The Festival of Lamps

The air is finally dry and chilly, with the retreating northeast monsoon almost behind us. It is time to celebrate the end of the monsoon with large-scale oily cooking and lighting myriad clay lamps fueled by sesame oil. The arrival of the monsoon in June/July is a life-giver for India and Indians. Nevertheless, after three months of frequent rains, we look forward to welcoming autumn’s dry weather.

Imagine a time before electricity; three months of monsoon meant a highly restricted use of fire for cooking and lighting at night. The kitchens were traditionally open to the sky, away from the main house. This is to avoid any fire accidents. The long monsoon forced a relatively simple diet consisting of mostly boiled foods instead of the more elaborate deep-fried foods. The end of the monsoon is an occasion to splurge on deep-fried sweets and savory snacks. What better time to meet and greet family and friends and celebrate with night lamps and sumptuous food?

As a child, my favorite festival was Deepavali, literally, the row of lamps. This was long before we became conscious of the ill effects of fireworks on our environment. There is a pyromaniac in everyone, and one rarely finds someone who does not enjoy Deepavali; the flowerpots, the sparklers, the rockets, and of course, the noisy firecrackers. In the history of mankind, the ability to control fire was probably the most significant step toward everything that we are today. The modern jet engines that power an aircraft depend on our ability to control the combustion process in the engine. Before that, Genghis Khan, the most influential ruler of all time, weaponized the Chinese fireworks and invaded a significant fraction of the Asian continent. Subsequently, his descendants, the Mughals entered India because of the same firepower. Today, we complain about Chinese firecrackers replacing our beloved Sivakasi products. But it is very likely that firecrackers originally entered India from China through the Mughals though we believe we started celebrating with fireworks right after the killing of Narakasura.

My parents are from coastal Andhra, where the weather is always humid. A wet shirt that takes half an hour to dry in Hyderabad may take a whole day on the coast. But my parents carried many coastal habits to Hyderabad, including sun drying the firecrackers for several days. Though the monsoon is on the retreat, it still shows its occasional presence till the day of Deepavali. The job of grabbing the firecrackers at the first sign of a raindrop was always the children’s. I do not recall any Deepavali where it did not drizzle the day or two before Deepavali. But we were always prompt to take the firecrackers to safety as soon as the clouds showed up.

My father always insisted that we buy firecrackers from the “Standard” brand. He wanted to make sure that the firecrackers were perfectly safe for us. After all, one minor defect can cause a major fire accident. Where my parents come from, there were many locally produced firecrackers. Occasionally, I celebrated Deepavali at my grandmother’s house. The local firecrackers were similar to the Sivakasi ones, yet very different. The rockets were packed around a vein of a coconut leaf and had to be launched from the hand rather than from a bottle. The bombs were packed using a thin strip from a palm leaf. The long strip beside the explosive made it much safer than the market-bought bombs. The flower pots were packed in a clay pots. There were matabas, the equivalent of magnesium pencils. Finally, there were sisindris. Sisindris were small conical rockets shaped like small green chilies and equally menacing. While the rest of the above were entirely under our control, sisindris had a mind of their own. Once they leave our hands, we have no idea where they might end up. These were very popular with children and probably caused most accidents. If a kid is uncontrollable, then (s)he is described as a sisindri.

Like many things, carefully crafted homemade products are much better than market-bought ones. The quality and the quantity of the light produced by the homemade flower pots were multiple times better than the most expensive store-bought flower pots. Since we could not carry any of these items on a train from our native place, my father used to make some of them at home in Hyderabad.

Here was a man I never saw in the kitchen, sitting on the terrace with a mortar, pestle, and some strange chemicals. I recall him using names like potashu (most probably potassium chloride), gandhakam (sulphur), surekaram (potassium nitrate), magnesium, and coal. He would ask us to maintain a distance of at least ten feet and carefully grind the white crystals without even pounding them. Any excess pressure brings home an early Deepavali, but not in a good way. The grinding had to be perfect, a delicate and tedious process. Apart from the safety measures, my father had to sift the material multiple times to get the finest possible powder. Once the powders were ready, they were mixed in proper proportions and packed into their respective containers (pots in the case of flower pots and cylindrical paper tubes in the case of matabas). The packing, too, had to be perfect. Wrong amount of density results in a defective quality product. And my father’s products were always fantastic.

The Deepavali night started with my mother decorating the house and the front yard with many lamps. Once all the lamps are lit, we would bring all the material within reach but away from any possible sparks. We always started off with sparklers, slowly ramping up to vishnuchakras, bhuchakras, matabas, rockets, flower pots, and some bombs. But my father’s flower pots were always reserved for the grand finale. What a finale it used to be!

Deepavali is undeniably the most fun festival in India. Like many things, anything excess is never good. The pollution caused by our industries and automobiles is already at alarming levels. Any additional amount caused by Deepavali is further adding to our woes. Places such as Delhi suffer from Deepavali pollution for several weeks after Deepavali. I wish we go the American way. Americans celebrate their Independence day by performing beautiful fireworks. However, these fireworks are conducted by trained professionals in a public place. Similarly, Deepavali fireworks can be performed only by licensed professionals in a public place so that individuals can avoid excessive amounts of fireworks.

All Indian festivals are fascinating, and each festival is associated with multiple legends. The study of these legends is of its own interest and will be the subject of a future writeup.