Diwali in Delhi

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.

4 thoughts on “Diwali in Delhi

  1. Hi Tom, you were misguided by your hosts if they informed you that Diwali is just an Indian Christmas. Deewali (full name Deepawali) or a row of lights is a festival that holds roots in history, the day when Lord Rama returned to his kingdom after completing 14 years in exile and killing the demon Ravana. So it signifies that we win over our demoniac qualities and return to our real nature the Self, the kingdon of happiness. Fireworks is only an exppression of happiness but it is not a must. The must thing is the happiness and contentment, we have not lit fireworks for past 10 years , but we do prayers and the lighting of natural lamps (not electrical). Infact fireworks have no space in scriptures, although it is a social customs. The main feature of Deepawali is prayer and happiness for returning to our own Self.

      • Really appalled at the way you think so low of the other customs and religions than your own. I wouldn’t go on to explain the importance of Diwali because you do not deserve the enlightenment. Christmas to us is pathetically boring and this doesn’t stem from the fact that you’ve portrayed Diwali so poorly but from the fact that I don’t see any reason as to why people would wait for an imaginary fat ass (who rides a sledge even today) to deliver them presents, as to why would they sing those amazingly cacophonous songs in praise of some God who was born to a virgin mother (Seriously??!!!!) and I don’t see a reason why would you light up an artificial tree knowing that you are going to throw it a month later. You grew up celebrating Christmas and not Diwali and its natural for you to find it better just as Hindus don’t find Christmas amazing. So let it rest man. The people who you’d been with on Diwali must have had an amazing time unlike you, just as they would have found Christmas awfully boring. No festival is bad or boring or poor. Its just that every religion has its own ethos and only its followers have a sense of attachment towards it and not outsiders.

        This attitude would definitely make your journey boring here.

        By the way, with such low common sense how come the Army recruited you?

        PS – Christmas is the ‘Christian Diwali’ and not the other way round.

        • Wow. Please allow me to clear up a few points.

          1. If you take the chip off your shoulder and read the post again, you might notice that I actually enjoyed Diwali, and what I criticised was the comparison with Christmas, which is a misleading analogy and bad expectation management.

          2. You’ve just slagged off Christmas far more vociferously than I ever touched Diwali, which I simply described as I experienced it.

          3. I don’t have a religion of my own, and if you’re imagining that I’m sympathetically inclined towards Christianity, try reading some more of the blog.

          4. You’ve answered your own question about Father Christmas – “to deliver them presents” – but you should know that no-one over the age of 5 actually believes in him. Unlike the adult mobs who believed in the historicity of Rama so strongly, without any evidence, that they tore down a mosque. I’m not saying Hinduism is alone in having ridiculous, dangerous beliefs – all religions do – but the cult of Father Christmas, which has an exclusively pre-school membership and very little sectarian tendencies, is pretty innocent in this regard.

          5. Stories of miraculous conception are ridiculous. I agree. They are equally ridiculous as they apply not just to Jesus, but also to Krishna and other personalities in Hindu mythology. Such stories occur in almost every religion. Read my post on Sanchi for an analysis of the Buddhist version.

          6. Your confusion on the tree issue is a bit embarrassing. If someone has an artificial tree, generally they’ll keep it and reuse it from year to year. Artificial trees became popular partly due to people becoming more aware of the waste issue. It’s the real trees, which are chopped down and only last a few weeks, which are thrown away. Even then, nowadays there’ll generally be a municipal tree collection after Christmas which takes them away to be chipped or pulped, recycled somehow.

          7. If you’re Indian, I don’t know where you think you stand, lecturing me about waste and pollution, but I can tell you, it’s not a strong position.

          8. Sorry to keep banging on about trees, but they’re usually decorated about a month before Christmas, and the decoration is a fun family event in itself, so there’s plenty of time to enjoy them, and even the set-up falls into the benefit side, not the cost side, of any cost/benefit equation. I could turn the same question on you and ask why you bother lighting candles and buying fireworks which will all be finished within a matter of hours. Except I won’t, because I understand that the candles and fireworks are worth it too. I make the point just to show how poor your rhetoric is.

          9. Not only do I disagree with your absurd piece of cultural relativism which says that all festivals are equally great, and none are boring – Whitsuntide is a total yawnfest, for example – but so, apparently, do you, having already described Christmas as “pathetically boring” and other similar phrases repeatedly before you contradict yourself.

          10. I understand that the emotional significance of a festival is related to your experience growing up with it. It’s really tedious to have to quote from my own post, because you couldn’t be bothered to read it properly before launching into a full scale attack, but: “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.”

          11. Putting the issue of emotional attachment aside, do you think it’s impossible to objectively analyse the actual customs of a festival and compare them to others? If you do, you’re an idiot.

          12. I’ve been in India for three months, and the last word I’d dream of using to describe it is “boring”. I don’t even use it to describe my experience of Diwali, which was, I quote, “a good experience”. If you can’t see why I found it interesting at least for the purpose of cultural comparison, why are you even reading this blog?

          13. The Army didn’t just recruit me, they even promoted me a couple of times. Maybe they knew me a bit better than you?

          14. “Christmas is the ‘Christian Diwali’ and not the other way round.” Please could you expand on this comment a little, so I can demolish it the more thoroughly?

          Thanks for reading the blog!

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