As a kid in Calcutta I used to be terrified of Diwali.
I enjoyed the gift trays of sweets and nuts wrapped in yellow cellophane that my father's business colleagues sent over. I liked the little candles and clay lamps, an orderly row of flickering lights lining the balconies of all the houses.
But the fireworks terrified me.
The whole neighbourhood turned into battle zones of rival gangs of boys with things that went bang in the night. For weeks before Diwali the vendors would set up stalls along the street selling fireworks in boxes with luridly-coloured pictures. Fat purple bulbs of tubris (anaars) blossoming into a fountain of sparkling light before exploding with a bang. Rockets that burst in the night sky with a shrill whistle and a torn necklace of stars. Pinwheels of fire, little pellets that became sooty snakes, and dodomas (double bombs) that exploded with a heart-stopping bang.
I liked the showers of light. I could even manage to take an old Kisan orange squash bottle, stick a rocket into it and then light the wick with a sparkler and watch it go whizzing up the into the air. Though I was always secretly afraid it would choose to boomerang and whiz right back at me.
But I was terrified of the dynamite boom of the dodomas -- twice the bang for the buck. This was where the neighbourhood boys showed their bravado. They would hold on to the spluttering fizzing patakas till the last possible moment and then toss them out onto the street. They would try to see if they could make an old battered bucket go flying from the explosion inside.
I had no stomach for playing with fire. And every Diwali I was afraid I'd be found out, exposed as a wimp with glasses who liked the pretty fireworks but not the macho bombs -- the kind that grew hair on your chest. I wanted to be like my uncle's dog and hide under the bed.
Every year the neighbourhood boys would put on a giant fireworks display at the crossroads. They were apparently the crème de la crème of fireworks from Chandannagar. Once my father, as an elder in the neighbourhood was asked to light the inaugural fireworks even. I was petrified. We'd go to the neighbour's house to watch. All the street lights would be off. Then suddenly this tree would sprout in the middle of the intersections. Each of its branches was laden with blazing balls of fires, like giant golden plums, all fizzing with a light so bright it lit up the faces in all the windows in the houses across the street. And then one by one each shining orb would explode and I swear each explosion shook the balconies. I'd clench my teeth and brace myself for the next one but when it came I'd flinch anew.
Diwali in Calcutta was also the time we worshipped the Goddess Kali. The midnight blue goddess, naked but for a garland of heads and a girdle of hands, her tongue dripping blood, made a fearsome spectacle. But I wasn't scared of her. I liked the little jackal by her side drinking the dripping blood from the dismembered head. One year when the jackal was missing I raised a fuss. The dadas of the neighbourhood shamefacedly admitted the omission and jackal was fetched from somewhere. Yes, Kali I could handle in all her dark glory. I knew she was just the mother goddess, creation and destruction rolled into one, ferociously loving, slayer of demons. I'd heard rumours that the neighbour across the street who worshipped Kali every year used to once sacrifice a goat to her. But by the time I grew up the sacrificial goat had become a pumpkin and Kali gave me no nightmares.
But the fireworks, rattling the windows with their midnight explosions, did. In fact one Diwali, a stray firecracker landed on the Kali Puja pandal right outside our bedroom window and it went up in flames. I remember the neighbourhood boys rushing through our bedroom with buckets of water trying to douse the flames. The pandal, probably done up to resemble an old temple was all cloth and cardboard and burned to the crisp. Next morning the charred smell was everywhere and the image of the goddess stood amidst the ruins -- literally a Kali of the burning grounds. That's the smell I associate with Diwali gunpowder hanging in the air like a mist. The next day I'd see the old rocket launcher squash bottles laying around all sooty and grey-brown. Our terrace was pockmarked with the black ashen scars of fireworks. Purple tubri bulbs, some half exploded lay on the side. I'd be afraid to step on them in case they suddenly exploded with a belated bang.
On my first Diwali in America, I was secretly relieved. Let's go for a Diwali drink said an Indian friend. And a Diwali cocktail in a bar sounded immensely more manageable.
Now Diwali has come to America -- an anesthesised Diwali minus the loud bangs. Hallmark sells Diwali cards with little lamps and elephants. Someone in the Midwest of America said her son came home from school with Diwali wrapping paper. With a click of a mouse I can send trays of sweets to friends in India. The Indian association in New York is fighting to get Diwali added to the list of official 35 city holidays when street parking and cleaning rules are relaxed.
And I go to Diwali parties with the confidence of a cosmopolitan immigrant claiming his cultural heritage.
And sometimes we even burn a few sparklers in the backyard. And as the last dandelion of light splutters away I almost miss the riot of a Diwali in India.
My friends say "Next year, I want to spend Diwali in India."
And I reply, "Me too."
And for a moment, sipping a glass of Chardonnay, the charred smell of my American Diwali still clinging to my fingers, I almost believe myself.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh