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a-diwali-b-Gurumustuk (142K)

photo by Gurumustuk Singh. First photo from bottom: Courtesy, Anthony Jones. Second from bottom: detail from drawing by Amrit & Rabindra Singh.

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Guru-Hargobind-gwalior-318 (135K)

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This year Diwali falls on Sunday, November 3. It has added meaning: we will celebrate the martyrs of 1984 with every lamp we light, with every fire-cracker in the sky, and every sweet we savour. Blessed are they who gave their lives for the mere fact that they held up the light of their high beliefs in the midst of an otherwise enveloping darkness.

When I was a child, nothing grabbed the imagination of a child growing up in India, more than the magic and joie de vivre of Diwali.The festival of lights may have changed somewhat since then, but comparisons with Christmas are still unavoidable ... because I don't believe they help at all in conveying the sheer magnitude and reach of Diwali.

Christmas is mostly an indoor affair. Diwali uses the vast outdoors and the majesty of the skies.

Christmas is, on the average, a string of coloured lights hung in your window. Diwali is hundreds and thousands of deevaas (earthenware lamps) and candles on your porch, and on your balcony, on the window sills and every ledge and nook, on the roof, along the driveway ...

Christmas is lights here and there. Diwali is lights EVERYWHERE.

Christmas is a private evening with family and loved ones. Diwali is with family and loved ones ... and with neighbours and colleagues and the world.

Christmas is carols. Diwali is a billion - literally! - explosions of sound, light and colour.

Christmas is turkey and cake and shortbread. Diwali is ras malai and rasgulla, gulab jamun and barfi, cham cham and petha, halwa and palang torr. And jalebis.

Christmas is shopping till you drop. Diwali is celebration.

Christmas is cards and gifts - the buying, and the making, and the giving and the receiving. Diwali is celebration.

Christmas is good cheer and goodwill. Diwali is celebration.

Christmas is being "merry". Diwali is being A-L-I-V-E!

No, I'm not suggesting that either is better than the other. All I want to say is they are so-o-o different, both magnificent in their varied ways.

I remember when growing up in Patna, India, my personal calendar - as with all other children of the land - was anchored to and revolved around Diwali.

One cherished the memories of Diwali Past and impatiently counted the months and weeks, and then days, to Diwali Future.

Basket-loads of fireworks were acquired during the weeks and days leading up to D-Day. And hidden away by the grown-ups under beds and in almirahs and in the deep recesses of the pantry. We knew, but we pretended we didn't. They knew we knew and pretended they didn't. But the fireworks were safe: what could you do with one, without informing the whole world? The rules were simple: nothing until sundown on the night of Diwali.

It was a lesson in extreme patience, taught painfully and painstakingly each year, year after year. With no noticeable improvement, I might add, from year to year - other lessons in life would have to intervene before the virtue was truly imbibed.

And the ones you really wanted to get your itchy little fingers around were the 500x and the 1000x stringed patakas. The glorious skyscraper anaars. The sizzling chhur-chhuris. The star-spangled rockets. The onion bombs - mini-hand grenades, really. The Atom Bombs. And ah yes, the biggest of them all: The Hydrogen Bomb. True, there were a lot of bombs in ascending order ... to provide the grand finale. (Those were the days of the Indo-China and Indo-Pakistani Wars!)

And then. And then, there were the specialty cooks that were brought in, to produce mounds of sweets in a splash of colours. A multitude of things green and dry, powdered and lumpy, aromatic and yecchy, were hauled in. And rinsed, chopped, sliced, diced, shredded, dried, pummeled, kneaded, rolled, sculpted, cooked, ladled, fried, baked, silvered, cooled, carved, divided, boxed and piled into mountains of neatly stacked gift-boxes.

And for us kids, no sweets either until D-Day. Though there were times when needy and greedy little eyes could melt some hearts and a nibble here, a crumb there, was offered in solace. From cooks and servants only, I hasten to add. Never from our hard-hearted parents, who were adamant that they weren't really good for us. "Yeah?", our hearts screamed, "then why make tons of them before our very eyes, and pile them high around us?"

