The sound of crackers and festive cheers following them filled my ears as I got out of my room. My eyes which had become accustomed to the dark for the past three days were dazzled by lights all over me. All around me people were drowning in the merriment of one of the most famous festivals of India.
Me? Not so much.
For me the place, people, and environment; everything was new. The pensive stares from my supposed neighbours, incessant barking of the stray dogs, and the humidity-ridden climate, everything seemed to be unwelcoming. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a foreigner and the famed festival of lights is not a new experience for me. However, it is my first Diwali in the city of Joy, Calcutta. Infact it is my first Diwali outside my home. So pardon me if I sound somewhat irritated.
When you’re not in your home on festivals and all by yourself, somehow even the happiest of moments, feel like a burning crucible in which your body is being melted. The lights of the diyas pain your eyes, the screams of neighbour’s kids sound irritating, and the sweet scent of homemade food radiating from the nearby homes makes you yearn for your own humble abode.
Having spent most of my 26 years of existence in the lap of the Himalayas, I feel like a fish out of the sea in Calcutta. Or a yak out of snow. I don’t know.
One thing that bothers me -it unsettles me every time I go outside actually- is the lack of mountains. I was born and brought up in a small town of Himachal Pradesh called Solan. Solan is your typical hill station surrounded by two huge mountains and other smaller ones. I’m quite used to getting up in the morning and with the first sip of morning tea, gazing at the humble hillocks in front of my balcony. Living in a place and not finding any mountains whenever I step out in the open makes me feel like I’m lost. It feels like an itch in the back of my throat which I can’t get rid of. The absence of the lifeless hills makes me aware of the solidarity I have given up for living outside my hometown.
Although I have this strange feeling every time I venture out to a foreign city, this Diwali seems to be an amplified version of all those days. Diwali is a famous festival celebrated with joy and fervour all around India. In Bengal not so much. Well, not as massive as Durga Puja. Diwali just like every other North Indian memory is avoided in Kolkata and as such, I don’t have a holiday from office today. While people were preparing for the evening pooja, I was trudging amidst a crowd of frenzied people towards my office.
“Nobody goes out of their home on Diwali,” is the quote I have been listening to since I was a small mountain boy. Almost two decades later, however, I believed the independent guy inside me would manage without my family as I have so many times. But seeing people walking past me and welcoming the festivities with their families makes me nostalgic for the hustle and bustle of the small town situated between two mountains.
Surrounded by strangers who are cleaning their house with their mothers and lighting diyas outside their homes to scare off evil, my homesick heart longs to return to my mother’s puja Ghar and listen to her reciting the story of Lord Rama’s return. On his return, the dwellers of Ayodhya lighted diyas with ghee. They welcomed the living epitome of piety and with him the prosperity that his arrival brought. Thousands of years later we Indians still celebrate Diwali for the joy of his return and with the hope that this day would bring joy and happiness to our homes just like Lord Rama brought to Ayodhya.
I used to hate cleaning the house on Diwali. My mother would forcibly hand me a broom and send me off into the undiscovered recesses of our house to fight the puffs of dust. I would always chide my mother, “Who are we cleaning for? Who is coming?”
And my mother chirped while preparing overly complex Himachali dishes and sweets, “Shree Ram is coming. We have to make the home clean for him.”
My six-year-old mind naturally couldn’t decipher the horde of metaphors hidden in that line. Infact, I didn’t understand it while I was well in my teens too. Now, however, I long for my mother’s voice to drag me out from the shadows and force me to do the cleaning with her and place the diyas outside our home.
Lighting diyas and candles for that matter used to be my favourite part of Diwali. Now as I look at the dark and desolate corners which are waiting for my mother’s diyas, a trickle of tear escapes my eyes. Being the youngest of five brothers, I was the most spoilt of my brothers, and it was my humble duty to sleep like a king in my home and not do any work. Sitting miles away from my longing mother this homesick and spoilt child is now thinking how enjoyable and joyous Diwali must be for people who are fortunate enough to spend it in their home.
This story of mine is dedicated to everyone who is celebrating his/her Diwali a little far from home. Everyone deserves to be at home for Diwali; celebrating and having a ball at the festival of lights. But fret not. Think of the light that your parents and loved ones have in their eyes when they see you happy. For them every day you spend happy and content is the festival of lights and every night the holy day of Diwali.
As I write, my phone chimes with an incoming video call. My mother is calling me to teach me how to do the puja on my own. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a new ritual.