, gourds of all types, green and blue kabocha and patterned carnival and delicata squash.  I see a big display of mushrooms – blue purple oysters, orange chicken of the woods, oversize king trumpets with creamy undersides.  Huge heads of white cauliflower in their jackets, the darkest broccoli I’ve seen – so lush, so sweet that I can almost taste it.  Purple red onions with glossy skins.  Orange sweet potatoes piled high with names like garnet, jewel.  Leeks with green tops and bunches of fat nubby carrots, dirt still clinging to them.  I have no idea what I am going to do, but the abundance comforts me.  I come home, my arms full of produce.  The food cooked during Diwali is simple.  Mom usually makes pumpkin, puffy puris, boondi raita and a simple sweet rice kheer.  

Ah sweets. This I know I can do, although it’s going to take hours and plenty of elbow grease.  Even though the recipes are so simple, with barely three or four ingredients in each.  I decide to make an assorted platter: chickpea flour balls called besan laddus, carrot halwa, and marzipan-like cashew barfis.  

Soon, I am cooking all day.  Everyone gets involved. My husband stirs the halwa for the several hours that it takes to cook the milk down with the carrots to make a sweet, stick pudding.  Agastya takes over the cashew barfis, and slaps the sticky dough around to make a large ball from which we fashion tiny ones and dot them with strands of saffron.  The chickpea flour is slow roasted in ghee and then rolled with sugar and cardamom. We create an indent in the middle, like a navel, and fill it with finely chopped pistachios.

At the end, we lay our offerings before the gods, who are finally found.  All featuring yellow and orange.  Like mom’s saris, like the warm flame of the diyas, like my erstwhile rangoli.   

Diwali is here.  

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