Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights, but what I’ll always remember from my first time celebrating it in India, just under a week ago, is the sound.
Driving in from Chennai airport at midnight, I could hear the bangs, whooshes and pops of fireworks in every direction. They didn’t stop for the next few days. It reminded me of one of those WW1 movies when the hero runs across the front lines with bullets and artillery shells whizzing in from every direction.
There are no restrictions on buying fireworks in India, so everybody does – and they’re cheap enough so that many can afford to buy in bulk. When we visited one of the ubiquitous Standard Fireworks outlets, I discovered an entire category of fireworks that I’ve never encountered before – noisy ones, which are let off in the daytime.
One variety, which one kind neighbour deployed outside our front door, involves a chain of 1000 caps. The effect is like sustained machine gun fire. Then there are the atom bombs, which may not be quite as deafening as their namesake, but are guaranteed to wake you up if one is let off in your suburb, let alone your street.
I discovered an entire category of fireworks that I’ve never encountered before – noisy ones, which are let off in the daytime.
Although outsiders often think of India as one homogenous country, referring to Indian food, culture and so on, the reality is that this country of different religions, languages and alphabets is arguably more diverse even than Europe.
In Chennai, the country’s sixth-largest city and the capital of Tamil Nadu, the festival is called Deepavali. And as I noted a few weeks ago, it honours a different thing entirely from the North’s welcoming home ceremony – here, they celebrate the killing of the demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna. It even begins on a different day.
For us, the festival began on Saturday 29 October. Once everyone was awake, my wife and I sat cross-legged while my in-laws painted our feet with red stripes. Our hair was sprinkled with oil, and then my mother- and sister-in-law sang a prayer while both holding and swirling the bowl of red pigment. When everyone’s feet were done, we all headed off for a shower so we could wash off the paint.
Then came one of the most famous aspects of the festival – dressing in new clothes. I had been given a stripey kurta (a long, loose shirt) to wear, and several elegant saris had been exchanged. We regathered in the lounge room to eat some sweets – diamond-shaped cashewkaju barfi, ladoo balls and luminous orange jangiri spirals.
It was, above all, a time of family reunion for us. Diwali is when people traditionally return to their ancestral villages, and nowadays many members of the diaspora get on international flights to spend the festival together.
While much of the celebrating is private, there were big fireworks displays on the beach and other prominent locations around the city. The buildings along main roads were festooned with strings of lights and even the mall had giant colourful rangoli paintings on the floor – along with a Diwali sale in every store. It is, after all, a time for giving gifts.
We let off some fireworks on the street ourselves – pyramid-shaped candles that spurted a fountain of colourful streams into the air, spinning discs that showered sparks on all over the road, and rockets that flew hundreds of metres into the air before landing in a surrounding property.
Our hair was sprinkled with oil, and then my mother- and sister-in-law sang a prayer while both holding and swirling the bowl of red pigment.
I hadn’t taken part in a cracker night since childhood: it was exhilarating, even though one faulty rocket came terrifyingly close to our faces, making me briefly yearn for the nanny state safety of Australia.
I’ve come to enjoy the Australian version of Diwali, but experiencing it in India was special. It’s worth planning to be here in late October-early November at least once to experience a truly wonderful festival.
Because most Chennai residents are Hindu, there’s a scale to the celebrations that dwarfs anything I’ve seen back home. The city goes into party mode, and there’s considerable excitement in the air, along with an awful lot of smoke from those fireworks.