The autumn sun warmed up my bare arms and legs. Looking up, I saw the turquoise sky and the ragged clouds. I walked to the other side of the terrace. The lakeside was adorned with milk-white, feather-like kaash flowers. The lake water was almost as blue as the sky, with tints of golden sunlight, gleaming like sequins on its surface. A faint sound of the drumming of dhaks came to my ears. I smiled. Today was special. It was Diwali.
Diwali has always been an important Indian festival essentially of Hindu origins. However, it is celebrated almost everywhere in the country by people of different faiths (Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, etc.). According to the Hindu calendar, the festival of Diwali is observed on a new moon day, usually in late October. Diwali is marked as a national holiday.
In spite of living in one of the cultural cities of India, I had never really been a part of it. That’s because, ever since I was born, my parents would take me to visit my grandma during the Diwali holidays. Grandma lived in the mountains. Diwali is a quiet event in the Himalayan mountains. But in Calcutta, Diwali is celebrated in grand style. So this year, we decided to stay back. I was delighted. I would finally get to spend Diwali with friends.
"Aesha! You have a phone call," I heard Dad call out.
"Coming, Dad," I replied and raced down the stairs to my room.
I picked up the cordless.
"Hello?" I said.
"Hey, it’s me Sheena. Are you ready, yet? I’m coming to get you in five minutes."
'“I’m ready, Sheena. Where are the others?" I asked, referring to my other friends.
"They are at the pandal."
"Oh! All right. Come quick. I can’t wait."
"Coming, mate. Bye." Sheena hung up.
A pandal is a temporary temple-like structure made up of bamboo and colorful cloth. It is decorated with flowers and lights.
Diwali is the festival of lights. Lighting candles, bursting crackers and fireworks are the most important rituals of the festival. Diwali in Calcutta is celebrated along with Kali Puja (worship of goddess Kali). Kali is the goddess of power. She symbolizes the divine feminine force that destroys all the evil sources of the universe.
I went out of our house. The blazing sun kissed my skin. Sheena came running to me.
"New?" I asked pointing to her blue skirt.
"Yes, it’s Diwali, after all. You have to wear something new." She smiled.
"Yeah. You’re right," I said.
"Now let’s hurry," she said, and grabbing my hand she ran towards the pandal.
The whole town had been decorated with colored electric bulbs and fairy lights. They were all over the houses, the trees and of course the pandal. The pandal was huge this year and at one end stood the idol of mighty Kali. My other friends sat in a circle at one corner of the pandal. They waved at us.
"Hey Sheena! Aesha! Your first Diwali here, right?" Raj called.
"Yeah. I am excited," I replied.
"Come over and sit. We’re playing spin the bottle," Ishaan said.
"I want to see the idol first," I said.
Sheena accompanied me to the raised platform at one end of the pandal where Goddess Kali was being dressed up by the priest and his assistants.
Kali sure was scary looking. She had four arms and each one of them held a different weapon. Her complexion was dark, as dark as the sky on a new moon night. Her hair was wild and black. Her eyes were crimson. Anger reflected in them. But the weird thing about Kali was that she had her tongue sticking out. This gesture made her sort of comical and less scary. She stood on top of man wearing tiger skin, lying on his back.
"Who's that?" I asked pointing to the man.
"That's Shiva, Mother Kali's husband," Sheena answered.
"Why is Kali stepping on her husband?" I wondered out loud.
"I don't know. It's strange isn't it?"
I nodded. I further noticed that Kali wore a garland of human heads around her neck.
"Why is she so… so… violent?" I asked.
"Who?" Sheena looked surprised.
"She's not violent. She's good. A bit strange, maybe, but good."
"Sheena, do you know the legend about Kali Puja?" I asked.
Sheena shook her head. "But maybe you should ask Naina. She's into all sorts of myths and stuff like that. She might just know about Kali Puja," she said.
We walked back to our friends. They were all laughing and talking. Everyone seemed to be in a festive mood. Naina smiled as she saw us approach.
"Naina, do you know the story of Kali Puja?" I asked.
"You mean the legend?" she raised her eyebrows.
"I do," she answered.
"Tell us," I urged.
