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Once upon a time, several thousand years ago, a noble king exterminated a ten-headed demon (one head at a time) who had kidnapped his wife. The king collected his wife and returned to his kingdom amidst much fanfare. His subjects, buoyed by his triumph, celebrated by launching fireworks -- a practice which continues to this day, much to the annoyance of dogs, babies and faint-hearted old ladies.
Today's fireworks, or 'crackers' as we call them, go off at decibel levels that could put a Concorde to shame. It is estimated that at least fifty percent of Diwali revellers, after having collectively lit up enough crackers to blow up the city, are engaged in searching for their missing eardrums post the celebrations. ENT specialists all over India report a two-fold increase in sales of their hearing aids before and after the Diwali holidays. Apparently, their slogan of choice has always been 'Ear today, gone tomorrow'.
It's not just adults like me who despise the noise levels generated by the crackers. My niece, at the tender age of three, also takes exception to it, and resorts to bawling at the top of her voice when the fireworks start every evening. Her astute mother finally taught her to channel her displeasure at the noise by yelling "You mad people!" and shaking a miniature fist at the window, a ruse as effective in alleviating her stress as in providing us with unbridled entertainment.
Dogs, on the other hand, have a far more dramatic reaction. When the first cracker hits a respectable 150 on the decibel chart, most scamper off and curl up into a warm fuzzy ball below the bed or the table (so much for the 'Beware of dog' sign on the gate, huh?). Comfortably ensconced in this position, they then proceed to register their unhappiness by whimpering continuously till revellers put an end to their fireworks sessions.
And it isn't just people's (and animals') eardrums that emerge unhappy from a cracker celebration. Some fireworks are designed to emit a bright illuminating light like that of magnesium dioxide, which has you seeing white spots for several hours afterwards. And if that wasn't enough, they even organise competitions to find which insane person can design a cracker that emits the strongest light (mad scientists are at work even as I write!). I am uncertain as to how they really judge these competitions, because within a few minutes everyone is seeing spots everywhere, rendering it a fruitless exercise.
Speaking of fruit, that's one less item you will be consuming at Diwali time. Simply because they're quite dispensable during these celebrations, which are marked by the exchange of calorie-laden sweetmeats guaranteed to have Grandpa's BP shooting through the roof. The consumption of these little drops of heaven, as we know, lead to people resembling well-fed sumo wrestlers. But not to worry. Apparently there are ways around this also, as a friend of mine recently explained to me.
I found her furiously doing abdominal crunches in the gym a few days ago, so I asked what the over-the-top exercise regime was all about.
She didn't even stop to catch her breath when she replied, "I have to lose weight before Diwali!"
"Why? What's the rush?" I asked.
"So that during the festival I can gorge on all the sweets to my heart's content!" she shot back, wondering how I had failed to grasp this simple logic.
Anyway, moving on -- around this time of year, an assortment of postmen, maidservants, drivers, garbage collectors etc will remember your very significant existence in their lives. For example, you will find that for a few days you haven't been receiving any letters. Finally one day, the postman will turn up at your doorstep with a bunch of envelopes and say, quite succinctly, "Diwali Baksheesh!" so as to leave you in no doubt as to the reason for his visit.
You, in accordance with your monthly budget calculations, proffer your postman an amount that seems to you, excessively generous. Your postman takes the winnings, counts them up, and looks at you askance. It's almost always a look that says, "Where's the rest of the dough?"
Unable to express himself thus, he wears a pained expression and articulates his feelings in a more polite vein: "Only this much? I was expecting at least �" and he then names a figure which might well be a CEO's annual income. You shake your head and go "Tut, tut!" But then he mentions inflation, and how your current tip wouldn't buy his family one square meal and thus brings you around to his way of thinking. Before you know it, you have relieved yourself of a little more family moolah.
Adding to the list of people who seek to lighten the load of family breadwinners' wallets are the brats -- youngsters who find that Diwali affords them a marvellous excuse to buy new clothes (as though they really needed an excuse). Aiding them in this sinister conspiracy are the various retail shops that come up with dozens of schemes and discount offers this time of year.
While dishing out the dough for her youngsters, the mother suddenly realises that this would be a splendid time to purchase that divine gold necklace that she spotted at the jeweller's last month. And when most of the income has been squandered on apparel and ornaments, dear old Dad is left staring at a credit card bill with an astonishing number of zeroes added on.
When the big day finally rolls around, every family gets together and lights up fourteen candles, placing them in various strategic corners around the house. In the evening, all the family members, decked out in their new clothes and jewellery, gather round to perform the puja -- prayers of obeisance -- to their chosen deity.
In the absence of most family members, however, only the aging mother and father of the house are left to perform this task. For modern young couples who live on their own, the performance of this puja is a troublesome thing, for they have as much knowledge of shlokas and mantras as their parents have of Orkut. It is very entertaining to watch these youngsters murmur and stumble their way through a puja with only one miserable stanza committed to memory. How do I know? Because I'm one of them!
But this time I am armed. I have commenced preparations to learn these mantras and with any luck, I should have committed all the requisite stanzas to memory by Diwali -- 2008.
Then again, a prayer book comes fairly in handy, don't you think? Jai Shri Ram!
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