My grandmother was a very religious person. I remember the Diwali days when I was a child. For us, Diwali would start on narak chaturdashi. What that meant, for me, was that was the first day of the festival when I was allowed to light the fire-crackers. For my grandmother, the festival started right from Dusserah. She would light up a panti, and keep it near the tulasi tree every day from Dussehra. But on narak-chaturdashi, the festival descended upon us. We had to get up early in the morning (my grandmother insisted that if we didn’t get our bath before the sunrise, we’d end up in narak — the hell), and go through a routine of oil massage, and then a bath with utne and a special Diwali soap.
This painful ordeal (on a cold November morning!) over, it was all fire-crackers and the faral. My father would give me my quota of the crackers and I had to decide for myself how to manage. I subscribed to the “save the best for last” blast philosophy, so on the first couple of days, I’d be cautious. Then of course, it was time for faral. We’d eat the special food items prepared only for Diwali. Although the faral items would be ready in the previous week, we could eat them only after the abhyanga-snaan.
Things started to change, when I found rationalism, and soon enough, atheism. I was growing up. Rebellion was the flavor of the time. All traditions had started to become meaningless rituals. One fine day, I was arguing with my school-friend about pollution. He said, “what about the fire-crackers that you light on Diwali?”. So we decided, my friend and I: no more crackers for us. Come Diwali, the friend went somewhere for his vacations. I told my parent, I didn’t want any crackers. Nothing. My friend came back from vacations and confessed to me that he couldn’t keep his part of the deal. Sigh! But the kick of doing the “right thing” had addicted me. Soon stopped the getting-up-early on the narak-chaturdashi, when one of our distant relative passed away just before the Diwali, and we didn’t celebrate Diwali that year. The rationalist me had his doubts: wouldn’t we end up in hell now? Would it matter if I don’t get up early the next year? Plus, lets face it, with self imposed ban on crackers, there was no incentive left to get up early.
Over the years, the rationalistic fervor goes down. I mean, sure I still don’t believe in hell, but there is no need to prove ones rationalistic credentials anymore. With age, we start to value, what we questioned as adolescents. Today, I got up early, got an abhyang-snaan — with oil, utne and all. Diwali, after all, is the festival of rejuvenation. Stephan Covey, in his famous book, The Seven Habits, talks about PC, the Production Capacity. Diwali is the time when one is to work on PC. Allow oneself the leisure. Pamper oneself with sweets, and colors. It’s literally, oiling the machinery. Take time out of busy schedules to spend time with the near and the dear ones, and to work on relationships. Today, I still feel bad when chocked up cities have to bear with the additional sound and air-pollution of the fire-crackers. That, given our bad urban diets year around, eating more sweets and fried food items is the last thing we need. Still, talking of traditions, only a cliche could best end this piece: do we really want to throw the baby with the bathwater? Over the years, I’ve found Diwali again.
Glossary:narak (नरक): Hell
chaturdashi (चतुर्दशी): The fourteenth day of the moon cycle.
panti (पणती): Earthen oil lamp.
utne (उटणे): medicated powder.
abhyang-snaan (अभ्यंग-स्नान): literally, a holy bath.