"Would they want to listen to it?" she asked looking at our other friends who were laughing at some joke.
"Hey, people, Naina's got a story to tell. Anybody interested?" I said.
"What kind of story? Love story?" Reeti asked.
"The legend of Kali Puja," Sheena said.
"Sounds dumb," Dev said.
"Yeah, pretty lame," Ishaan agreed.
"I told you, they wouldn't be interested." Naina looked offended.
"It's okay. Tell us. We're interested," I said.
"I am interested too," Raj said looking at me.
I smiled at him, knowing that if Raj was in, all the others were too. Raj was popular and loved by all. Everyone quieted down at once. Naina began.
"This is the story of how Kali Puja and Diwali came into existence. A few million years ago, when the earth was newborn, there was a conflict between the Gods and the demons. It all started when the demons, Shambhu and Nishambhu disturbed Lord Indra's peace. I hope you know that Indra is the king of Gods. Anyways, the two demons went on to destroy heaven. There was a massive battle between the Gods and the demons. The Gods lost the battle and went to take shelter in the Kailash mountains where Lord Shiva resided with his wife Parvati. The Gods sought protection from Shiva and Parvati. It is said that Kali was born out of Parvati's forehead. She was given supreme power by Shiva and was told to save heaven and earth by killing the demons. With Dakini and Jogini, her two escorts, Kali set out to destroy the evil. There was chaos and confusion all around as Kali slayed the demons one after another. After slaughtering all the demons, Kali made a chain of their heads and tied it around her neck. In the whole process, Kali lost control over her senses. She was in what you could say a haze. She started killing everyone who came on her way. The Gods ran away in fear. The human beings were at a loss. The Gods begged to lord Shiva to do something. It was then that Shiva devised a plan to save the world. Amidst the endless bloodshed, he went and laid down flat on the path of Mother Kali. Mother Kali, thinking that it was just a random corpse, stepped on Lord Shiva's chest. Suddenly, she regained her senses. She stuck out her tongue in guilt and repentance as she realized that she had stepped on her consort."
"Wow, that's so cool," I said.
"Yeah, it actually is cool," Dev agreed.
"Hey where does Diwali come in here? You told us the legend of Kali Puja. Tell us about Diwali now," Reeti said.
"Diwali has many legends. In different parts of India, there are many beliefs regarding Diwali. In southern India, it is believed that Prince Rama, after conquering Lanka and rescuing his kidnapped wife Sita burst firecrackers in order to celebrate his victory. That's how the ritual of bursting crackers on Diwali evening came into existence. In eastern India, however, Diwali is associated with the Kali Puja legend. After Mother Kali returned to heaven with Shiva, the human beings decorated the whole world with lights, candles and fireworks. They did this to drive away the darkness from their lives. They wished to chase away all the evil spirits from their world. It was a new beginning, a new day for them."
"Amazing!" Raj exclaimed.
"Yup. So are we bursting crackers this evening?" Naina asked.
"Yeah, of course we are," Ishaan replied.
"Where?" I asked.
"On the streets. Hey, do you know that there'll be a fireworks display show in the evening?" Gaurav said.
"A firework display show? Whatever is that?" Sheena asked.
"God knows. My mum said that some professional group would do it. She says that whatever it is, it'll be good," Gaurav said.
"I love Diwali!" Reeti exclaimed.
"So do I," I said.
Raj laughed. "It's only the beginning for you, Aesha. Wait and watch. Diwali is a day that stays with you for the rest of the year. We'll have a blast tonight."
Picture of the author.
When evening came, I was amazed. The town looked marvelous from our balcony. The electric bulbs and the fairy lights had been switched on. The neighborhood was gleaming and glowing with lights. Burning candles and diyas decorated individual balconies of each house.
"Mum, aren't we going to light up candles in our verandah?" I asked.
"Of course we are, sweetie. Daddy bought five packets of candles yesterday."
We all took turns in lighting up the candles on the railings of our balcony. When we were finished, it looked fabulous.
"Lovely. It'll surely drive away evil spirits," I said and laughed.
"You've been listening to stories, I see," Dad said.