But we never had the gumption to give voice to these early human rights campaigns.

What we did get to talk about a lot for weeks were the legends behind Diwali. The lengthy Hindu festivals of Dusshera and Durga Puja had only recently been put to rest, and the myths around Ram and Sita and Ravan, and Durga and Kali had been lived and re-lived on every street corner, and memories of them were still warm and delicious.

Our Hindu servants were still in festival mode and regaled us with a new portfolio of tales. Of Krishna and Ram, of Vishnu and Shakti, of Ganesh and Lakshmi. We would sit glued and mesmerized, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, conjuring up the gods and goddesses, heroes and villains, monsters and demons ... they invaded our sleep, but never as nightmares. Our parents had made it clear ... these were stories and parables and we Sikhs didn't take them literally.

In our homes and lives, we were told, wealth and prosperity, the victory of good over evil, the dispelling of darkness through light, all came through one and only one path ... the path of worship of One God, in hard and honest work, and through the service of humanity.

There were no ifs, ands, or buts.

And no idols. No "auspicious" signs and markings. No lakshmis and ganeshes.

In Sikhi, I remember my father telling us, there are no brokers, no go-betweens, no proxy, no scapegoats. It's you and God and the connection is a direct one.

So why do we celebrate Diwali, Dad?

Diwali for Sikhs, he said, is a celebration of freedom ... Freedom from Oppression, in particular.

It is sometimes called Bandhi Chhor Diwas - A Celebration of Freedom!

Specifically, it marks an event in 1619. The Sixth Master, Guru Hargobind (not to be confused with the Tenth, Guru Gobind Singh), had been imprisoned in Gwalior Fort by the Moghul Emperor, Jahangir - the same tyrant who had earlier tortured and martyred Guru Arjan, the Fifth Master, in Lahore!

Jahangir still felt threatened by the nascent Sikh movement and worried that they continued to steadfastly reject all overtures to change their faith, even when threatened by or inflicted great pain and death. But he also knew that his last atrocity had instigated the community into being poised for an armed revolt ... Hargobind now symbolically wore the two swords of miri and piri.

Good counsel led the Emperor to announce the release of the Guru from captivity. The Guru refused to leave.

Imprisoned in the same fort at the same were fifty-two other rajas and princes from a scattering of kingdoms around the country. Hargobind said if Jahangir was to show good faith, then all prisoners were to be released, or none!

Jahangir relented but, in his feudal arrogance, set a condition: anyone who could hang on to the coat-tails of the Guru's robe could leave with him, he declared.

The Guru ordered a special robe ... a huge one, with fifty-two tassles on its tails. Each of the fifty-two Hindu princes held on to one each, and was allowed to leave.

A grand procession marking the triumphant return of Guru Hargobind to Amritsar is celebrated ever since at the Durbar Sahib and known as Diwali!

There are many other reasons, most centred on the Durbar Sahib and Amritsar, for celebrating Diwali in the grand way it is by Sikhs everywhere.

Earlier, 1577 saw the laying of the foundation of the Harmandar Sahib by Sayeen Mian Mir. On Diwali Day.

Later, in 1737, the great scholar and Granthi of the Harmandar, Bhai Mani Singh, skillfully subverted and averted secret plans by the then Mughal Governor of Punjab, Zakarya Khan, to ambush and massacre a group of Sikhs scheduled to meet at the Durbar Sahib. It had been the assembly place of the bi-annual Sarbat Khalsa convocations, one of which was held each year on Diwali to discuss the affairs of the young and far-flung community of Sikhs.

For his role, Bhai Mani Singh was taken prisoner, gruesomely tortured and executed. Ever since, we also celebrate the life of the Grand Old Man of Amritsar on Diwali.

So, Diwali in our household was glorious: lamps galore, sweets galore, fireworks galore.

A celebration from beginning till end. It began at sundown ... dressed up in fresh new clothes ... a sumptuous feast ... and then we clambered up to the roof for the real fun to begin!

