In my very first memory of Diwali, the sky is ablaze with beautiful color. As the trees above me are bathed in the greens and yellows of the firecrackers shooting up into the smoky air, I hold a sparkler at arm’s length, transfixed by its furious burning into nothingness.
When I was a child, Diwali was for me simply an opportunity to burst crackers. There were so many varieties, all fascinating. Sparklers, of course. And snakes, my favorites. And Roman candles and fire bombs and flower pots—the latter in high demand because of the intricate patterns they threw up into the night sky. Only dimly was I conscious of the children my own age who, as virtual prisoners in sweltering Sivakasi factories, gave their limbs and eyes to the crackers I so enjoyed.
As I grew older, Diwali became about much more than the joy of bursting crackers. It brought its peculiar sweetness to my early friendships. It served to comfort and nourish me (in more ways than one) in each of the unfamiliar cities in which I sought to make a home. And it brought me, an otherwise shy child, into the fold of my extended family, a chattering brood animated by birds and wine and books.
When I was twelve, a lonely child mostly, adrift in a housing state in a city alien to me, a new friend invited me to the Diwali celebration at his home. As we sat on the floor with the other children, our eyes taking in the intricate patterns painted on the floor (rangoli ), his mother fed us delicious kansar (porridge dolloped with ghee and sugar) and shrikhand, a pudding made of cottage cheese, so cool and refreshing to the taste. That evening made drowsy by the sonorous chanting of the priests consolidated a friendship that has lasted us through the years.
I spent my adolescent years at boarding school. In nearly every respect, this was a grim place. But on Diwali, bullying and hierarchies and petty jealousies were forgotten. Everyone came together in amazing conviviality on the school’s sprawling main field. As the sky turned pink and green and blue above us and the air heavy with the acrid smell of smoke, we would feast on galaka (a squash curry) and ukkarai (a spicy curry made of split chickpea and moong bean that always had me running for the nearest tap). Stuffed as we were, we always made space for dessert—balushahi (a kind of fried dougnnut inextricably linked with Diwali) and sheera (semolina made with raisins and cashew nuts and given a precious tang by cardamom and saffron).
When I was eighteen, I came to the United States for my undergrad. I was a bit naïve, and entirely terrified. I was delighted to find a little India in the presence of the other Indian international students and the many celebrations organized by my university’s South Asia society. Diwali was celebrated in a big way and this made sense—it was unparalleled in its richness and scope, in its color and drama, in its promise of darling new sarees and salwar kameezes and jewellery.
Diwali was celebrated fairly formally at the university. On the first day, Dhanteras, we prayed to Lakshmi (the god of wealth) at the local temple. Back on campus, we congregated for lapsi, a curry made with large-grained wheat and yard-long beans.
The second day, or the small Diwali, celebrates the elimination of evil spirits. In Hindu mythology, this is the day the god Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura. We would feast on anarasia (a rice and jaggery dish which normally takes about seven days to make), urad lentil pakoras (incidentally, pakoras, also known as bhajji, along with a steaming cup of masala chai are the best way to bring in the monsoon), and kheer (a rice pudding).
On the third day, the actual day of Diwali, we got together in our dorm rooms to pray to both Lakshmi and Ganesha (the remover of obstacles and lovable gourmand). The myth goes that on this day, the god Krishna returned to Ayodhya (the seat of power in the epic Ramayana after an absence of fifteen years). Towards evening, we would light little earthenware lamps (diyas) and place them on the stairs and the driveways of the dormitories. As night fell, the little lights blazed with shy brilliance. As at my boarding school, we had galaka and ukkarai, with sheera for desert. We also had poli, flatbread made with pigeon peas, saffron and cardamom.
The fourth day of the Diwali celebrations marks the god Krishna’s triumph over rain. He lifts the mountain Govardhan and shields the world from the fury of the skies. Perhaps it is the rain-drenched atmosphere of his triumph that gives the shrikhand eaten on this day its sharp, cool flavor. We would close the evening at one of the three Indian restaurants near campus, exchanging stories over a large pot of vegetable curry, the variety of vegetables in the curry symbolizing the richness we expected in the year ahead.
The fifth and last day of the Diwali celebrations was Bhai Duj, a celebration of the bond between brother and sister, a custom inspired, supposedly, by Yami’s praying for her brother Yama, the god of death. Those of us without sisters would acquire the good-humored temporary sisterhood of one of the girls. The girls would mark our foreheads with a little sandalwood tika and, in exchange, we would feed them sweets.
Growing up, I lived in four different cities. But I was always in Kolkata, the city where most of my extended family lives, for Diwali. I have always been close with my youngest cousin, who is closest to me in age, who taught me when I was a child, who showered me with her love, though I was terribly naughty. One of my most vivid memories is sitting drowsily on her lap on a Bhai Duj evening, as she feeds me leftover shrikhand bit by bit. Around us are my cousins and uncles and aunts. There is bantering and laughter and the proffering of sweets, which are always accepted after many protests. The air is heavy with incense. As the voices ebb and flow, Marx joins Agatha Christie and Foucalt and Fellini in the humid Kolkata air, only to be temporarily displaced by a knotty theological question. Secure in my cousin’s lap, surrounded by good will, I fall asleep.