Diwali Fireworks

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 1225281730|%B %d

You can tell a lot about a culture by the way they light off fireworks.

In the US, our fireworks displays are very carefully managed. In most places, amateur pyrotechnics are all but forbidden. The official shows are large and elaborate, engineered by a large team of professionals, and overseen by several crews of firefighters. They are usually executed over a lake, or some other very carefully selected area far from potential fire hazards. Hordes of people wait for hours, spread out in parks on blankets and along the roads, to have the best seat in the house. And they are funded by a multiplicity of small contributions from the whole community, usually through tax dollars.

In India, on the other hand, when the whole community pitches in to put on a good fireworks show, it means something very different. It means that everyone buys several packs of dangerous fireworks, and gives them to fearless boys and foolhardy young men to set off in their backyard or along the road. It means four plus hours of frenzied and random explosions popping off in all directions, and showers of bright sparks raining down on every uncovered surface. It means, in all likelihood, that a couple of buildings that were standing last night are no longer with us, and that some of the particularly daring youths are waking up in the hospital this morning with fewer digits than they were born with. It means that hovering along the Himalayan foothills today was a semi-transparent band of smoke from all of the smoke, fire, and incense released into the atmosphere.

Albert lights off fireworks on the lawn of Green Hills Cottage
Albert lights off fireworks on the lawn of Green Hills Cottage

Both are reflections of a deep, democratic impulse to celebrate, even if they are very differently expressed. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to each system. I am sympathetic with the Indian desire to have everyone participate actively in the celebrations, rather than sit on the outside spectators. It is certainly more satisfying to blow something up than it is to sit at a safe distance and watch someone else blow something up, even if you might lose a finger in the process.

On the other hand (the non-exploded hand, to be precise), a little safety, responsibility, and restraint is never a bad thing. By 11 pm, Sarah and I were pining for a good, safe, finite American fireworks display. This feeling only intensified when, around 11.30, our hotel room filled with green light and the smell of burning gunpowder. A powerful explosion rocked our windows and accelerated our heart beats, and we dove into our sleeping bags, wondering if we could survive another blast from a stray rocket.

Yes, Diwali, the famed Hindu Festival of Light, crown of the Hindu holidays, has come and gone.

Sarah and I had a pretty low key celebration. We learned something from our experience at the fair, after all. We didn’t feel any need to plunge dangerously into the heart of the festivities: it was enough for us to sit back, watch, and listen, and learn what this holiday means, and how it is celebrated.

In terms of its visible celebrations, Diwali is best described as a holiday somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s. Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched garlands of flowers appear on all the buildings and strings of lights emerge from the bushes. We’ve seen the little market booths along our daily walking path gradually carry fewer and fewer foodstuffs, and more and more packages of rockets, sparklers, firecrackers, and sweets. We’ve witnessed houses and hovels being painted, cleaned, and freshened for the holiday, preparing both for the descending festivities and to entice a visit from Laxshmi, who at this festival functions as something of an Indian Santa Claus.

A young boy celebrates Diwali by setting little flaming cups into the Ganges at the ghat by the bridge.
A young boy celebrates Diwali by setting little flaming cups into the Ganges at the ghat by the bridge.

Diwali, in Hindu mythology, marks (among other things) the legendary return of Lord Ram from his noble conquests, accompanied by his faithful wife Sita and his servant, Laxshmi. His subjects, overjoyed at his return, magically lit the inky blackness of the new moon night with their love and devotion. Of course, much as in America the Christmas story has been overtaken with lore about the material boon brought by Santa Claus, so too in India Diwali traditions are today more oriented toward the exchange of gifts and winning a blessing from the goddess of wealth by lighting lamps and cleaning house.

Somewhat surprisingly, the pace of work and business didn’t decrease much with the approach of the holiday. I suppose part of this is economical: the most impoverished can’t afford to stop working, even if it is a holiday. But Diwali is, in some ways, really a working holiday: it’s a holiday about hopes for the acquisition of wealth, which India knows doesn’t come without work, trade, and commerce. It’s considered an auspicious time to begin an investment, so the Indian stock markets hold a special one hour late night trading session, which helped the Indian economy make up some of the massive losses it’s suffered over the past several weeks.

Nicky and Amar referred to Diwali as “Happy-Diwali-Festival,” and were counting down to it almost from the moment we met them in early October. They could never quite master the word “fireworks,” and from the beginning they described the festival as being about “too much bombs,” a somewhat eerie accolade for a holiday in a country that still struggles to control domestic terrorism. Nicky and Amar both took Diwali in Delhi. We were a little sad to miss celebrating with them, but after Amar’s uncomfortable request for a gift, we thought it was probably safer for us to steer clear of situations with ambiguous cultural requirements.

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