Diwali: Fruit and fireworks!

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Memories of Diwali are incomplete without episodes that contain these two essential symbols of celebrations, writes SHERYL DIXIT

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With Diwali just around the corner, my thoughts invariably go back to my childhood and our myriad festival celebrations back in Mumbai. Of these, a couple of episodes stand out clearly from the others, simply because they enlivened even more, what was a normally an interesting festival.

My dad worked for a bank, and the week preceding Diwali was always a highly anticipated one as he would come home bearing various gift boxes from generous clients, usually containing an assortment of dried fruit and nuts, or mouth-watering mithai. These boxes would be attacked by the family; we were all relatively healthy eaters, and the first to go would be the cashew and pistachio nuts.

Soon, all that would be left behind were a few dried dates and sultanas, which no-one particularly enjoyed, not even the maids. Because our household was one that saw an influx of visitors over weekends ranging from family to hanger-ons looking for a free meal that my kind parents wouldn’t refuse, one year my dad insisted that a few of these gift boxes should be kept aside to re-gift, as we were clearly being spoiled for choice. My older sister was the only one who vociferously objected to this generosity, perhaps because she had a penchant for nuts, being one herself. She developed a technique by which she would gently lift the cellophane paper that covered the compartments in the box, and would replace the nuts with the unpopular, leftover sultanas. She would then glue back the cellophane paper, replace the lid of the box, and to ensure that she hadn’t been detected, she would seal the box with sticky tape at each end. I wonder how many recipients of those boxes were grateful to the dubious generosity of my family.

Despite living in a predominantly Catholic area (indeed, the locality I lived in was called ‘Catholic colony’), when it came to Diwali, we put aside our Christian snobbery and rivalled the neighbouring ‘Hindu’ gangs with a collection of fireworks that was on par with theirs in cacophony and splendour.

Each Diwali my dad would religiously travel to a special fireworks shop in Muhammed Ali Road, owned for generations by a Muslim family, and would spend a good bit of his hard-earned festival bonus on buying an array of rockets, sparklers, fountains, Catherine wheels and, my favourite, since I was (and am) an irredeemable funk, little black pellets called ‘snakes’ which when lit, flared up into a tube of black carbon with an odious vapour. They were stinky, but safe.

I have always been a reluctant admirer of fireworks and as a child the nearest I could get to firecrackers was reluctantly holding a lit sparkler balanced at the end of a stick, thanks to the ingenuity of my mother, whose coaxing had also got me out of bed with pillows over my head. I loved the colours and lights that accompanied Diwali, but not the sound. And Bombay being an enthusiastic city, always began its noisy celebrations at least two weeks before the festival. Loud ‘bombs’ went off at 3am, literally shaking the neighbourhood on its foundations, and all most people did was rollover in their sleep.

One of my most memorable Diwali celebrations however, was right at home. Our ground floor flat had a balcony overlooking a garden that ran around the premises, the abode of many childhood adventures and home to a few cats. As is typical with homes in the city, we had one part cordoned off with old furniture, a bookshelf with moulding books, and various bric-a-brac that no-one ever seemed to find the need to throw away.

My sister as usual, the tomboy of the family, often took her enthusiasm for life several notches higher when it came to fireworks on Diwali, and was the one to light the rockets, Catherine wheels, fountains, etc., while the rest of the family watched admiringly from a distance. Now this Diwali, finding herself overwhelmed by the abundance of fireworks, decided to sneak in a few early ones before we went out to add our stash to the communal street one.

The problem being was that lighting any of them in the garden would alert the neighbourhood to a private party, besides scaring the cats. And so she decided to light them on the balcony. All went well as sparklers were lit and the maids joined in to watch the fountains shoot up in wonderful hues of gold, blue and orange, leaving behind only faint scorch marks on the ceiling. The fun really began when she started lighting the Catherine wheels. Now these annoying things don’t just spin in a small circle, sometimes they take on a life of their own and traipse all over the floor.

One particularly enthusiastic specimen did just this and with its dying whirl, went straight under the pile of junk at the far end of the balcony. “Don’t worry,” said my sister with admirable nonchalance, “It will go out by itself”. A few minutes later, a particularly acrid smell began to fill the balcony, and flames began emerging from the junk.

Fortunately our stalwart maids hotfooted to the bathroom and soon buckets of water were poured over the flames, while the rest of us gaped in astonishment. Luckily no one was hurt, and the subsequent stories of heroic rescue would have, in today’s day, made the media frenetic.

We however, had to be content with sheepishly answering curious neighbours’ questions. Long after the fire was put out, my mother still poked at the mess of ash, water and debris to convince herself that there were no stray flames that may unexpectedly come to life again. Our stash of fireworks was confiscated for a day, my sister got a mild telling off (it was, after all, Diwali), and the maids earned their Diwali baksheesh.