On Diwali eve I was in Dehradun, standing at my window, watching the Mussoorie lights blink in the distance. The lights are there every evening, but on Diwali they take on a special significance. It seemed like all of Mussoorie was draped in winking fairy lights and diyas — it all looked very pretty from a distance.
Downstairs, my 90-year-old grandmother, who suffers from dementia, was startled by a cracker that burst outside the house. Unaware that it’s Diwali, she says: Ye kaun bahar bhain bhain kar raha hai. My mother tried to explain to her that it’s Diwali but it didn’t register.
At a card party, a friend was upset at his luck. He was playing the muflis variation of Teen Patti in which the least ranking combination has the highest rank. Like lowball in poker, the lowest order wins. "Trust my luck," he said, "I’m playing muflis and I get three aces in my hand."
Someone called from Delhi to say Happy Diwali and complained about how expensive Diwali has become if one employs domestic help. This year he had to shell out Rs 5,000 each for his driver, cook, and maid.
Meanwhile, I felt nostalgic about my cracker-bursting days. Diwali doesn’t last that long anymore. My mother told me that in Bombay in the sixties, it used to last for five days. When I was growing up in Allahabad, it used be three days at the least.
On Choti Diwali, one started with the small crackers — the aloo bombs, the chutputias, the sparklers and bags of low-intensity bombs one got in packs of hundred. The big atom bombs were reserved for the main course on D-Day, followed by aatishbaazi (fireworks). To a schoolboy, the crackers helped get in touch with one’s masculinity, the anaars and chakris showcased one’s sensitive side.
The real macho thing to do was to light crackers with one’s hand. Even though I loved crackers, I never did it. My lighting implement was elaborate, consisting of a long stick, with a candle tied to its end. I liked to maintain my distance. There’s an unmistakable thrill of danger when one lights a bomb, which is why one does it, but as they say, discretion is the better part of valour.
The best crackers are the most underrated and make little noise. I thought of snake tablets, one dropped them into a small fire and soon a bunch of snakes would slither out of the flames. The train was another gem, which sped on a string tied between two branches or poles. There were some pointless ones too, like the rassi, which was basically a rope that burned interminably.
In those days, the environment wasn’t such an issue. But children’s magazines like Target would carry stories about the child labour that was employed in Sivakasi. One would also hear of fires in ill-regulated cracker factories. Nowadays, cracker companies such as Coronation carry self-congratulatory slogans: "Every child is our customer, no child is our worker."
It was in England that I first came across public fireworks displays. A bit like Ravan going up in flames on Dusshera. It’s a better way of doing things. In India, families take pride in being self-sufficient. We dig our own illegal tubewells, fire our own gensets for electricity, rely on security guards more than the police.
Perhaps, it’s no surprise then that we tend to generate our own fireworks displays, rather than walking down to the park and admiring the way professionals do it. Some of this also has to do with showing off; neighbours compete with each other to out bomb each other; there is competition as to who bursts the longest ladi or chatai. The number of crackers you burst and the sound they generate, send a message to the neighbours: "Hey, look, I’m doing so well for myself!"
The labels on crackers have evolved, often reflecting contemporary events. This year, we had "Notebandi Phus Phus anaar", "GST Kala Saap", "Dhadaam Se Gire Modi rockets", "Yogi Chetawani chatai", "Sabke Man ko Bhaye Priyanka phooljhadi", "Rahul ka Chamakta Sitara anaar" and "Dikh Raha Hai Dum Akhilesh bam". Last year, the BBC reported on the Nazi element in Diwali labels: bombs with names such as "Green Nazi" and a roman candle called "Hitler" complete with an image of the Fuhrer in mid-salute.
Diwali has come to be so much about money that I’m sure in the future the festival will have national sponsors much like the IPL: "This year, Diwali is brought to you by Kala Kola." I remember Diwali issues of the children’s magazine Champak always featured a story about the experience of Diwali in an impoverished family.
It exhorted the reader to be sensitive to the not-so-well-off child who, unlike us, didn’t have naye kapde (new clothes), mithai (sweets), and dher saare patakhe (lot of crackers). One way of avoiding the money trap on Diwali is to exchange sweetmeats. My mother would give our domestic help a box of home-made besan ki barfi. My help would get me round white batashas and sickly sweet candy toys shaped like animals.
These days, I don’t burst crackers. I’ve realised that it’s more fun to stand on one's balcony and watch others blow up their money. The pleasure is all mine.
(The article first appeared in Mail Today.)