I’ve been lucky enough to spend Diwali in Delhi with the family who’ve been hosting me. It’s the biggest festival of the Hindu calendar and is often described as “the Indian Christmas”. I was interested to see how it compared.
The first thing I noticed was a certain similarity in the days beforehand. First lots of lights are put up all over the buildings. Then friends started popping round to bring gifts, and we also went calling on people to give them theirs. But there were differences too. In the UK, Christmas lights tend to be themed: the best ones replicating icicles hanging from roofs, or the stars, angels and trees of municipal lights; the worst being the garish neon Santas and snowmen in people’s front gardens. In India, Diwali lights are just themselves, some white, mostly coloured, covering every building. From flats, people hang loops and strings from the balconies and windows – the apartment blocks look like they’ve vomited light from every orifice.
There’s a difference with the present-giving too, in that the presents are always opened immediately, in front of the giver, even though it’s not Diwali yet. In the UK, of course, the rule is that you can’t open presents until Christmas Day, so although people bring them round in the days leading up, as they do here, you stack them unopened beneath the tree, which adds to the anticipation of Christmas Day itself. Here there didn’t seen to be anywhere near as much build-up and excitement before Diwali, so I was wondering what the day itself would be like, when the presents are already open and there’s nothing much to do. Would it be a bit of an anticlimax?
On the morning of Diwali, we woke up and had a normal breakfast. Then a row broke out over what the daughter of the family should wear, which she responded to by deliberately choosing the one outfit she knew her mother hated. We then went out to run some fairly mundane errands. Street stalls were open and commercial activity seemed to be carrying on as usual. One of the errands resulted in a massive family row with sulking and screaming in equal measure. So far, I was getting the impression that Diwali was exactly like Christmas, with all the family arguments and stress, except without any of the fun stuff.
We returned home and I was left to my own devices for a while. I thought Diwali might be over. Then everyone appeared again, all dressed up. We performed puja (worship) at the household shrine to Ayyappan, and then lit lots of candles and placed them outside the house. The father brought out some sparklers and gave me several to play with. The added frisson of handling them without gloves did little to dispel the basic feeling that sparklers are pretty lame kids’ toys. One sparkler was given to the man who lives under the tarpaulin at the end of the alley, and does the neighbourhood’s ironing. The sight of him, a grown man, squatting in the road, staring at a solitary sparkler in his hand, summed up the pathos of Diwali so far.
We headed out in the car to a friend’s house for a Diwali dinner and party. I started to see a bit of the magic of the festival. Everyone was lighting candles and tea lights and putting them outside their homes and shops. The neon lights still looked gaudy and boring, but the little flames everywhere were much more atmospheric, and created the impression of a whole people coming together in joint celebration.
And, how could I not mention it, the fireworks. Diwali is an autumn festival, the use of lights a reaction to the lengthening nights. Anthropologically, it’s less akin to Christmas, a midwinter festival about feasting on the preserved food of the previous year, than it is to our bonfire and firework night – a tradition which long precedes the anti-Catholic gloss put on it after the execution of Guy Fawkes. One of the major features of Diwali is the proliferation of fireworks. There are no officially organised displays. There’s no need. Every person from the age of 3 upwards invests in an arsenal of explosives of which the IRA wouldn’t be ashamed. Walking or driving down the street is a constant peril as that’s where the rockets and firecrackers are being ignited.
At the friend’s house, we go through another puja ritual, this time to Lakshmi. Then it’s time to fire off our own magazine. Our hosts have sparklers, volcanoes, spinners and larger tube-launched rockets. At first I though, ‘oh great, more sparklers,’ but this time I enjoyed it a bit more, lighting some spinners and getting into the carefree, childlike spirit everyone else seemed to be in. The explosive frolics ended with a string of 2000 firecrackers obliterating themselves all over the road. Obviously the fireworks safety movement has yet to reach India. I doubt it ever will.
We go inside for food and more Diwali traditions, which turn out to include tequila slammers and gambling. The game of choice was called Open Flash, a simplified version of three card stud poker, without any betting round: you just put in your ante, get dealt your cards and find out who’s won. There’s no skill involved, not even any decision to make. I suppose that’s ideal for a stress-free family gambling game: no-one gets too intense about it, or feels bad about losing, as it’s literally just the luck of the draw. The main entertainment seemed to come from joking about the various ways one could cheat at it. Unfortunately there were no teenagers present to give me an assessment of how funny these “dad jokes” are after being repeated year on year.
We drove back home at close to midnight. The nonstop pop, crackle and bang of fireworks across the city all around us made Delhi sound like a warzone. It looked like a fog had descended, but it was probably the accumulated smoke from tens of millions of explosive charges, hanging over the metropolitan area. At 1am, as I was going to bed, there was no sign of the noise abating, and I have no idea when it finally quietened down.
I have to say, in comparison with Christmas, Diwali comes off pretty poorly. Christmas has such a dense accretion of traditions, and such a long and all-consuming build-up, the entire world feels completely different in December, and the 25th itself is a packed schedule of fantastic things that only happen on that one day. As a child, it’s completely, mentally, pant-wettingly exciting. I imagine that as an Indian kid, it’s more, “yay, it’s Diwali, my parents have some more ornaments for the house, now I’m eating some spicy crisps, meh.” Then again, I can’t really imagine how exciting it must be, as a 7 year old, to know your mates have got their hands on 2000 firecrackers and a big Chinese rocket, and you’re going to set them off down the alleyway when it gets dark.
Diwali was a good experience. For me it suffered only from an expectation management problem. It was because I’d been promised “the Indian Christmas” that I was a little disappointed. I think if, instead, I’d been promised “the Indian fireworks night”, then my expectations would have been managed better and it might even have slightly exceeded them.