Chetan Bhagat’s clearest memory of Diwali is of when he was 10, and burnt his fingers while making firecrackers on his own. “I put a large amount of gunpowder in a bottle and lit it. But then I lit my fingers along with it,” Chetan smiles, looking at the faded scars on his fingers. As a child, Diwali was all about bursting crackers and the tradition continues with his twin boys, Shyam and Ishan.
His wife, Anusha a Brahmin from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, celebrated the festival very differently. “We would start our day at 4am with an oil bath. Then we have a puja and burst crackers,” she says. Chetan says Diwali is truly a festival for all, unlike Pongal in the south or Karva Chauth in the north. But he discovered after marriage that even though it is celebrated by Hindus all over the country, the festivities differ from north to south.
Old and new: Anusha follows her mother’s tradition of making rangoli and buying new clothes for the family for Diwali. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Their marriage has been about taking the best from both cultures, and that includes festival times such as Diwali. In fact, in his just-released book 2 States, inspired by his romance with Anusha at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), Chetan talks about the struggle to convince both sets of parents to agree to their choice of life partner from another community. “We thought we’re both from IIM, successful middle-class people, and our parents are modern. We say that India is one but true prejudices are revealed when your children want to get married outside the community,” says Chetan. It was a stressful period for the couple, but things eventually worked out.
On festivals such as Diwali, they compromise, which means they take the most important aspects of Diwali (according to them) and then combine these to create their special brand of festivities. So buying new clothes and making rangoli is taken from Anusha’s southern traditions, while bursting crackers in the evening and eating jalebis dipped in milk is what Chetan brings to the table. The puja is held neither too early in the morning nor too late in the evening. “How can they burst crackers at the crack of dawn?” Chetan, the quintessential Punjabi boy from Delhi, is still confused about that one. For him, Diwali is always at night with lots of crackers, followed by card parties.
Chetan says he’s the more traditional of the two and wanted to bring up his children with Indian values—that’s why they moved from Hong Kong to India two years ago. For nine years, Diwali abroad was spent working. “It wouldn’t feel like Diwali. It was quite sad actually. We would tell friends travelling from India to get us sparklers,” says Anusha.
Anusha now works as an investment banker with UBS India here and Chetan is a full-time author. Before Diwali, she gets the house cleaned and decorates it with diyas bought from the Indian Cancer Society at Mahalaxmi, Mumbai. She buys new clothes for her husband and sons and dresses up in new silk saris bought from Sundari Silks or Aavaranaa in Chennai. Diwali sweets are not an issue; they just buy chocolates for all their friends.
Chocoholic: The Bhagats prefer chocolates to traditional sweets. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Gifts that they receive and give include diyas and chocolates. “Although my mother used to make a lot of sweets and savouries at home, I don’t get the time to do that. We’ve been living outside India for so long that our celebrations have been pared down to the core,” says Anusha. For Chetan, card parties are out. In fact, they don’t attend many Diwali parties because Anusha usually has to work the next day.
Chetan wants to have both his and Anusha’s parents over for Diwali this year. “Later, I’ll take my kids to light crackers. I’m very careful with them. They cannot light anything other than sparklers.”
Anusha Bhagat shares Diwali recipes from her mother’s cookbook
South Indian mixture
2 cups besan (chickpea flour)
100g poha (flattened rice)
100g cashew nuts
100g maida (refined flour)
100g roasted chana dal (pottu kadalai or Bengal gram)
Oil to fry
For the tempering
A pinch of asafoetida (hing)
Salt to taste
A sprig of curry leaves
A pinch of red chilli powder
Sieve the besan and mix with asafoetida powder and salt to taste. Add water to make a soft dough. Pass a handful of the dough through a sev mould, then deep-fry the thin sev until golden in colour. Repeat the process for the entire dough. Drain the sev on paper towels. Mix maida with salt and water and make a soft dough. Roll out into a thin roti. Cut into thin strips and then into small diamond shapes. Deep-fry until golden. Drain on paper towels. Fry the poha, cashew nuts and peanuts separately till crisp and golden. Mix the sev, maida diamonds, fried poha, cashew nuts, peanuts and roasted chana dal together. Heat oil and temper with asafoetida, curry leaves and red chilli powder and add to the mixture. Add a little sugar.
2 cups roasted chana dal
2 cups sugar
50g cashew nuts
Cardamom powder to taste
Ghee for frying
Dry grind the roasted chana dal and sugar to a smooth powder, separately. Mix well. Fry the cashew nuts and raisins separately in ghee and add to the powdered mixture. Add cardamom powder. Heat some ghee and add it hot to a small portion of the powdered mixture, enough to be able to hold together and make small balls (laddus) of desired sizes. Repeat the process for the rest of the mixture.