Monday, November 8, 2010

Diwali!

There's no festival I hate more than Diwali. You would expect a "festival of lights" to appeal to any lover of movies; but the thing is, over the years, it hasn't been so much a treat for my eyes as an assault upon my ears. Year after year would I dread the approach of winter, knowing that an extended weekend was barrelling toward me during which I would be doing nothing but lie curled up in my bed, hands over my ears, and the restaurant home-delivery numbers in a crumpled-up piece of paper by the bed-side.

Going for a walk in the evening? Stay well away from those hedges and that wall - they might just be hiding a yard with crackers that you feel as much in your chest as through your ears. A drive? Be careful about driving over those strange-looking stones placed right in the middle of the street; those might just be "bombs" - and the chap who's lit the fuse isn't around because he's already hauling his ass way over to the other side of the city. Staying at home isn't all that much better either; there's only so much a window can do to stop a 20-kiloton cracker right beneath it - and can you really wear noise-cancelling earphones for hours on end, days on end?

All of which is why one year I escaped to Cochin during Diwali, just for a bit of peace and quiet. Diwali isn't celebrated with so much fervour in the southern states, and even if it were, people there have sense enough not to convert entire cities into the Iraq from "The Hurt Locker." So long as you avoid specific areas like temples, football grounds, etc, where people assemble to celebrate, the rest of the neighbourhood is all peaceful and quiet - where you can enjoy such subtleties as the chirp of birds, a conversation with someone else, or your own thoughts.

Naturally, all this curling up in beds makes for a very lonely few days - more so because I usually avoid the parties my friends invite me to: those tend to have crackers that are bad enough out in the open but, in the confined space of someone's porch, are something else altogether. This year, though...

It's like this. There's this guy I'm friends with primarily because I happen to think his wife is hot. So when she invited me over to Noida for her Diwali celebrations, and since the dude happened to be in Cochin for the holidays - a distance of over 2500 kilometres - naturally, I didn't say no: it was the first chance I've ever had of being with her without him poking his nose in between.

The itinerary was simple. I'd drive over to Noida in the evening. Since most of Arushi's friends no longer live in Noida, we'd then tag along with her little sister (so long as we agreed not to call her Choti), and make rounds of the neighbourhood gathering up Choti's friends. Once our numbers swelled to a satisfactorily intimidatory figure, we'd gatecrash a party.

I reached Arushi's house a little earlier than planned, and so was around to see them deck the house up with little lamps - every room, doorway, tabletop and windowsill. When we had dinner, it was with only the lights of the dining room on; every other room was lit by the glow from the diyas. It was the first sign that this Diwali would be one that would have a little bit of magic in it for me, and so expectant was I that I did not let even the crash and boom of the crackers that had started to make their presence felt outside ruin my hope.

Presently we made our way outside. By now, the crackers and the rockets were out in full force. The gate of their colony was the rendezvous point, and slowly Choti's friends started trickling in. The plain delight with which they greeted each other brought up that little voice that makes its appearance once in a while to tell me that perhaps I should seek out company more often than I normally do. It was apparent, though, that some of them hadn't seen each other in quite a while - like when an old friend, having just made her appearance, enveloped a startled Arushi in a warm hug.

Old friend: "My, my. You've changed so much!"
Arushi: "I'm her sister. Choti's over there."
Choti: "Don't call me Choti. Besides, I'm taller than you."
Old friend: "Ah! I did wonder how Choti had gotten so short. But otherwise, you two look so similar..."

While we were so waiting, the spot we'd picked being a sort of cross-roads, proved a prime spot for observing folks indulging in their cracker-bursting and their rocket-launching. Arushi, Choti and their friends were part of an anti-cracker group - they hadn't burst any since school - for reasons including child labour, air-and-noise pollution and safety. In fact, they told me that due to the schools educating their students over these matters, the bursting of crackers have come down drastically over the years. I find this hard to believe for no reason other than that if this is what drastically-reduced cracker bursting is, then my imagination comes a cropper in visualising what a few years ago must've been like.

But my prejudices did not prevent me from admiring some of the rockets on display. The chap who was at work down the street was having a particularly bad time at getting his angles right: a substantial number seemed to be fired directly into the flats on the higher floors. It's a measure of the general goodwill easily apparent all round that not even one resident rushed down with blunt objects in hand. But when he did get it right, some of them were a sight to behold - chief of them being a "sperm rocket," for lack of a better description, that launched off its pad with a huge bang, exploded way up above with an even louder bang, and then split up into 5 or 6 lines of fire that each terminated with a little explosion of its own. Gandalf would've been proud of that one.

Since a couple of friends were still playing truant, we decided that Mohammed must go to the mountain. Now, I wasn't drunk or on drugs; this is the testimony of a man fully in control of his faculties that you're reading. And I swear to you that there never was a lovelier colony. Ever seen those cheesy ads or those old movies where a Romeo woos his Juliet, and the houses are all boxed in together - breathtakingly beautiful but patently unrealistic? The houses are all one-or-two storied, with tiny yards, and two-people-abreast-wide little lanes running between them. They're surrounded by picket fences sometimes, hedges sometimes, and the lawns (when they are there) are just the right size to make Juliet's first-floor window within perfect range of a fence-leaning Romeo's pebbles. Just about everything screams "prop" and "studio shot."

And so I tell you now that there's nothing cheesy or unrealistic about those ads or those movies; there are those who live in such places. Of course, my companions - spoilsports that they are - tried telling me that a lot of the effect was due to the coloured Diwali lighting that would tinge anything with dollops of romance, and, further, without the cover of darkness I would notice a lot more peeling paint and unkempt yards. But who cares what things look like in the glare of the sun? Some of us are children of the night - especially pebble-armed Romeos - and know nothing of the day save the last slanting rays of it that sometimes catch us as we wake up.

Sadly, there's no such thing as perfection, and so it was that all the atmosphere notwithstanding, there were serpents in paradise. The narrower the streets and the smaller the yards, the louder the crackers, the more places for them to spring from unexpectedly, and the closer they are to you when they go off. No company of bomb-disposal units in war-time were ever more cautious or more deliberate in each step than us walking down the streets to track down the last of Choti's friends - sometimes doing nothing more than tying a packet of sweets to the doors of those not at home.

Our rounds done eventually, we made off for a party on a terrace, and relaxed in the slightly-nippy evening air by talking trash of those at the party better looking than us, more talented than us, or with beauties for girlfriends. In between, rude-sounding crackers would go off and sometimes rockets would turn the whole sky a shade of green or purple. By the time I started my drive home to Delhi a little after 2 in the morning, the crackers were silent, but there was a fog thick enough to ensure that I couldn't see more than 10 feet ahead of me, and would've made my drive hell had I had to navigate via landmarks, or even follow anything but a straight road home. Fire-crackers creating a fog large enough to envelop two cities... It boggles the mind. I wish the schools all the luck in their crusade.

Will I look forward to Diwali next year? Not by a long shot. But will I dread its arrival? I've seen enough to like about it for that to be pretty unlikely.