Lanterns and firecrackers: Pining for the Diwali gone by
For Ashwath Nityanandan, the sounds of the Deepavalis of childhood linger
When I think of Deepavali as a kid in Chennai I can only think of pure, delightful danger.
We cared little about Rama’s return from the forest. Or the slaying of a rakshasa. Or the debate between different motivations for the celebration. We certainly didn’t mind sweets and new clothes, and a day off from school was always welcome. But what really did it for me and the boys in my neighborhood was the fortnight of street terrorism that led up to the great day.
We stuffed crackers into the hulls of old bicycle pumps to convert them into cannons that shot tongues of flame. We extracted the silvery gunpowder to make makeshift rockets which often exploded on the ground like the experiments of 1930s pioneers. We launched the thumbnail-sized metal UFOs from our top-floor terraces, trying to see how close we could get to the edge without landing on angry neighbours.
Living now in a space where fireworks are sterile, remote-controlled displays in the July 4 sky, it is hard to imagine how casually we took all this. Shopping for fireworks as a second-grader would be inconceivable. The notion of children labouring under frightful danger in a Sivakasi fireworks factory would shut the whole thing down.
Oblivious to all this, we worked our way up into the glorious warm scent of an oil bath at 4 am on Deepavali day. This delight came along with a long-awaited access to the ‘real’ cache of Deepavali crackers, like American kids holding their breath for their first peek under the Christmas tree. All the previous explosions and experiments were not really celebrating Deepavali, only the craziness of little boys.
Girls participated too, though sometimes unwillingly. My sister, who was four years younger, had a beloved blue hen. Bought from a sidewalk vendor in Mylapore for a buck, the hen was a plastic object three inches across. Fascinatingly, it laid eggs. Press it firmly down and it would eject a pearly white sphere. You could make it lay over and over again till a half-dozen eggs lay on the table, and then you could reload it like a revolver and start over. This year I had plans for the hen that went beyond fake reproduction. I wanted it to go ballistic. It was supposed to be all done in secret; making my sister go ballistic was not part of the plan.
I started with a string of oosi-pataas, or needle-crackers. The technology of the string expected the user to light the first one and watch the chain reaction. You had to be either very rich or very wasteful to indulge in such extravagance. So I followed standard protocol by cutting the string and stripping off a single pataas at a time.
I inserted the pataas into the hen’s egg-laying orifice and lit it. True to form the first couple of samples failed to ignite. The third one went off successfully, but the hen barely shifted. Not enough thrust on that rocket engine, I decided. So I powered it up to the next level of an electric-pataas and tried again.
The upgraded results were disastrous. The hen vanished in a fiery explosion, leaving shards of blue plastic and scattered eggs all over the terrace. I tried to hide the remains, but my sister soon found out. It took about 14 years for her to start talking to me again -- I should have taken a detour into the jungle and come back famous.
Looking back on this after a career in industrial automation full of safety glasses and steel-toed shoes, I realise I was extremely lucky to have all my body parts still intact at the expense of the hen. I survived the mayhem long enough to graduate from college and get recruited to my first job in a factory in far-off Jamshedpur. My first ever Deepavali morning away from home found me standing at the shop outside the dorm where we rookie engineers lived.
I overheard the shopkeeper say: “Kya, yeh log ek pataka bhi nahin dikhate hain.” I had learned enough Hindi by then to understand his disappointment of no celebrations in sight. Turning back to look at the silent hostel building, I realised that my childhood was really over.
Ashwath Nityanandan sits on the diversity council of a large corporation, where his job is in manufacturing infrastructure. His professional interest lies in studying the effect of human systems on technology, especially on the factory floor.
Photographs: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com