Deepavali can help heal our nation
DEEPAVALI for me has become a damp squib. Or should I say a soggy shurban? Rajend Mesthrie, the University of Cape Town language guru, reminds us that a shurban is a little firecracker with a damaged wick, bent and reused to produce a hissing sound and a fiery sparkle.
The first half of the word is onomatopoeic – that means the word includes the sound, in this case “shur”, made by what it is referring to. The “ban” part refers to an arrow in Hindi.
Deepavali no longer excites me as it did many decades ago when it was the highlight of my religio-cultural calendar.
Firecrackers appear to have lost their bang. I do not shop for new clothes, never mind that size XXL is fast becoming extinct. My sweet tooth has fallen out and I now prefer savouries. The Deepavali lamps flicker feebly in the wind. In an attempt to rekindle the spirit of the Hindu Festival of Lights, lest I be accused of being the Old Boy Who Stole Deepavali, I dipped deep into the hippocampus section of my brain and found so many memories that evoked joyous nostalgia.
I can recall that Deepavali commenced at least a week before the allocated dates – there was no official date decision-making by the SA Hindu Maha Sabha then to get it all wrong. The sporadic bursting of fireworks signalled the advent of the big celebration. My mother would compile an extra-long grocery list for all her baking requirements. She would also add sweet oil, castor oil, coconut oil and olive oil for the ritualistic oil bath.
My father would purchase a pack of Deepavali greeting cards sold by the Aryan Benevolent Home to raise funds. These would be mailed to out-of-town relatives and friends and actually reached their destinations within two or three days. The Post Office worked then.
New clothes would be purchased to be worn on Deepavali morning after the oil bath which my father directed, until I thought I was too big to be naked in front of him. The pair of shorts and crew neck shirt looked great on Deepavali day, with little hint that they would have lost most of their colour before Christmas.
For days before Deepavali, the family kitchen would resemble a sweetmeats and confectionery factory. The dining room table and every other suitable surface would be piled high with colourful biscuit tins full of freshly baked goodies. This was the pre-Tupperware era.
After thoroughly cleaning the house, my mother would get down to making soji balls, polis bursting with sugared desiccated coconut, banana puris – which were a far cry from the designer variety of today which sport silver dust – syrup-drenched gulab jamuns and the ubiquitous vades and chilli bites. No one stressed over extra calories back then.
My father, a headmaster, would purchase a wooden box of fireworks at school – the co-operative system worked well with the-then lowly paid teachers pooling their resources to buy in bulk and get a bigger discount. Back in our school days, Deepavali meant at least two days at home. I pity today’s pupils because only one day is given off – alternating each year between the North and South Indian dates. Since Tamils celebrate Deepavali a day earlier, my brother and I would get started with the fireworks right from the morning, even when our eyes were still burning from the oil bath.
An old rag dipped in paraffin would be wound around the end of a stick and set alight. When the flames died off, the cloth embers would be used to light the firecrackers. During the day, the fireworks were rationed, with the bulk being kept for the evening festivities. Hence, each fire cracker counted. Those that did not burst were quickly metamorphosed into shurbans. Around midday, we would have Deepavali pooja when all the prepared delicacies would be offered to the Gods. Thereafter, we would distribute parcels of sweetmeats to our neighbours, beginning with the non-Hindus first. What a balancing act that was with those oil-soaked, flimsy paper plates.
In the afternoon, my parents would visit relatives with sweetmeats and fireworks and the older women would also be gifted with saris and some cash. What benevolence! At around 8pm, our family would gather in the backyard for the fireworks display. More than enjoying our own fireworks, it was a quite a spectacle to see the night sky light up with all colours of fireballs exploding into cascading sprays. It occurs to me now that all the cats and dogs in our neighbourhood must have embraced Deepavali in the true spirit of Hinduism. In days gone by, there were no complaints from the SPCA about animal cruelty caused by the bursting of firecrackers. In fact, dogs joined in the merriment and seemed to imbibe the spirit of joy that prevailed.
Over time, the essence of the festival has changed for me. Bursting crackers is no longer the priority.
The laatlammetjie who has not flown the coop still likes fireworks but she dares not burst a single firecracker at our house in a previously whites-only suburb. Before you can say “boom”, the neighbours would be screaming blue murder. It’s as if we do not adore our pets. Hence, on Deepavali night my daughter carries her fireworks to my parental house in a suburb which was the first township declared for Indian occupation in South Africa.
This Deepavali, let’s make a social pact because our beloved country is facing a dark period. Hunger, poverty, illiteracy, joblessness and ill health continue to afflict millions of men, women and children. Politically, we are in a wilderness.
Let’s wholeheartedly recognise the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with all races. I wish you a joy-filled Happy Deepavali.
A VENDOR arranges colourful lanterns put up on display for sale on the roadside ahead of the Deepavali festival in Mira Road, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India.