Later that evening I went to the pandal with Sheena and Naina. The others were already there.
"Hey girls, the fireworks display show is about to begin," Gaurav yelled at us.
Outside the pandal, a group of men were doing something. A crowd of people had gathered around them. I realized that those men were the 'professionals' Gaurav was talking about.
"Ready or not, here it goes…" said one of the men.
With a stick on fire, he touched a clay ball. Instantly the ball swooshed up in the sky. The crowd gasped. The next instant we saw a giant, sparkling balloon in the sky. We all clapped in glee. The balloon burst and there was a shower of lights. I was awestruck. Next, the man went before a tall vertical pole with horizontal branches. He lit up one of those branches with another burning stick. The whole thing caught fire. The flames started changing colors. From yellow, they became green; from green they became red.
"It's magic, Aesha. It's all magic," Raj whispered in my ears.
The fireworks professionals were really good at performing stunts.
I never knew that fire could be beautiful. I saw it that day. I was awestruck.
After the fireworks display we went to burst our own crackers. I was familiar with this ritual, for even at Grandma's place we used to do it, every Diwali. Bursting firecrackers is always fun. From tarabatti to tubri we burst everything we had. Then we had a bonfire. We gathered all the packets which once contained the firecrackers and set them on fire. That was our way of making a bonfire.
"Let's go home now. We have to change for dinner," Reeti said.
"Yes. We have to wear traditional clothes," Ishaan said.
"Oh! How I wish I could come back in my good, old jeans," Sheena complained.
"It's just for one evening, Sheena," Reeti said.
"Right," Sheena nodded.
We went back to our respective houses.
"Mum, time to get traditional," I said.
"Right. What do you want to wear? Saree? Salwar Kameez? Or do you want to dress up in a lehnga choli?" Mum asked.
"Saree. That's more like our tradition," I said.
"All of these three are Indian dresses. But saree it will be, as you wish."
Mum helped me get dressed in a beautiful silk saree. I looked like a lady when I was finished. I went down to the pandal for dinner. My friends were all in their traditional dresses. Reeti looked beautiful in a purple saree. Naina was wearing a blue lehnga and Sheena wore an orange salwar kameez. The boys were all dressed up in kurta and pajamas.
"We all look… um… different," Reeti remarked.
"We look like Indians on an Indian festive night. What's so different about it?" Dev said.
"Nothing," she replied.
We all lined up to get our dinner. Dinner was a buffet of puri, chole ka daal, pulao, vegetable cutlet, chilly paneer, chutney, papad, mithai and ice cream. The actual worship of Goddess Kali would begin at midnight. Preparations were being made for it. Kali was wearing a bright red saree which contrasted her dark skin. A garland of blood red china-rose hung from her neck. Before her, lay thousands of plates filled with fruits, sweets, and other food. Fire was being lit for the yajna. The priest was reciting mantras. The dhakis were drumming their dhaks. Crowds of excited people talked, laughed, gossiped. They were all in their traditional clothes. The sky was dark, as dark as a new moon night, as dark as Kali's skin.
"Where's the moon tonight?" I asked Raj.
"There's no moon on Diwali nights. Diwali is always celebrated on a new moon," he answered.
"That's the way we should shine, sparkle and glitter through the dark moments of life," he said.
"So that we can drive away all the darkness, all the evil by our own lights, by our own goodness. We don't always need the moon's help to fight the darkness. It's in us – the power to fight against the bad. We have Mother Kali in us."
"Yes?" I asked, unsure of what Raj had said.
"Yes," he confirmed.
"Look at that," he said pointing to the sky.
I looked up and saw a shower of dazzling lights in the sky.
"That's the way we should shine, sparkle and glitter through the dark moments of life," he said.
I nodded. Somewhere deep inside I felt a flicker of light, a ray of new hope. I smiled and another firecracker shot up in the sky spreading light all over.
Prerna Chatterjee is from Calcutta, India. When she wrote this piece, she was a 10th grader at South Point High School. Other than writing, she enjoys reading, listening to music, daydreaming, playing badminton, cycling, traveling, watching movies and spending time with family and friends.
All photos courtesy Prerna Chatterjee.