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This is an unusual Diwali. The first-ever in India, without onions. The absence brings tears to one's eyes. Even the fact that an Indian has won the Nobel Prize for Economics cannot hide the bitter fact that the Diwali menu has to be planned without onions. More so in the north and west because the shortage is less acutely felt in the south. My cousins in Chennai inform me that small onions which go towards making the best sambar in the world, are freely available.
But if you ask the traditionalists among Indians, they will tell you that Diwali can be celebrated with fervour, even in the absence of onions. Well, if sugar had been in short supply, that would have been a major disaster. So would be the shortages of cooking oil or desi ghee. And if the government had the sense enough to ban loud crackers, there would have been vocal protests all over. Such a ban was recently imposed in Calcutta and the Bengalis were smarting under it, their feelings of despair only partly assuaged by Professor Amartya Sen winning the Nobel for Economics.
Shortages or no, the show must go on. Priorities these days are different. My wife and daughter went and purchased a pair of jeans for me and I was not amused. 'How can you westernise the traditional festival like Diwali?' I scolded them. 'Do you know that while growing up, I was always presented with dhotis?' I asked them. My daughter pointed out that I seldom wore dhotis now. 'Even if we had bought you one, you would have kept it in the cupboard. But you do wear jeans and this is an imported brand.' I was only partly mollified. Somehow, a senior member of the family wearing jeans on Diwali morning, did not appeal to me.
How important is tradition on these festival days? The ritual oil bath has practically disappeared. There was a time when everyone applied oil on their hair before bath. Today, the oily look is 'ugh'. Doctors and skin specialists tell us that the skin generates enough oil on its own to keep it smooth. It is not necessary to rub oil on one's skin every Wednesday and Saturday (for men) and Tuesday and Friday (for women).
I am glad this ritual has been put in cold storage. The Diwali oil bath was quite a torture. Imagine being woken up at 3 am to rub oil all over the body and head, then removing it all with coarse shikakai. In our eagerness to end the ordeal and get into the real act of eating sweets, wearing new clothes and lighting crackers, the shikakai went into the eyes, raising howls of protest.
There was only one bathroom in the house and since the family was rather large, there were constant shouts to get out of the bathroom so that the others could have their turn. This was not immediately possible in view of the burning sensation in the eyes and the unpleasant feeling on the skin because all the oil had not been properly removed.
Another problem with the traditional Diwali celebration was waking up at an unearthly hour. What was the need to be woken up at 3 am? Why couldn't Diwali be celebrated at a reasonable hour, say, from 9 am onwards. The 3 am start, deprived the genuine pleasure from several normally pleasant activities. I did love sweets, but confronted with plates of laddoo, Mysore Pak and other goodies around 4 am, did not set the digestive juices flowing. Yet we were forced to eat something or the other. Filter coffee did not have its usual taste at that ungodly hour.
Compared to all that, the modern concept of Diwali is better. Very early baths are out, because water in the building is supplied only from 6 am. All of us have forgotten the oil bath ritual. And afflicted with diabetes, sweets are out for me. Some neighbours and friends are good enough to supply us with sweets, but my wife sees to it that these are inaccessible to me.
As for crackers, I often lecture fellow residents of our building on the hazards of noise pollution and how noise over a certain decibel level, is harmful to the ears. They all nod, but then go off to burst crackers with a vengeance.
The greatest problem of growing up is that festival days like Diwali have become like any other day. The thrills and excitement of our younger days, have slowly disappeared. Oh, how we waited for Diwali and planned the details! The preparations went on for days together and every detail was worked out with great care. We forgot our minor worries, in fact the worries of the world. But today, on the morning of Diwali, I switch on the television, listen to the news only to be told of fresh cases of genocide in Yugoslavia, assassinations in the Middle East, serial killings in the US and starvation deaths in India. Where is the Diwali spirit?
It is then that you desperately wish for the return of one's youth. Sometimes, the youthful spirit was too exuberant -- tying crackers to a donkey's tail. The poor beast would run here and there, utterly terrified. Simple things in life brought so much happiness. The very first gun I received as a Diwali gift from my father remained with me for nearly 14 years. Today, such sentimental attachment are lacking.
The most wonderful aspect of Diwali is togetherness of the family. The earliest celebrations when all of us, brothers and sisters, were present, are still cherished by me. Today, how infrequently we are together? For over five years, we have been planning a family get together, but everytime a date is fixed, something or other went wrong and the event postponed. Our Diwali celebrations are now restricted to three members and there isn't much fun. The best way, therefore to celebrate Diwali, is to relax in a chair, close the eyes and let nostalgia take over.
Design: Lynette Menezes
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