Diwali is in the heart and hearth

**Shruti Nargundkar is an Angat Pangat Admin member, and everyone’s Tai. Her evocative writing and wisdom keep the Admin team sane.**

Even after spending nearly three decades away from India, come Diwali and I get nostalgic about those exciting times we had as kids.

In the Diwali of my childhood in Hyderabad, preparations would start well before the four days of Diwali. Cleaning preceded cooking.  Ridding their homes of webs and dust, women set about indulgently stocking their pantries with extra supplies of sugar, semolina, oil, nuts, dry fruit and spices.

New clothes were such an integral part of the festivities. Unlike the kids of today, the children of the 1960s and 70s got new clothes only on a few occasions such as birthdays, Diwali and Dasara. Such was the norm, at least among the middle class Marathi folk. Then again, it wasn’t the norm for chubby children like me, to be able to shop for plus size readymade clothes.

So that meant shopping for materials, and Aai making a frock for me when she found time from her work and making the faral. This was a hit and miss, and often fashion was sacrificed to farsightedness, and the frocks would end up a size or two larger to accommodate a fast-growing child.

Getting the clothes tailored was an arduous task, involving going from tailor to tailor and begging them to deliver the clothes before Diwali. When a tailor eventually agreed, he would show apprehension if the length of material would be sufficient for fashioning the frock the way I wanted. The only thing that mitigated the ignominy of the situation was the days of anticipation and fantasizing of how I would look in those garments, if or when they arrived in time for Diwali.

Other purchases included clay lamps were bought from vendors selling them on carts or out of baskets carried on their heads.  The carefully selected terracotta lamps were soaked in water for a day or so before they were filled with oil and wicks, which we had to hand roll by the dozen.  There was something very filmy and dramatic about preparing large platters of these lights and placing them in rows to adorn every nook and cranny of our homes.

While mothers and grandmothers spent time in the kitchen making a galore of sweets like laadu, karanji, shankarpali, chakali and chivda, we kids had our own things to do.

Unlike school children in in Maharashtra, we did not have extended Diwali holidays for schools.  But that didn’t stop us from indulging on all Diwali related activities from our Marathi cultural background.

Akash Kandeels had a proud place in every doorway. Aai taught us the importance of making these things ourselves, and encouraged us to make paper lanterns with craft paper, gelatin paper and crepe paper streamers. Regardless of the level of finesse, these would be proudly displayed from Vausbaras onwards until Tulshicha Lagna.   

Led enthusiastically by Aai, we also used to make a fort – a ‘Diwali Killa’ – out of mud, cardboard and upturned clay pots. This was a tradition from Maharashtra to signify the victory of the great Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj over the Mughals and other kings of various dynasties.

The fort would be built over many levels, with toy soldiers posted strategically. The greenery on and around the fortress would have to be planted days in advance with the fast growing aleev or cress seeds. When there wasn’t sufficient time to do this, the greenery would be simulated with paddy husks dyed with green food colouring.

All miniature figurines of animals from our collection of Binaca toys (that we got as freebies with the toothpaste) ranging from ducks to dinosaurs were placed on this greenery. Some miniature ducks and swans from this collection were placed on a small hand mirror embedded face up in the paddy to simulate a pond.

The killa was incomplete without the incongruous GI Joes rubbing shoulders with the Air India maharaja, clay dolls of a Marwari seth and his sethani and the bobble head Thanjavur dancing doll.

Sunning the firecrackers to ensure they were dry and ready to burst was as much a part of the preparation for Diwali as the Killa.

On the days of Diwali, rangolis -riotous freehand designs or regimental geometrical shapes created out of lines joining dots claimed their rightful role in the foreground. In deference to Diwali they would be filled with colours, and adorned with flowers and lamps.

Other kids around me would run out to burst more crackers or collect unspent ones and try and explode them or collect the “stuff” from inside of them to make their own indigenous fatake.

But a nerdy yours truly would be happier with the Diwali Ank magazines–looking at the glossy ads for jewelry, reading recipes and kids’ special sections.

Occasionally, when Aai wasn’t looking, a sneak a peek into the double entendre, chavat window cutouts in Jatraa or Awaaz magazine was well worth the risk taken. Also intriguing, especially since it was forbidden, was celebrity gossip from Devyani Chaubal’s Chanderi Chewing Gum.

The little nip in the air tickling our bodies, warm and alive with the massaging and scrubbing with jasmine oil, herbal utane and Moti soap, the fragrance of burning firecrackers mingling with the aromas of frying emanating from the kitchen, the spectacular sight of the rangolis, flowers, sparklers and crackling fountains and lamps, the cheerful sounds of the family’s happy chatting and laughter over the early morning feasting on the faral, the unending eating and exchanging of all the homemade sweets with friends and neighbours….

Diwali was indeed a complete sensory experience.

The highlight of the evening, apart from the firecrackers and more eating and visiting each other, was the Lakshmi Pooja, which was an ornate and very symbolic affair. We kids used to help mother decorate the altar in the afternoons. Little ornamental utarands or painted pile-up clay pots were filled with puffed paddy along with coriander seeds and round airy light battassas candies on either side of the Lakshmi and Ganesh.

One vivid memory I have is that of mother patiently answering my incessant, curious questioning, telling me that this pooja was a gesture of thanksgiving– a symbol of prosperity and plenty that was being celebrated post a bountiful harvest. The paddy puffs symbolised the staple grains, the coriander seeds stood for all the spice of life and the sugar puff battassas were representative of the sweet things in life!

What a lovely explanation that was to my little mind!

So far away in time and space from the idyllic Diwali of my childhood, we have celebrated Diwali at home across the world in two countries differently, sometimes not even on the designated days if Diwali falls on a weekday.

But celebrate we do–in thanksgiving for all the good things in life. I make it a point to make faral at home, trying out different traditional and reinvented recipes each year. We do the Lakshmi Pooja, have a party with family and friends, our kids make the aakash kandeels and of course light lamps and sparklers.

We chat and talk and make it a point to reminisce about the festivities over the years, as no Diwali is complete without cherishing these memories and creating new ones for my children, while our hearts are full of gratitude for the values and experiences our parents have bequeathed on us.

Diwali is in the heart and hearth. We carry it with us wherever we go.

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