What Diwali means to us


Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is upon us, and I’m decluttering with ferocious intensity. I love clearing out stuff. I just love it. It is extremely therapeutic for me to shred old papers and empty out cupboards and drawers. So I naturally had to marry a man who is the world’s biggest hoarder. He has cartons and cartons of papers. And notebooks. And random knick-knacks. The child seems to have taken after him so far, and has a tussle with the poor Ajji who sweeps every single day; she picks out old rubber-bands and broken crayons from the piles of swept garbage and runs after the poor woman screaming “He nahi nyayche” (Don’t take that) and Ajji literally has to beg her everyday and say “No, I’m not taking anything home”.

I need our spare room for work now and I refuse to work in a musty environment surrounded by old cartons, so Diwali is just an excuse for me to issue the following threat to the husband: “You have five days to look through this rubbish and salvage what’s important, after which rip, rip, RIP papers (haha this pun was totally unintended!)

When I was a teenager, festivals (and even birthdays) seemed like immense pressure. Pressure to do things in a certain way, to enjoy myself. And somehow Diwali has always been a bad time for me, either emotionally or mentally or physically. I still remember this one Diwali with my chaddi buddy Saee, where we spent the whole Diwali week crying and collapsing in each other’s arms over a breakup and a toxic relationship. We walked around the empty streets and everybody was having fun and lighting up those Anaars (the flower pot or fountain firework) and we thought it just could not get worse. We even coined a term for that particular Diwali: “Viraan Samaa” or Tragic Time (taken from that song ‘Kitni Baatein’ from the movie Lakshya). Just recalling all that drama over romantic relationships makes me cringe and wish I had put those years to better use!

Then one Diwali a few years later, my PCOD began where I experienced bleeding for a month and blew up like a balloon. So all in all, I associate feeling low or melancholy with Diwali. When we got married, I really wanted to change that, but sigh, some curses cannot be broken easily and Abhi and I also had some really miserable Diwalis. (Yes, we specialize in fighting on festivals, birthdays, anniversaries and all those big days!)

This year, with Rumi, I was determined to change all of that and really celebrate Diwali. She is two-and-a-half  now and is really beginning to understand and participate in everything around her so we wanted to start building some traditions with her. The problem was to decide what our Diwali tradition as a family was going to be. To me, festivals mean major decluttering, cleaning up, washing and scrubbing and dusting. Every single thing has to be done in a certain way; and more importantly, at the right time, as prescribed by society or the Holy Scriptures. Waking up at 5 and having a bath, Rangoli at the doorstep, Diyas; everything done the way I remember my Ajji doing when I was a kid. For Abhi though, festivals at home are quite a chilled scene. Everything gets done, just a little later than usual. There is no hurry and no mad rush to accomplish anything. Festivals at the Purandares are very relaxed, such that in the initial days of our marriage, I missed the hustle in the air that I associated with festivals. Gradually I grew more relaxed myself, and started enjoying the cool pace.

I think back with great fondness to Eid at Mummy’s with that gorgeous aroma of slow-cooked meat wafting from the kitchen. By the time, the Biryani and Sheer Khurma would be ready, we would all be faint with hunger as breakfast would naturally have to be skipped because there was so much chaos in the kitchen. Mum, after all that hard work, would hardly be able to eat a morsel because she was so fatigued. I understand how much work it is for women and it is unfair that the load falls on them but it breaks my heart a little to order food on Eid and not have Mum’s Biryani.

So I think, what I want most for Rumi, is to establish patterns that are easily manageable, repeatable and continuable. I would just love to make Faraal at home for her but that is being too ambitious especially if I want to also clean the house the way I do. In the Cleaning  Vs. DIY food-items battle, Cleaning wins hands-down so we settle for store-bought stuff. What I really wish for her is to learn to create and enjoy the process of creativity early on. (I learnt all about creativity much too late in life and it really is the antidote to everything! Even now I was irritated by some triviality and I can feel that irritation leave me as I type away).

