Looking back at my childhood years, the festival times seem to shine out like brilliant twinkling stars in the distant past. Buying new clothes during Durga Puja, the colourful pinwheels whirling like crazy as we ran down the streets, the brilliantly decorated pandals, and the coming together of family, even as the last days of navratri drew near and we chanted ‘aasche bochor aabar hobe’ during visarjan, the heart gladly skipped ahead to the Diwali celebrations close at hand, again the new clothes, the lighting of lamps, visiting friends homes and Diwali sweets, but again as the last ‘anaar ‘ was lit and the fountain of light sparkled down, we looked forward to the coming of Christmas, the annual visit by Santa claus, the decorating of the Christmas tree. Life was interspersed by bursts of joyous celebration, and we skipped along from republic day parades, to Lohri, to sankranti, and pongal, and Holi and Easter and Eid, not really caring for religion or region for a reason to celebrate.
We helped our father string up the Diwali lights a few days prior to Diwali, and since it was all such a tedious job of taking them down, we let the lights stay till beyond new years. Our Diwali Kandeel in it’s brilliant hues of orange and pink shown prettily until it was time to change the kandeel to a red and green star with santa and reindeer motifs for Christmas. It was that simple; as the 40 watt bulb continued to blaze, we moved seamlessly from Diwali to Christmas.
I remember vividly the gifts Santa brought us each year. One year he brought me a blue shirt which looked sneakily like my school uniform colour and I refused to wear it because school colours were not to be worn during holidays, then another time my brother and I got encyclopedia books, when we had clearly stated in our letter to Santa that we wanted video games. That year we sent back the gifts with a ‘thankyou but no thankyou ‘letter, but unfortunately there was a no refund policy on these santa gifts apparently. As we grew up, we had a sneaky feeling that maybe Santa was not real. That was also the year we discovered tooth fairy was actually our parents. We caught them in the act, but then the most unimaginably disastrous thing happened, we stopped receiving any gifts from the tooth fairy! We started getting a measly 10 ruppees for our precious dental tokens. Even with our rudimentary mathematics, we realised that the ten rupees did not compare to the tooth fairy gifts.
So , we decided to keep the secret of Santa a secret. The only difference was that now, our parents received santa gifts as well; tackily packed gifts of cheap handkerchief perfume, plastic vases, and costume jewellery which my brother and I would buy the night before with our pocket money. Yes, the gifts were not precious heirlooms, neither were they worthy keepsakes, one or two times our parents tried to dissuade us from our need to join in the ‘joy of giving’ , but looking back now they were indeed precious. Not just for my parents, but for us too, as I rememeber the times we walked into gift shops without parental supervision. The keeping of the gifts under the tree, while we tiptoed our way through the silent night.
This year, I begin the tradition once more with my new family. I was brought up a certain way, I plan to bring up my own, that way too. But even as we swapped our Diwali lantern for the beautiful white butter paper Christmas star, I could see the eyebrows raise of our neighbours. The neighbours who had greeted us joyously as we went around in our Diwali finery giving homemade Diwali coconut sweets, now looked at us quizzically as we offered our homemade Christmas cake. “ But aren’t you… hindus?” They falter, uncertain of how to ask a delicate question with tact. But there is no getting round it, someone had to bell the cat of curiosity.
“yes” I smile and offer cake again.
“ No thankyou, we don’t have egg on Mondays.”
Can we look beyond the Kandeel and the star lantern and look for the spirit that shines through? Can we look beyond the bright colours and search for the 40 watt bulb of our common humanity? When we realise that the real joy lies in the light that shines bright, we will realise that we are the ‘ghee ke diye’ lit in ayodhya, we are the ‘eid ka chand’ and we are the star of Bethlehem. The light does not discriminate, the light just shows the path.
Customs can be restrictive, but traditions, now traditions are different from customs. Traditions are what you pass on to your children, they are what hold families together. They are the bright sparkly lights of your memories that you look back on, when times are dark. And just a cursory glance at your morning daily will tell you that times indeed are dark, they may get darker still. It’s time then to bring out the lights. The ones which light up our souls. Don’t get caught up in the customs, concentrate on the 40 watt bulb.
Let power hungry politicians, and pro reservation pundits, and self motivated purist priests preach about what they believe is the right way to ‘practice’, ours is not to do and die, ours is but to question why.
Can we offer our children the brilliance of Diwali, the magic of Christmas and the comraderie of Eid?