As a child, the two most important events in my calendar were my birthday and Diwali.
Weeks before Diwali my mother would go to the Blind School fair and buy candles. My sister and i would both get new clothes for each of our birthdays and for Diwali. I recall how we hovered over our mother as she mapped out the cloth on a newspaper, cut and stitched it on her Singer machine.
For us, what mattered most on Diwali was not the crackers and the evening lights, but the mornings. One would have to wake up at 4am, and have an oil bath. My mother would arrange our new clothes with a lamp, rice and a coin on a silver tray. We would scramble to find textbooks to place on the tray for the Saraswati puja.
By dawn, however, we would all be bathed and ready. Then, as on all Sundays (also the weekly hair wash day), we would breakfast on dosas with MS Subalakshmi’s Bhaja Govindam and Vishnu Sahsranam playing in the background.
A round of visits followed. Since neither of my parents are originally from Delhi, there were few family members around. But my father’s uncle, K Swaminathan, lived in Naoroji Nagar, from where he edited the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi.
He and his wife, Vishala Patti, were the first stop, and we always got a banana each as we left. And then there were visits to various Tamil colleagues of my father’s, whose sons and daughters were much older, or at any rate, always much better read than us. Completely intimidated, we would come home with relief to our Diwali lunch, which was usually pooran poli and srikhand or masale bhat – the only indication that we were actually half Marathi.
In the evening, my mother would do a simple Lakshmi puja and make little feet of rice flour which showed Lakshmi heading straight into our house. Like most girls of our time we disliked noisy bombs, held phuljadis with care, and exclaimed at all the anars and chakras blossoming around us. But most of all we loved the snakes which coiled out of a little black pill.
As i grew older and was left to my own devices, pre-dawn awakenings gave way to holiday sleep-ins. With no children to teach ritual to, i lapsed completely. My mother’s dainty Lakshmi feet have become in my clumsy hands manifestations of a yeti arrival. It’s been decades since i ignited crackers. But my husband and i still like lighting our house, and Diwali is still a special day in my calendar, despite the noise, despite the spiking air pollution – a day of visiting parents and eating too much.
This year, when i heard of the attack on Junaid in a suburban train, something broke. Here were young boys, on their way back from shopping for new clothes for Eid. What they were doing was what every child in this country does, look forward with excitement to an upcoming festival.
How can i be happy at Diwali, when Junaid’s family – and that of many others who have suffered the corrosive hate of a communal attack – have not been able to celebrate their Eid? When some people take pleasure in the death of a Gauri Lankesh, how does one have the heart to celebrate anything at all? The small black snakes of my childhood have become Kaliyas, but there is no Krishna in sight to subdue them.
I don’t know which prescient educator prescribed these texts, but the two stories that have stayed with me from school are Premchand’s Idgah and Tagore’s Kabuliwalah. For years, i could not narrate these stories to others without crying. In both, there are characters whose festivals (Eid and a daughter’s wedding) were made happier through the happiness of others. If our sense of our selves expands when we share our happiness, it also expands when we share the sadness of others.
For me it is more important to be human than merely to be Hindu. This year, my house will be dark on Diwali, but at least my heart will be lighter