In a few days, it will be Diwali. As usual, my mother will call from Chennai at dawn with the words, “Ganga snanam aacha?” (Have you finished bathing in the Ganga?) The greeting is fairly meaningless when you think about it because the Ganga flows nowhere near Tamil Nadu. If anything, we should ask each other about baths in the Cauvery river. But that, as my mother would say, is not the point. The greeting is a more elegant way of inquiring if you have purified yourself, hence the de rigueur, “Ganga snanam aacha?”
Growing up in a Tamil Brahmin household, this was the greeting you used when you called to wish family and friends on Deepavali morning — not the anglicized “Happy Diwali”, and certainly not the awkward “Diwali Greetings”.
North-south divide: No matter where you are, be eco-conscious this Diwali. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint. Diyas: Ishatvam, New Delhi
Diwali is about as close as it gets to a pan-Indian Hindu holiday — we in the south don’t celebrate Karva Chauth for instance, and till I went abroad, I didn’t realize what a big deal it was for women up north. Still, as is normal in India, Diwali’s regional variations are gloriously unique and different. Indeed, even within each state, different communities have very special and specific customs. The Chettiars of Karaikudi make different sweets and savouries for Diwali compared to the equally rich Gounder community of Coimbatore. As a child, I was convinced that we TamBrahms had the lamest Diwali sweets and so come October, I would earnestly renew friendships with my Gounder and Chettiar friends simply so that they would invite me to their homes on Diwali day and offer their bounty of goodies.
The Chennai I grew up in was a fairly conservative and parochial city. A village really. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everyone knew each other, but it was four degrees of separation rather than seven. How to explain this? Well, name-dropping always helps so try this one for size: Finance Minister Chidambaram’s brother lived down the road from my house in Indranagar and his daughter-in-law Srinidhi learned Bharatanatyam from my aunt, Kamala. That’s what I mean by four degrees of separation in my beloved Chennai.
Also Read: Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
On Diwali day, we visited each other, exchanged gifts and sweets. To my embarrassment, my mother would carry the unfortunately-named, horrible-tasting grey-coloured goop called “Deepavali marundu (medicine)” wherever she went as exchange for more normal sweets such as laddus and murukku-chaklis. Deepavali marundu was invented to torture kids. Like all things that claim to be good for you, it looks like something a cow has regurgitated and tastes even worse. What boggles my mind is how there are takers, even for Deepavali marundu. Some of my mother's friends claim to love the taste of it and would fall on it with coos of pleasure when offered.
The routine in our household was fairly standard on Deepavali morning. We would be woken up absurdly early. All the kids would be lined up and warm sesame oil would be slathered on our heads while some aunt sang Gowri Kalyana vaibhogame in an off-key falsetto that grated on our groggy ears. As soon as we were allowed to, we would troop into the bathroom, oil dripping down our forehead, and have the ritual oil-bath. Right after we came out, before we could taste any of the specially made delicacies, my mother would shove a lemon-sized ball of the Deepavali marundu into our mouths. It tasted like castor oil, which, incidentally, my grandmother swore by as a cure for all digestive disorders. Every now and then, when I stop and wonder why I am so weird, I think of the castor oil and Deepavali marundu treatments and the trauma they induced. Suddenly, it all makes sense.
You know what’s weirder? This year, for the first time, I asked my mother for a recipe for the hated Deepavali marundu. My logic is this: If I had to suffer through the stuff in childhood, I am jolly well going to inflict it on my kids. Why should they escape? My motives are entirely altruistic though. I think every person deserves a “look what I went through” childhood story. The Deepavali marundu will be their version of what my father told me about “walking to school”, and “studying under the street lamp” while “you blighters don’t take your studies seriously at all”. My kids cannot tell their children about walking to school and living under street lamps. But they can tell their own blighters about being forced to eat unpalatable goop and that too on festive occasions “while you kids scarf down pizzas and cakes like there is no tomorrow”.
Festive occasions in Chennai usually bring forth the best Kanjeevaram saris. During all the time I was growing up, I cannot recall my mother wearing anything else. No sequins, no Satya Paul, and certainly no lehengas and the like. We girls wore Kanjeevaram silk pavadais (long skirts) and the women wore zari-lined saris in shades of mauve, mango yellow, maroon, “onion-skin” pink, peacock green, and “Ramar” blue. This year, I have bought my Deepavali silk sari in a lovely shade of pink. It is an Ahimsa silk sari, meaning that silkworms were not killed to produce it but were allowed to die naturally before the silk was extracted. I am thrilled to bits with this sari. I bought it at Serenity at Jayamahal Extension in Bangalore, a shop I like for its eco-conscience. But it is available online at Ahimsasilks.com. I wish more women would buy it.
Shoba Narayan has a surplus of Deepavali marundu at her home for anyone who wants it. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org