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Diwali at Dawn
... celebrating the Tamil way
The Festival of the Lights, for us in the South, began at around 2 am, in total darkness. Father, mother and the cook, Subramanian, were up at this unearthly hour to begin the preparations for Diwali, which we called, 'Deepavali'. Mother cleaned the house one last time before the festivities began while father and Subramanian were busy at the veneer (hot water room), lighting the fire and heating huge vessels of water for the traditional oil bath.
For us, the children, this was the only unpleasant aspect of the festivities. Woken up at around 3 am, we were still rubbing away the sleep from our eyes as we were marched into the bathroom and told to rub warm oil all over our bodies and then have it removed with generous applications of shikakai and warm water. Some of the shikakai always got into our eyes and they burned. Red eyes were a common feature on Diwali mornings.
Even in those days, I had read the Ramayan, Mahabharat and Bhagawatam in detail and knew that Diwali celebrations had to do a lot with Lord Krishna slaying the demon Narakasura. But these books had no references at all to the ritual of an oil bath at unearthly hours. My protests, however, fell on deaf ears.
Once the bath was over, new clothes awaited us. Shorts and a shirt for me, pavadai or a skirt and blouse for my sisters, a sari for mother and a veshti or dhoti for the cook and the other domestics. I do not remember father getting anything for himself. In fact, he acted as a supervisor on the occasion and was always the last to go for the bath. Maybe he even skipped the oil bath! I think it was the privilege he enjoyed as the head of the family!
Father had an obsession with white and invariably purchased white cloth -- the best, imported variety, of course -- for our clothes. I longed for shirts which were not white and I knew that my sisters would also have preferred something more colourful. But the white regimen continued even on Diwali day. The edges of the new clothes were smeared with turmeric paste. Father and mother stood together to hand over the clothes. We accepted them, then prostrated ourselves before them for their blessings.
In the meantime, the cook had spread out the special eatables prepared on the occasion. Really speaking, one could not do justice to the variety of sweets -- Mysore pak, laddus, heratti pal, which was a kind of milk halwa mixture and more -- at 4.30 am when the gastric juices had not begun to flow freely. But then, mother, grandmother and Subramanian, had laboured for nearly two days, preparing the sweets. So we nibbled on them and I always put some of the laddus and pieces of Mysore pak into the pockets of my shorts.
The best part of Diwali was yet to come.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier
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