Thursday, June 13, 2024

This Diwali I Long to Go Home

But where is home?

Growing up in India, October and early November was my most favorite time in the year. Not just because it was my birthday (well that was a reason too), but it was the festive season. All year long, I would desperately and eagerly wait for this magical time to come, year after year.

I was that child who noticed the change of seasons very minutely. October brought an end to almost four months-long monsoon season. The rain would finally stop, the sky would clear up. You could see clouds floating on the backdrop of a clear blue sky. I likened them to think of soft cotton balls.

This was the time when all the festivals would happen. Some of you might know about India and the great diversity in Indian cultures, languages, religion, food, and festivals. As a Bengali, we would start our festivities with Durga Puja and end with Diwali – a month-long celebration.

We follow a lunar calendar and would start with our celebrations on the first day of the new moon in the autumn as the beginning of Durga Puja or Navratri (in other regions of India). It’s the celebration of good over evil. The new moon would gradually change to a full moon and the full moon would then change to the next new moon – this is when we celebrate Diwali – the symbolic victory of light over drakness.

Preparing for the oncoming celebrations was the best. I could feel the season of festivity with all five senses. While coming back from school, I would look up to the sky and marvel. Such a simple thing could take my breath away. This was also the time of Kans grass, we so lovingly call in Bengali – “Kaash phool”. Nature was in its abundance.

I would hear the drums playing already. The drummers used to come away from far-flung villages and playing drums during the festival time was their only (in most cases) source of income.

The earth would smell differently, you see right after a rain when the Sun is up, you smell the fresh smell of earth. At home, my mother and my aunts would start preparing sweets for the festive season. We would exchange these sweets as gifts with friends, family, and neighbors for the next month until Diwali.

I could smell the fragrance of milk boiling for hours on low heat, coconuts being dissipated, making butter and ghee, and using them to make all those sweets.

I would lend a hand in shaping the sweets too, even though I would break some of them. The touch of the raw coconut, the palm (yes, we made sweets out of them as well) the oil in your hand while you are shaping the sweets felt weirdly comforting and familiar. Perhaps because I was aware of the tradition for so long and felt good to be a part of it. It was hard work but it was only this time of the year.

I didn’t quite have a sweet tooth though. I would wait for the savory rather, we call it Nimki – simple, crispy, crunchy snacks made with wheat/flour and cumin seeds, that would stay good for over a month if you kept them in sealed glass jars. I would impatiently wait for those crunchies to be deep-fried and ready to be eaten so that I could taste a handful.

The schools would close down for a month and we as children would get to enjoy a month-long fun and frolic without many rules. That was great!

The streets would fill with decorations and lights. The drums would be heard. This was the time all the sales will come up in the stores because people are busy buying gifts for each other. You could feel a sense of busyness but in a good way. There would be hawkers on some streets trying to sell their goodies before the festive month ends.

The artists and craftsmen who create the idols in Kumortuli – the place where all the idols are still being made and exported worldwide – are busy applying the finishing touches.

Every year, pandals – a temporary abode for the idols – would be painstakingly built out of cloth and tent. Food stalls will be created on the sides of the streets or on big grounds. Traffic comes to a halt.

Growing up, we didn’t have much. We had really less when it comes to material possessions.

We didn’t have a telephone. I am not talking about smartphones or cell phones. We didn’t even have a house phone. There was a seven-year (yes you read that correct) long wait for a phone application for us to get the phone connection. Hah!

We didn’t have a television. How did we spend time back then?

And this was the only occasion in a year (along with a couple more) that we could afford new clothes. How did we survive the whole year without buying new clothes randomly? Didn’t we outgrow our clothes in every season? Perhaps because we had so little, we appreciated these small things. A new dress for the festival was a prestigious possession.

As a child, I was a bookworm (I still am). But there was no way for me to get access to books, we didn’t even have a good library nearby. This was the only exception. Special edition books and magazines would be published this time of the year and I would wait year long to touch, hold or smell these books finally.

As an introvert, I didn’t quite enjoy pandal hopping that most people loved to do, including my entire family. I would rather go on a journey in my imaginary world with my favorite detective Feluda and his buddies solving a new mystery, written by my very favorite author Satyajit Ray.

Or perhaps I would be in Plaza Mayor in Madrid, or being mesmerized at the view of Mount Teide from Puerto de la Cruz in Tenerife, or perhaps sitting on someone’s balcony in Boston, soaking in the sunshine and watching the world go by – all in my wonderland.

Today I am everywhere, but I am not at home. I have been living a life of an expat in many countries for the last 15 years or so. But I have not been home for the festivals since 2006. Honestly, I don’t know anymore where is my home. The world has become more global. All those familiar faces are gone, they have settled somewhere else.

The house where I grew up, where every Diwali, I would wake up with the sound of the firecrackers (they would start early in the morning), where we lit the candles everywhere, even on the terrace, so that there is no dark corner, is today empty and dark.

I have a house now in the Netherlands, which I really love, and I am grateful for all the sunshine that I receive, my amazing neighbors who give me timely advice on how to protect the wood of the fence, the olive tree that I bought a couple of years ago from the local farmers market and is now fruiting, the uneven tiles in my backyard that I keep thinking of getting leveled.

I tried to bring back the tradition (only a part of it), by starting with fall cleaning, preparing my house for the festive season, and decorating with lights and candles at every corner and windowsill. My backyard becomes a fairy tale, just like a Christmas decoration. My Dutch neighbors know by now that Diwali is soon approaching. I take time to select, prepare and wrap some small gifts for them. I don’t forget to include a candle, because Diwali is the festival of lights after all and I want every home to be lit up.

But why doesn’t it still feel like home? Why do I keep reminiscing about all those little things that I didn’t give much value to then? Living abroad as an expat can seem like living in a bubble. I feel sad that my daughter is not growing up cherishing all these rituals and traditions along with close family.

Yesterday I made kheer. She came home from school to the smell of boiling milk on a low heat for a long time, and breathed deeply, with satisfaction and a big grin on her face, just like I used to as a child. That made me smile. That made me happy.

I wanted to travel the world and I have. But now I long to go home, which perhaps doesn’t exist, or exists only in my memory. I don’t know where my home is, but I am trying to create one, right here with the people whom I love the most.

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