And then, all hell broke loose ... or, to be more accurate, was let loose! The next three hours were a series of blinding, deafening, dazzling, terrifying conflagrations. But the best part was to watch, from our fifth-floor roof-top, similar orchestrations from virtually every household in sight. Until clouds of smoke and the acrid smell of burnt explosives enveloped the city, and we ran out of things to blow up or explode.

We were then shepherded into our car, and off we went for a jaunt around town, with quick and short stops at close friends' homes ... to wish them a "Happy Diwali" and to drop off gift-boxes of sweets. En route and while visiting, we gorged on sweets like there was no tomorrow. Our little tummies seemed to be infinitely flexible ... until nature and pain took hold of things.

We'd head home just short of midnight - and once there, we'd disembark and Dad would drive away into the night.

For years, I had no idea where he'd disappear at that late hour. And we'd be too sick to ask. And had no idea for a long, long time that he wouldn't be back until the wee hours of the morning, by which time we were all long gone into the dream world of gods and demons.

I must have been about twelve years old when, one Diwali, as we headed home at the end of the day, Dad asked me if I would like to come with him on a drive.

Prolong the Diwali night? Of course!

It was close to midnight.

Our stop was on Exhibition Road, at a store called "Motor Spares". I knew the store: they were my Dad's main competitors in town, in his business of tires and auto parts.

All the doors were wide open, everything lighted up. And behind the long and meandering sales counter, sitting cross-legged on a traditional marwari gaddi, was the entire staff and proprietorship of the business.

They stood up in unison as we got out of the car and welcomed us with hugs and embraces. It puzzled me. I knew they were acquaintances and business "colleagues", to use the term loosely, but I certainly didn't remember them as my Dad's friends.

We were invited behind the counter ... something utterly unusual ... and offered, yes, sweets! Dad took a crumb in his mouth, and urged me to take a bite too, difficult though it was.

He then said something to our hosts, one sprang to his feet, disappeared into a back-room and returned with a box containing a new set of wrenches.

Dad pulled out some paper money (Rupees!) and offered it to them. One of them took it, touched it to his forehead and then passed it around to his brothers/co-owners. Someone returned some loose change to Dad.

He got up, saying he had many more stops to go ... and warm goodbyes were said all around.

Back in the car, I confronted him: you do know, don't you, that we have dozens of boxes of this very product in our store? They are stacked up on one prominent shelf; I had seen them. So, why did you buy one more? And from these chaps? Our competitors?

As he drove away, he explained: These people are members of the Jain religion, and today, on Diwali, they celebrate Lord Mahavir's nirvana. For them, as for the Hindus, midnight on Diwali marks the beginning of a New Year. They keep their stores open from the stroke of the hour, so that they are there to greet Lakshmi, the goddess of Prosperity, as she makes a quick tour, Santa Claus-like, of the land. She bestows good fortune on those who are there to welcome her.

Yeah, I queried, but what has that got to do with us? I thought we don't believe in that sort of thing.

We don't, he said. But they do. For some inexplicable reason, they consider me a good omen. So they have asked me to come at the stroke of the hour and be their first customer of the New Year. I buy one item. They call it an auspicious bohni - a "beginning".

But, I interjected, what's in it for you. You just bought a very expensive wrench set, didn't you?

There is nothing in it for me, and yet, everything. It costs me nothing: a few rupees here and a few there. And, for a little bit of cost to me, it means a world to them. Their prosperity is not at my cost. There is so much out there in the universe, the more we have, the more there is to share.

It didn't make sense. I sat there, puzzled and a bit annoyed, as we continued to do the rounds that night, stopping at each of his Hindu and Jain competitors and acquaintances, and buying one little thing from each. As soon as we would be ready to leave, they would announce ... "Good! Now we can go home and rest".

I did these rounds with him every year thenceforth.

But it took me a long, long time to understand why.

Happy Diwali!

Originally posted: November 8, 2007 ~ Re-posted: October 22, 2013


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