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Happy Diwali!

Yesterday (Saturday) was Diwali or Deepavali, one of the Hindu festivals. It's a day for honoring the elephant-headed god Ganesha and Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, to bring good fortune in the coming year. But the most noticeable secular features are lights (the name of the holiday comes from "deepa" or "diya" meaning a little oil lamp), sweets, gifts, and fireworks. For the past several weeks the stores have been advertising all their Diwali goods (and there was a wonderful handicrafts festival at the nearby cultural center), and within the past week everybody's been putting up strings of lights outside their shops and houses. Schoolkids have been setting off firecrackers in the streets---and, according to the newspapers, in school bathrooms---with increasing frequency. And over the past few evenings, fireworks have popped up at random all over the city, sometimes with enough of a bang absolutely to shake the house!

Last night was our big celebration; Diwali is traditionally a sort of family/hearth-and-home holiday, and the Sharmas' daughter Dhara came home on a visit from Delhi, so there was much rejoicing. We all dressed in our fanciest clothes---Mrs. Sharma told us that her magnificent pink-and-gold sari was from her wedding about thirty years ago; I do think it's so sensible of the Indians to make expensive and elaborate wedding outfits continue to do duty as "best dresses" afterwards, and of course with a sari you never have to worry about whether or not it still fits! I put on my Rajasthani "bandhra" (tie-dye) sari all by myself this time, and didn't do too badly, although it's not really fair to expect a videshi to wrap a sari properly without a full-length mirror; I think I'll have to get one.

All the lights were turned on, indoors and out, and little dipas and candles set to burn in each doorway or room (you've really got to watch your step on Diwali, especially when wearing a sari or lenga with lots of material around your feet!). Then we had the puja or worship ceremony at the little shrine on the balcony; we all got "tilaks", auspicious marks on the forehead with red powder and rice grains stuck in it. After the puja we had dinner, in rather a leisurely way, since neighbors and relatives drop in on Diwali evening for sweets and chai and chat, so there's no regular meal schedule. But at some point Mrs. Sharma gave up on trying to stuff us with just one more Diwali sweet, and it was time to go up on the roof and set off our fireworks.

It's been a very long time since I've done any home fireworks, except maybe for a box of sparklers here and there; stricter regulations in most US states mean that it's not so common just to buy a few boxes of rockets and crackers and set them off in your own back yard. Nowadays, I guess, most people just go watch the local big fancy fireworks display downtown, or even just watch it on TV. The Indian authorities are also trying to discourage lavish use of home fireworks, on the grounds that they're a nuisance and a fire hazard and bad for the air quality. All of which is true, but it doesn't seem to have made much of a dent in Diwali fireworks use; it certainly didn't seem to make much of a dent in ours. We had boxes and boxes of sparklers, Roman candles (like sparklers but more dramatic, with fountains of colored sparks pouring out one end), bottle rockets (you set the stick upright in a bottle and light the fuse, and it blasts off to explode high in midair. You know the saying "up like a rocket, down like the stick"? that's the rocket they mean), flowerpots or fire-fountains (more fountains of colored sparks, with or without bang), aerial rockets (fizz, whoosh, pop), Mines of Snakes (kind of a dud, they just pop apart into burning coils or "snakes" of fuse and leave a terrible ashy mess), whirligigs (flat coils of fuse that spin around shooting out circles of sparks) and basic bombs (flash, BANG!).

It was rather windy up on the roof, so we couldn't get candles to stay lit to light the firecrackers with. With a few workarounds (using incense sticks which don't blow out as easily, lighting sparklers or paper tapers from candles set up on a sheltered indoor landing, making a candle-lantern from a plastic box) we managed to get through quite a few of them in the first hour, though. I was kind of nervous about all the sparks around the saris, but either due to the blessing of the firecracker boxes during the puja or just from good luck, we didn't set anyone or anything on fire. Then we started running low on sparklers, our most reliable fuse-lighters, and feeling rather obligated to use up the rest of the fireworks without taking all night about it (setting off fireworks after 10 PM on Diwali is technically illegal, but it sure didn't seem to worry anybody else in the neighborhood).

So we began to get creative with our fuse-work and to try for more elaborate effects (this is doubtless how arms races start). We wondered if it was possible to light a fire-fountain just below the fuse of a bottle-rocket so the fountain would set the rocket off, and it was. It was also possible to attach the fuse of an aerial rocket to the fuse of a fire-fountain just below the fuse of a bottle-rocket so they would all go off in sequence; to put three or four whirligigs together in a circle with the ends of their fuses touching in the center and light them all at once with a Roman candle; and to pack six fire-fountains into a cardboard box with a sheet of newspaper wrapped over the top of them so that when the newspaper was ignited it would set off all the fire-fountains one after another (my idea, if I say so myself). For a grand finale we threw all the leftover bombs, whirligigs, and crackers into a burning box, and even with my hands over my ears I could tell it was quite an effect. When all our fireworks were gone we spent some time watching the far-more-elaborate ones being set off down in the street (especially mammoth fire-fountains that screech and whistle as they send sparks fifteen feet in the air) and elsewhere in the city ("regular" fireworks-show fireworks). Then I took my smoke-blackened self downstairs to wash and go to bed, but that was by no means the end of Diwali fireworks; bangs and whooshes and crackles kept on going for hours, and even today from time to time you can hear tardy revellers setting off the leftovers.

—— Kim Plofker
2003-10-26 05:54:02

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
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