KOLKATA, India -- Didi (Big Sister, as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is popularly known as) wants to take all the fire out of Diwali. And secretly, I couldn’t be happier.
She’s promised that Kolkata police will be out in full force to take on noisy firecracker offenders, home guards will be deployed on the top of multistoried buildings, autorickshaws will nab illegal patakas (firecrackers) down the bylanes.
Last weekend, I saw rows of school children marching down the middle of the street with signs that said, “Please vanquish the noise demon.” (Of course, stalled traffic was honking up a storm all around them.)
Mamata’s even written up a little ditty about the evils of noisy firecrackers and gotten the whole Tollywood (the name of West Bengal's film industry) brigade to make an ensemble music video for it. “Noise polluting fireworks – not even one,” finger wags an actress. “Be very afraid of the flame,” lip-synchs an action hero.
Can’t you have any fun anymore? complains a friend. As if they have enough cops to run around measuring decibels, sneers another. I nod in agreement but am secretly rooting for police commissioner R.K. Pachnanda when he says, “If anyone violates the norm we will have no option other than to punish him.”
Because I always dreaded Diwali growing up.
Actually, in Kolkata, Kali Puja was the bigger deal. I quite liked Kali with her tongue drenched in blood, her garland of severed heads and the little jackal by her side drinking the dripping blood.
The goddess of destruction I could handle. But Diwali firecrackers were another thing altogether. As a boy, I had no stomach for all the ear-splitting bombs that the neighbourhood dadas (big brothers) would stock up on.
Kali patakas. Chocolate bombs. Dodomas. And the double-dodomas – twice the bang for the buck.
The whole neighborhood turned into battle zones of rival gangs of boys with things that went bang in the night. They would hold the sputtering string of red patakas till the last possible minute, hissing and fizzing like angry snakes and then toss them out onto the street. They’d make old upturned buckets fly into the air when the chocolate bomb exploded inside. It was some reckless ritual of masculinity, a rite of passage that I was afraid I would flunk. I was sure that come Diwali, I’d be exposed as the skinny wimp with glasses who liked the pretty fireworks that ended in showers of light but not the macho bombs, the kind that put hair on your chest.
The neighborhood boys usually put on a giant fireworks display next to our Kali pandal (makeshift tent to celebrate weddings and religious events). My father, as a neighborhood elder, was often asked to light the first one. The fireplum tree suddenly burst into dazzling golden light, laden with blazing balls of fire, each of which would explode with a sonic boom that shook the balconies and rattled the windows.
“One day you’ll get to do that,” a neighbour told me fondly. I just clenched my teeth and braced myself for the next bang.
Next day, the air still smelled of gunpowder. Discoloured Kissan squash bottles that were used as rocket launchers and half-exploded purple tubri bulbs were scattered around the neighborhood like landmines daring me to step on them. Happy Diwali, indeed.
In a way it was a relief when I was living in America.
Diwali was the one Indian festival Americans knew about. Even Barack Obama has a Diwali celebration in the White House. Every year, American co-workers and friends would decide to show their multicultural hipness by wishing me a “Happy Diwali – it’s your new year, isn’t it?”
Initially, I’d explain that Bengalis had their own new year in April, that Diwali wasn’t a big deal for us, that Durga Puja was our grand shindig, that we celebrated Kali Puja around Diwali.
After the third time I gave up and just smiled graciously and said, “Thank you very much.” And fabricated stories about the special Diwali sweets my mother would make.
I started going to Diwali parties with the confidence of the cosmopolitan immigrant claiming his cultural heritage. It was a lovely anesthesised Diwali, potlucks without the fireworks, the stairways decorated with pretty tealight candles.
Sometimes, we’d stand in a backyard on a crisp California night, burning a few sparklers, sipping a glass of chilled Chardonnay. As the last dandelion of light sputtered away, some friend would say wistfully, “Oh, how I miss Diwali in India. I must go to India for Diwali next year.” And I’d reply, “Me too.”
And for a moment, sipping my wine, the genteel whiff of an American Diwali still clinging to my fingers, I’d almost believe myself.
Now it seems like I might just get to enjoy my Diwali in India after all, without having a crisis of masculinity. Didi has taken on the dadas. I’ve already bought my sparklers. Now if I could only find some decent chilled Chardonnay.