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24 October 2006

Festival of Diwali

Tis the season to be giftin

’Tis the season to be gifting
Image source: Paul Ancheta

LIGHTS, SWEETS, décor, and firecrackers—these have literally exploded onto the scene this week. It is the grand festival of Diwali, commemorating the triumphant return, thousands of years ago, of the exiled King Rama in the illuminated glory of diyas or oil lamps. (The term “diwali” comes from the Sanskrit for “array of lights”.)

It is the brightest, most joyous, most family-oriented observance in IndiaThe pomp of Diwali is similar to that of Christmas. It is the brightest, most joyous, most family-oriented, and most commercial observance in Hinduism. It culminates weeks of festivals rejoicing the victories of the Hindu gods in their battles against evil beings as well as giving thanks to divine bounties. Those of you who have read my recent blog entries will understand the range of such festivities here in India.

Diwali lasts five days, each one having its own story and significance. I realized how this multifaceted celebration reflects the many layers of Mumbai’s character when almost everyone around me—from my colleagues and suppliers to my driver and maid—took leave on these days. (No other place seems to beat India in having the most number of days off!) For most of them, Diwali is about their own spiritual upliftment: I saw queues of devotees outside temples and learned about the need to attend poojas (religious ceremonies) at home.

Firecrackers outside my flatOthers see Diwali as that time of the year to mend fences and strengthen bonds. My mobile phone beeped forever with SMS greetings from friends and colleagues wishing me all the prosperity and happiness in the universe. I even received one which might have been ancient Sanskrit (or Nepalese), since none of my officemates could translate it. (I wanted to memorize the words to impress others, but I gave up over the tongue-twisting syllables.)

On the night of the third and most important day of the festival, I joined my neighbors in a fellowship gathering at the building car park. Most of them left early to join private parties with families in their own flats. I was left with six sari-clad (and jewelry-laden) grandmothers, who delighted me with the meaning of the rangoli (drawing on the floor) that “mysteriously” appeared one morning at my doorstep. When they left, a slew of family drivers took over the scene, itching to light those firecrackers and magnify the already-bloated air pollution levels of Mumbai.

And finally, there are those bedazzled by sheer commercialism. They battle great traffic to navigate malls that glitter in festival sales and promotional offers. It is all about the gifting essence of Diwali: give and you shall receive love, blessings, respect. I received chocolates from two suppliers, and I revel in giving them my good wishes in return.

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