Divali (1 November 2005)

Submitted by Pam Baker on Wed, 2005-11-02 09:56.

Today is Divali. People visit family and friends and bring them gifts. We had invitations to people’s houses, but knowing how many dozens of people would be in and out of anyone’s home in the course of the day, we decided that no one needed to have the extra burden of us, and we elected to stay here at the Guest House. We went out for a walk, and while many things are closed, many shops are open. The hair stylist and the Chemist (Pharmacy) in particular looked to be doing a brisk business, as were the countless stalls selling the wrapped boxes of dried fruit and candies that people will take to “gift” each other at these parties. Meanwhile, across the street at the mosque, the courtyard wall is receiving a fresh coat of paint, white for the wall, and turquoise for the crenellations at the top.

The more visible, and audible, part of Divali is fireworks. Firecrackers have been going off for days, despite the newspaper and TV promoting the idea that people shouldn’t do firecrackers this year, in sensitivity to the families who lost people in the bombings. There were also appeals to not use firecrackers due to the noise and air pollution they cause. Tonight they started in earnest just as it got dark, around 6, and reached full force by 7. From then it was nonstop firecrackers, some huge booms, some minute-long series of littler booms, as well as nonstop fireworks. When just about every home in a city of 17 million people is setting off big fireworks, it’s a long, continuous, and beautiful display all around.

The Guest House owner showed up with his sons and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, and a priest did a puja for the staff, around 9:30 PM. They invited us to participate. This was a younger priest than the one at Dr. Verma’s office. That one knew the chants by heart; this one followed a script. In both cases the priest would chant long sections by himself, then there were long sections where the priest chanted and the owner repeated, while adding rice, marigolds, rose petals and fruit to a small altar with pictures or statue of Lakshmi and, in this case, the account books from the business. At Dr. Verma’s office, both husband and wife did the repeating together. Here it was the son of the owner, as the owner himself sat in a chair and not on the floor. In the middle of this one, the priest’s cell phone rang, and he answered it and had a chat. Luckily the family seemed amused by this. After he hung up, the ceremony picked up where it had left off. Toward the end there is a section where each person added rice to the altar and the priest put a red mark on their forehead and each rotated a pan of incense above the altar. This was done in very strictly hierarchical order, with the owner first, then the sons, the daughter-in-law, grandson, granddaughter, and then the staff of 8 people in order of their status. At Dr. Verma’s we were seated in chairs and were observers. Here we were participants, and it was rather embarrassing that our place in the hierarchy was after the granddaughter but before the staff.

The owner, whom we had not seen prior to last night, was quite interested in who we were and how we liked India, and how we liked Divali. We said we had never heard so many firecrackers, and he replied that it was much diminished this year “on account of the recent Troubles.” That is about the extent to which anyone wants to mention the bombings. People seem more angry or dismissive of it; no one seems to have been made afraid, although it was the largest terrorist attack that has ever occurred in India (or at least in modern India). The government had put a ban on fireworks and firecrackers except between 6 and 10 PM, but it didn’t really even begin to lessen until at least 11 PM, and really went on most of the night.

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