November 21, 2012


So I've survived my first Diwali. It was touch-and-go throughout, but I dodged just enough cultural faux-pas and falling firecrackers to make it out and report. That's not to say I escaped entirely unscathed.

On the morning of the main day of Diwali, Hinduism's biggest festival, celebrants bless their workspace and pray for prosperity for the coming year. They do the same at their homes with family in the evening. I was invited to participate in my office's puja, which began at 9am. When I arrived, all my coworkers were already stuffed into my boss's office together, sitting cross-legged on the floor in brightly colored, brand-new kurtas before a shrine of marigolds, bananas, coconuts, palm fronds, and incense. I removed my shoes and squeezed in between the wall and the door. The manager of the office and his wife sat before the colorful spread and were led through a 45-minute ritual of prayers by two priests who patiently cued them like officiants at a wedding.

Halfway through the ceremony, the priests lit a small fire in a pot on the floor (the fire alarms had been carefully disabled beforehand). My coworkers began to pass around small bowls of rice, and soon I was presented with one too. The whole ceremony seemed to grind to a halt, and all eyes turned to me expectantly. My uncertainty must have been sending out a distress signal. 

"Toss the rice in the fire," my boss calmly explained. 

"Toss the rice in the fire?" I confirmed.

"Yes. In the fire." 

Dutifully, I took aim, fired, and was very pleased with myself when my kernel landed in the flames.

The room collectively gasped with horror. The horror gave way to shocked giggles as my coworkers turned to each other in embarrassment and my boss and his wife looked apologetically at the visiting priests. What my boss hadn't told me was not to throw the rice in the fire yet. The head priest cocked one eyebrow with irritation and then seemed to decide I hadn't ruined the entire ceremony with my ignorance. Sighing, he continued on. 

Hinduism is indeed a faith of forgiveness, as afterward I was still permitted to receive a red tilak between my eyebrows and a handful of sweets as a sort of ceremony completion certificate. Afterward, we had a brief reception with coffee, dumplings and cakes before everyone retired to spend the day with family. 

Fortunately several friends of an Oxford chum happened to be backpacking through Jaipur that day, so I didn't have to spend it alone. As evening set in, the four of us positioned ourselves on the rooftop of their hotel to observe the night's festivities from a safe vantage point. To an American, Diwali at nighttime might best be described as a grand union of Christmas and the Fourth of July. Every building blankets itself in lights, something I found mildly disorienting without any snow or freezing temperatures. And as twilight sets in and families finish up their Diwali prayers for the home, the firecrackers begin. 

Ostensibly, the loud booms and bright flashes are meant to drive off evil spirits, which is the general notion of the holiday. But let's be honest--every country just loves a good excuse for fireworks.  Some countries manage to scrape up better rationale for them than others. In the US, they're meant to evoke the cannon fire that secured America's freedom. Makes sense. For the UK's Guy Fawkes Day, they supposedly commemorate thwarting a terrorist who did not blow up Parliament. That's a bit more of a stretch. But of any holiday Diwali, billed as the Festival of Light, may make the strongest case.

An unexpected perk of living in a country with a dearth of government oversight means basically no regulations on firework sales, adding an element of danger to your holiday. As we watched from our perch, gigantic, terrifying booms and blasts began springing up all around us at random. As the night went on, things began to feel less like a holiday and more like a BBC war zone briefing. Somehow that only made us grow restless, and soon we decided we should probably throw ourselves into the melee and see what happened. 

Right outside the hotel, the street was strewn with celebrants lighting short fuses in the middle of the road and then running for their lives. Whenever a passing car failed to see a lit fuse, the entire street held its breath and hoped the blast didn't take its engines out. Wending our way through the mayhem felt more or less like traversing a minefield. Time and again, our first warning sign would be someone standing several feet away from us nervously plugging their ears; then we would look down at our feet, see a scrap of paper quietly sparking, and dash to the curb before it exploded into the air in a burst of green and gold. 

One of my friends got infected by the urge to blow things up and purchased some dubious but satisfyingly gigantic rocket-shaped fireworks from a sidewalk vendor. After he carefully placed the first rocket skyward in a jar and lit the fuse, the rocket shot out, took an immediate left turn, and charted a horizontal course straight into the hotel wall. Frankly I'm astonished there aren't more Diwali fatalities every year. As for me, I got singed only twice: first by an overexcited sparkler, and second by some rooftop miscreants using us for target practice. 

India, without fail, is a country of extremes, and the serene puja in the morning and the citywide pandemonium in the evening barely seemed like the same world, much less the same holiday. For me, the common link was a heightened sense of community. Squeezing in with my coworkers on my boss's floor evoked the same sort of intimacy that I shared with strangers at night as we dodged blasts or cheered together for the greatest fireballs. I found just as much to cherish in quiet meditation shared between coworkers as I did in the collective glee in the streets. 

No comments: