Since the time I moved to Germany in 2009, I hardly celebrated any Indian cultual festivals. I was 21 then. In Coimbatore, Tamilnadu, India, we have two big festivals – Pongal celebrating Agriculture and Deepavali celebrating the act of Rama killing Ravaana in an epic poem “Ramayana”, a part of Indian mythology. For this blog post I will focus just on Deepavali. There are multiple stories and multiple versions citing the origin of Deepavali, but one thing common in most versions – good guy kills bad guy and people celebrate with fireworks. For us kids, we don’t care about it as long as a box of fireworks stays in front of our door. Dad usually goes to the fireworks factory in Sivakasi and buys a humongous quantity for all the kids in the family – my 4 cousins and I. Mom usually starts to prepare sweets two weeks in advance. She instructs me and lets me pack all the savouries and sweets in small packs: a session that I enjoy doing, as I get to eat some sweets well before Deepavali. She makes two sweets: Ladoo and Mysorepak and two savouries: Mixture and Nei-Murukku. I have to pack the sweets and savouries separately in two plastic packs. It’s a half day job and I get around 20 packs of each ready.
Left to right: Ladoo, Mixture, Murukku & Mysore Pak
From then onwards, mom and I begin distributing the Deepavali packs to neighbours, families and friends. Altogether around 20 families would be visited in three days. Likewise everyone visits everyone. We distribute 20 and we receive 20 of other sorts. Every family shows their signature with their selection of savouries and sweets. You can see the discussions of status symbol arising from these packs! The ones who want to project themselves high in class, would buy Mysore pak and other savories from an elite sweets store like “Sree Krishna sweets”. The others would buy from local shops or make themselves. When my mom used to have time, she would make Murukku by herself and the rest we would buy from a father’s friend’s shop. Later we started buying everything from them. Still, self-cooking always had the best taste and of course “Sree Krishna Sweets”.
Mom would buy new dress material already a month before. Our regular tailor store “Mr. Carnaby” had dad’s and my sizes already, as every year dad and I would have to get our uniforms stitched: school uniform for me and court uniform for dad. The society till then was still majorly opting for tailored clothes. Given the frequency of festivals and necessities like uniforms, dad and I would visit the tailor at least 4 times in a year. Mom had her own tailor. I never had the interest to understand the intricacies in women’s clothing and therefore I hardly know the details of her clothes. Her saree and blouse will have a glitz element denoting that it’s festival clothing. Men’s clothing never has that detailing. For all occasions, outside an uniform, it’s the same type: “colour dress”: simply a dress which has colours. As I grew up, mom let me have my say to the tailor. I was 16 then and I wanted to have something trendy. I asked the tailor to make double pockets in all my shirts. It was a fascination when I got it. Although by next Deepavali this trend got outdated, every year from then onwards I would ask my tailor to stitch something new – wide collars, narrow collars, secret pocket inside pants, secret pocket inside shirts, pants without flaps and more. Some I held for long and some got outdated sooner or later.
All the firecrackers, the stuff bought by dad would be opened one day before the festival, as longer before meant we kids would already light them up or get into a fight. My cousins and I would have our intense negotiations and divide the fire crackers equally. By equal it meant that “all pigs are equal and some are more equal than others”. Hierarchies, age, bravery and fights ensure no equal division. Somehow everyone would come to peace with what they got and would from then on guard their share like their life’s treasure till the next day.
Day of Deepavali: At 12:00 AM, all of us would line up in our Balcony to see the fireworks. The night fireworks were called as “Fantasy Pattasu (Fantasy Crackers)”. The day begins! But we are allowed to burst the crackers only in the morning after taking bath, wearing new clothes and after sitting through morning pooja in the god room. Consequentially, this was the only day in the year all kids would wake up before the adults and get ready in light speed. Usually the pooja begins at 7 AM and only at this point Dad and mom would get into an argument on who wants to take bath first. The whole house had one bathroom. Dad wants to take bath after the TV Programme where some old guy reads holy text from “Thirukkural” and mom has something left to finish in the kitchen. More they argue, the more we have to wait for fire crackers. We would hasten them up to do whatever, but come to the pooja. Mom gives me the bell to ring; Grandma or someone chants the holy texts and dad does the ritual. The pooja is the final most annoying, nail biting wait which stays between us and the firecrackers. The moment it’s done and the white powder streak comes to our forehead as a blessing, the run begins. We grab the fire crackers, go to the streets and compete with the neighbours on who has the best firecracker.
On the day of Deepavali, television programmes galore. At 10AM there is a debate programme. Interesting also for the kids, I would come back to have breakfast while watching this programme. Mom would have cooked special food for all the three meals. It was Masala Dosa and Biriyani. Our daily life then had other simple food such that these foods were considered special. After the programme we would call many people and in turn would receive calls from many other people wishing “Happy Deepavali” to each other. We inquire on what the other home had cooked for food and what television programme they are watching. TV Channels would invite celebrities for special interviews and play the latest movies. The catchy part was when the televisions started running the commercials for the movies they play on the Day. This trend began around 2000s. The advertisements are run from already a month before with a tagline saying
“For the first time ever in Indian television channels… the movie that came in 1997….the super hit movie…..XXX”
These taglines and especially the tone of it were so catchy that people accepted them big time. They grew over time and indirectly it created a huge marketing buzz in the movie industry making them to compete for the best tag lines to their products. Eventually, in just a few years, so many versions of self-praising buzzwords got added to the societal dictionaries. We would be rooted to the TV waiting for this line to be announced and to check which movie would be played. In the initial times, we took these statements as seriously as the tone who utters it, but over time the competition and the same serious tone got received as welcome comedy.
Special programme, special food, tailor stitched trendy clothing, latest firecrackers, new movies, sweets, the same celebration also with kins and neighbours; the whole festival was really considered a celebration. It was after all one of the two times in a year to celebrate. The excitement and the anxiety for it begin usually months before. It was always something to look forward to. We kids were involved in all aspects of the festival. I was recently watching a programme “Neeya Naana” where they spoke about festivities. They make a point saying that the focus of any festivity is kids themselves. It is way to make them participate in societal happenings and teach the culture. It’s a showcase and reminder of what makes their identity: traditional clothes and ethnic rituals reminded us who we are and which society we belong to. It gave the kids a sense of belonging. We belong to Tamilnadu and follow Dravidian tradition. Simultaneously two other things were taught too.
It had many things to keep us kids excited and diverted: Firecrackers, clothes, television programmes and special food. With all these things for diversion, they teach us indirectly hospitality and respecting people. It begins from preparing and sharing sweets and goes till calling each other to wish for the festival. Parents would make us participate in wishing too. It motivated “sharing” which is something difficult to be taught to kids. Moreover it made us kids to accept simplicity in daily life. Because 363 days were simple, the 364th and 365th day became special. Simplicity and thereby being conservative, sharing and thereby being respectful and hospitable: Festivals have a reason: Kids.
From 21 and till now, which is almost a decade, I did not celebrate any festival. There were multiple reasons: I was in a rebellious mood or I considered them as outdated or old people stuff or I was being nature friendly by not letting CO2 into the atmosphere. Now out of necessity, I have a chance to celebrate a festival again. My wife is a Catholic Christian and she celebrates Christmas with the same passion as I had for Deepavali as above. With the perspective of kids and values, maybe I grew up now that I activated the kid in me to celebrate Christmas for the first time ever.
to be continued:
Part 2 … Christmas Adventures in Europe
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