And what better time than Diwali to DIY and let the creative juices flow? I get together with a dear friend, Aabha, who is such a creative firecracker, and we organize a Diya painting / fairy-lights making / lantern making session together. Killa or fort-making would have been included too but for time constraints. The little girls really have a good time! They dip their fingers into the paint with glee and smear it all over. Aabha and I get involved too and we are almost grabbing the Diyas from the girls in a bid to do it ourselves! This is definitely something I would love to continue for Rumi; making what we need ourselves, from materials that are available at home.

The first day of Diwali dawns; the house is presentable if not exactly how I would have liked it. Abhi has to work so Rumi and I wake up and have a bath and get ready. Then we decide to do a Pooja, but there is no Devghar (household shrine) here, so we make do, with our favorite Ganpati (Lord Ganesha) idol and favorite books and Baba’s laptop. Except that Rumi wants to do things exactly like we do at the in-laws but I do not have the necessary goods or Pooja sahitya here. This leads to a temper tantrum and it is not even mid-morning. “Jay Bappa (God) is going to come over”, I tell her solemnly. “We want to welcome Him with smiles and cheer and pray to him to shower gold coins on us.” (On Dhanteras we pray for wealth hence the shower of gold coins; I totally get symbolism, now that we have a child!). Her eyes open wide and she looks to the skies for a golden rain. “Not immediately. He’s watching how you behave”. The tears immediately stop.

Then I ask her to pose for a picture with the Aakash Kandil (paper lantern). Instagram quality images come to my mind – little girl with bright lantern, beaming. (I can make it my display pic on WhatsApp and upload it on Facebook, goodness, I can even use it on my blog, yay!) But she refuses, and this leads to temper tantrum number two, but by Mommy. “You normally love photos” I mope. “Why can’t you stand still?” and so on and so forth. Here I am, tormenting my child for the pressure to have a lovely smiling picture on social media. Not just that, I want to record memories too. But what sort of memory am I trying to record? Me shrieking like a banshee because my child won’t pose? I put away the phone but things aren’t improving. By noon, Rumi has changed her clothes five times and lost her temper 24 times before I finally start to see where I am going wrong.

I am making Rumi do exactly what I used to hate about festivals. I am under pressure to click pictures and do things that I don’t normally do and she is not enjoying it. I don’t want her to run about in her chaddi and discard that lovely new frock. We tried to cut corners and didn’t shop for Diwali but I insisted on a new dress for Rumi for all five days. Now one of those inexpensive-looking-but-actually-expensive cotton frocks is lying in a crumpled pile on the floor. I almost can’t bear it, but I hold myself back because I realize that she wants it to be like any other day. She is happy sitting naked on the floor and she wants me to get out of my fancy clothes and join her. What I realize here is that I just need to keep it real. Real and achievable and attainable and not how it ‘should’ be celebrated. As much as I want it to be rosy and picture perfect, our family is never going to look like those Diwali ads with fairy lights and children dressed in beautiful Indian wear. I may try my best to hang those fairy lights but my little girl yanks them off. She pulls off her festive clothes and throws those hairbands on the floor and looks like a complete ragamuffin. So let me try to be grateful for this strong-willed, messy, stubborn little powerhouse instead of trying to make her fit into the beatific pictures of my dreams.

So that’s the second Diwali tradition I want for our house: to keep it real. And this is what real will look like: me cleaning frantically in one corner of the house, even as my husband pulls out a sheaf of papers in the other room. Rumi, sprawled on the floor trying to string the fairy lights around her neck like a necklace. She has already pulled out two lights from the cord. Her very old, stained, T-shirt is covered with crumbs from the Laddoo the next door Ajji just gave her. When we put on the lights in the evening, we will all smile and go into the balcony to look at them and we might just get a perfect picture of the three of us. But then again, we may forget to pull out our phones and just enjoy being with each other.

A creative Diwali, but a very real Diwali, with lowered expectations of what things should look like, but filled with grace and abundance and love. My wish this year for us, for all of us.

