Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Where's the fire? / My obligatory Diwali Post

So it's Diwali. Again.

The thing is, I don't really care much for Diwali. Actually, I don't care much for any festival, except maybe Christmas (and that's just a sort of mercenary nostalgia for Santa Claus, coupled with a yearning for my Mother's Rum and Ginger cakes). And I do prefer Diwali to Holi, which is barbaric and unbearable. But still, I don't care for Diwali much.

As a child my big problem with Diwali was with fireworks. I never understood them. Every Diwali I would stare in confusion at all these laughing people around me who seemed to think that there was nothing more fun than holding burning sticks in your hand and setting off things that made loud sounds and left you coughing with smoke. What was the point of it all, I wondered. Where did it come from, this caveman fascination with the idea that things could burn? And what was the deal with all these flickering little candles, all these twinky little diyas. If you really wanted light, what did you think electricity was for? Okay, so some of this stuff looked nice; it was fun to glance out of a window and see a rocket exploding over the skyline, fun to look up from a book and see a cone exploding into sparks, but why would you want to devote hours to this sort of thing?

I'd like to be able to claim that my aversion to fireworks came from some distant recognition of the Promethean majesty of fire, of the danger we ran as mortals by making so awe-inspiring a force the dupe of children's games. I'd like to be able to claim that it was the anarchy of fireworks that upset me, that violated my preference for order, for neatness. The truth is simpler - I was, and have always been, mortally afraid of fire.

Call it having a morbid imagination. All through Diwali night I would be on tenterhooks, waiting for disaster to strike. While other people watched the lights of the fireworks in wonder, my eyes would follow the stray sparks that were blown here and there, watching them to make sure that they hadn't found something inflammable (even now, the imagined image of a stray rocket slamming through a window and setting a house on fire stays with me). Where other people saw pious and rustic lamps, I saw receptacles of raw, burning oil, with the power to singe and ignite. It wasn't just that I wouldn't go near any of these things (I was convinced against all reason, that even the smallest spark from the most harmless little phooljhadi could leave me a wasted cripple - if someone handed me so much as a lighted candle I would scream in terror), it was also that watching other people go near them I was always mortally afraid. Every time my father would scurry forward to light yet another firework, I would be convinced that this time he wasn't going to make it out of range in time, I would shut my eyes to keep from seeing him burned, seeing him hurt. It galled me that the adults around me, who were supposed to be the responsible ones after all, didn't see the terrible risks they were putting themselves and their children to. That it fell to me, all of 7 years old, to watch out for everyone else.

The result of all this was that by the time the Diwali fireworks were over, I would be a nervous wreck. Every nerve, every instinct in my body would have been stretched past breaking point. I would run back into the house in relief, glad that it was finally all over, amazed that we had all somehow survived it. You know the saying "Cowards die a thousand times before their death" - the first time I heard it the only thing I could think of was Diwali.

The trouble, of course, was that my parents (bless them) just couldn't accept this. Oh, they understood that I was afraid of firecrackers, and never forced me into anything, but they just couldn't come to terms with the idea that someone (least of all a 7 year old) could hate firecrackers and not want anything to do with them. They were afraid, presumably, that if they didn't celebrate Diwali properly, I would be 'missing out'. The irony was that I don't think they particularly cared for crackers either - they were doing it mostly for my sake!

So every year we would make the obligatory trip to the cracker shop, every year we would feign excitement and pick out a bunch of crackers. Every year I would stand on our roof at night, cowering in fear while my parents set off cracker after cracker, trying desperately to draw me into the excitement of the whole thing. Convinced that they must do something to help me get over my irrational fear, they would do things to show me that there was nothing to fear, they would 'encourage' me to try it for myself. This of course, only made the whole thing worse. Don't get me wrong, I'm not unappreciative of what they were trying to do, and the dinner my mother would put together afterwards would almost make up for all the cringing horror of the firecrackers, it's just that I hated the whole thing from start to smoky finish.

I suspect that's why I don't like Diwali. Whenever I think about it all I can see is firecrackers, all I can smell is suffocating smoke. The point is that I never had fun on Diwali - on the contrary, the chore of setting off firecrackers on Diwali night and then going to school the next day and having all my friends talk enthusiastically about all the different types of 'bombs' they set off was something I rapidly came to dread. That's why, even now, I can't wait for Diwali to be over.

It's also why far from being homesick I actually love spending Diwali in the US. Take today for instance. Once I'm done with work, I'll go get a drink with a bunch of friends who have no idea what Diwali is and therefore feel no need to celebrate it. Then I'll go home and curl up in bed and peacefully read my book, without being threatened by the imminent arrival of relatives, without having to deal with the noise and smoke and screaming people and loud music outside. Being in the US means that I can completely deny that Diwali exists, and that's really valuable to me.

So if you're one of those people who look forward to Diwali and think it's special and like celebrating it - I hope you're having a good time. I certainly am.

P.S. To be fair, I should say that in my more recent experiences, even in the hell-hole that is Delhi, Diwali has been much quieter, much more dignified. I understand that there are no campaigns against firecrackers running in schools, that children are being encouraged to stay away from them. Just my luck to be born in the wrong generation.


Mrudula said...

I did have a good time though! Relatives came over in droves(so to speak) and my house was lit up with diyas. Lovely rangoli in front of the house (I didn't craft it) and no 'bombs', rounded off the evening with fantastic food! Altogether a jolly good time.

Douglas Adams said...

I think you were shit scared, as some kids are, of crackers, and tried lying to yourself that you actually hated it. I can understand adults feeling that way, especially after they've indulged in lighting crackers in their childhood, but your story is too implausible. I'm sure it's fortifying now to be able to blog about it.

The Soliloquist said...

hey falstaff..
ur story is completely plausible.. as i too share ur dread for fireworks.. But for a different reason.. I hate noise. Was game enough to light the flowerpot till recently, when someone said that they too can explode... So for past 3 years, the fireworks hav been rottin in my house.. and yes one more reason is having to go out to visit relatives, braving the cracker ridden streets... Makes u a nervous wreck.. was wondering if i was the only one sane in all the madness.. glad to hav found company..

Falstaff said...

Mru: So happy for you. Though I have to say "relatives coming over in droves" is my idea of HELL.

Douglas Adams: I'm not sure I understand the distinction between being shit scared of something and hating it. Any more than I'm sure I know what the distinction between hating something and pretending to yourself that you're hating it is (is hatred ever a verifiable objective fact?). I agree the story's implausible, but then, so am I.

Soliloquist: Yes, it's good to have company isn't it. Though, err, having me for company is a very poor indicator of sanity.

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