In pursuit of a purist Diwali

To bust benign disinterest in a ritualistic festival, my plan is to search for meaning and purpose through a theme


Photo by Hindustan Times
Photo by Hindustan Times

If you are the kind who calibrates social excitement with its attendant flurry based on the festival calendar, you must be warming up for Diwali.

I am not your type despite being a case book example of an outgoing, socially enthusiastic person.

Festivals, especially Diwali, give me an obligatory anxiety to “do something”.

Despite scepticism, I usually do fall in step, from buying gifts, dressing up, decorating, cleaning and lighting up the house, cooking special cuisine to calling near and dear ones to wish them.

Admittedly, it all goes on by rote, just a regurgitation of last year’s social rituals and of the many previous years before it.

It is like pressing the reset button on a culturally programmed festival guideline, where people like me who are neither ritualistic nor typically traditional replicate what we have seen our mothers, neighbours, relatives and communities do on such occasions.

There is no personal investment in this kind of celebration, no real intimacy or interest.

Some of my women friends say they derive great inner satisfaction upon being the torch bearers of tradition. They wear heavy gold jewellery and traditional attire, touch the feet of elders, cook laborious and extraordinary meals for their families, perform puja and other rituals with optimism and cheer and feel blessed.

I envy the simplicity behind this adherence.

But instead of intellectualizing my responses, I have made a plan this season to architect my Diwali day, or rather the entire week, so that it becomes meaningful beyond the mould of tradition.

The first attempt is towards a thematic sync in all my Diwali pursuits.

My theme is “purist”. So, instead of the usual books I have been reading this year on advances in neuroscience and contemporary Islamic identity, I have begun reading in print book form (not via a digital download), the epic poem format of Valmiki’s Ramayana in Hindi translation with 2,000-odd verses.

Instead of sugar-free sweets and “modern but traditional” meals—and what do they mean anyway—I have been practising some forgotten Sindhi recipes taken from an old aunt.

She says she has forgotten to make these herself so overwhelmed she has been with demands for guilt-free and fat-free foods by her family.

My cooking medium during the Diwali week will be desi ghee, not some fancy, low fat olive oil.

I will use a clay pot, a brass handi (a rounded cooking utensil) and an old-style iron tawa (pan) for cooking, instead of modular, non-stick kitchenware. A few heavy brass utensils my maternal grandmother had brought with herself from Pakistan during the Partition and held on to till her death, have been polished to shine with tamarind rind and readied for use. A small brass pail with a handle interestingly called “karmandal”—the Sindhi word was also used for a begging bowl used by mendicants—from my grandmother’s collection will be filled to the brim with flowers and placed on my dresser.

Instead of using design stencils for floor Rangolis, I plan to write verses from the Ramayana in red and orange colours only in the Devanagari script.

My sari will be a plain cotton one in white and red, no outlandish gold jewellery, just some fresh marigolds and jasmines in the hair.

Instead of electrical bulbs cascading down the balcony, our decorations will be of marigold flowers. We will burn small clay diyas filled with sesame oil instead of scented candles and I refuse to buy the diyas online.

The day after Diwali I will enrol into an Urdu language class that I have been meaning to do for a while but was waiting for, well, a motivational kick of some kind.

Urdu has no direct link to Diwali, you may argue, but the idea is to put oneself back in learning mode, create a blank slate in the mind and step into unfamiliar territory.

No WhatsApp Diwali wishes this season. Hand-written notes for special friends, a bottle of pure ghee (not red wine or Glenfiddich whisky), a small jar of homemade gulkand (a sweet chutney-like concoction made of rose petals) instead of salted almonds and candied cashew nuts and a one-metre piece of thoughtfully picked up handloom fabric will comprise my Diwali gifts this year.

There is one confession to make. I had never been able to memorize the full Diwali aarti till date, so would keep repeating the one verse I knew or put on a CD to help us get through the puja.

It is difficult to swear upon “genuine” interest this time despite all my attempts to change the tide; even so, I have memorized the aarti fully and plan to sing it out without self-consciousness.

There is still a sense of obligatory anxiety around me, to be honest. But the onus of making Diwali “happy” has shifted to myself instead of expecting the day to magically bring me peace and purpose.

Happy Diwali.

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