Parenting in the time of intolerance

My husband Abhiraj is a Hindu Brahmin and I am a Muslim. This has never been an issue for us, has hardly ever occurred to us, has never, ever played out as a cause for differences in any of our fights. It is in fact something we have great fun with. Abhi has this whole piece that he enacts. He climbs on the bed and prances about with his curls askew, brandishing a makeshift sword (Rumi’s bubble wand!) He waggles his fingers menacingly in my face as he shouts the most absurd stuff such as:  “Tumhi Mughal biryani khaun zhopla hota, aamche Shivaji Raze ani tyanche maule zhunka bhakar khaun ale blah blah blah ani tumchi bota kapli” . (You guys were comatose after a heavy meal of biryani, our army swooped in and brought home the crown jewels). While I’m rolling on the floor with tears of mirth, I have to proceed to remind him of the following: I am not related to the Mughals, he is not related to the great Maratha kingdom, and that he gorges on Biryani a 100 times more than he ever eats Zhunka Bhakar.

But it is still something that surprises a lot of people when they meet me (Oh, Muslim! “Vatala nhavta tujhya kade baghun”: you don’t look like a Muslim). Yeah aunty, cause all Muslim girls wear a Burqa and are accompanied by henna-dyed bearded Abbu or Ammi! This tells me so much about our preconceived notions, our prejudices, the conscious or sub-conscious stereotypes in our mind. We all carry them. We are all guilty of hearing a last name or an area and immediately conjuring up an image in our minds. This is a very natural instinct and that is not at all a problem. The problem arises if this judgment is not accompanied by a mind that is open enough to say “Oh yeah, this person has so much to offer, so many dimensions, I’m really going to enjoy getting to know him.”

I sometimes have great fun listening to some people rant about how all terrorists are Muslims and sometimes, very rarely, I tell them politely after having listened to their rant, that I am a Muslim. The look on their faces is really worth capturing!

My husband is what you would call “a seeker”. He devours texts across different religions, listens to podcasts and watches videos on religion and makes copious notes in his miniscule handwriting. He is hungry for answers, hungry to know more, to learn more and he has all these questions about existence and spirituality and religion that never ever occur to me! “Leap and the net will appear” you say? He will leap but he will want to know exactly how the net is going to appear, what it is made of, how it will possibly carry his weight!

I on the other hand do not need to be asked twice to jump. I believe very simply and easily in things that are told to me and have no problems believing in miracles and magic and enchantment. (Maybe Enid Blyton ODing is to be blamed for this). What I do not enjoy much is religious rituals.

I am all for creating rituals with Rumi, like a bedtime ritual, a weekend ritual and so on. I find that doing things in a set and prescribed order helps reduce daily stress in dealing with her. And I know that religious rituals play an important role in society with the familiarity and continuity they provide and that they help us acknowledge our role in society and identify with our community. What I don’t like is the rigidity of some rituals that we tend to mindlessly adhere to, because of various reasons: a fear of maybe incurring the wrath of God, or inviting bad luck or not being included in a group. I don’t like to follow something without knowing why I have to do it in the first place, be it sitting for a Pooja or fasting during Ramzaan or offering Namaaz. Rituals should be personal; if something gives you a sense of peace, makes you feel better, makes you a better person, then do it. And the God question is very, very personal for me. I pray many times every day and I have my own set of favorite deities that I call out to, because I feel a sense of connection with them and not because someone has asked me to or because it is a certain day of the week.

For example, I like to visit the Ganpati temple on Tuesdays. It gives me great peace and joy. I also visit the Dagdusheth Temple during the Ganesha Festival every year; I have very fond memories of my grandfather taking me there. They would pull little children right up to the big idol and anoint us with Gulal. But I would not like to expect Rumi to continue doing these things without asking me why. If she asked me, I would tell her that it is something I love and find beautiful but that she need not find it as charming as I do. In fact, I would like a question from Rumi every time I or anybody else asks her to do something that is new or unfamiliar. “Why should I offer a white flower today?” “Why should I offer Namaaz five times a day?” “Why should I not go inside a temple if I’m menstruating?” I want her to ask, I want us to be informed about the answers and I want insightful discussions on these topics at our dinner table.

Presently, Rumi enjoys all festivals, traditions and rituals. She loves (as I’m sure most kids do) everything to do with festivals and religious rituals; the tinkling of the ghanti (bell), the aarti, the incense sticks, the flowers, the food and of course the sweet prasad. She also loves dressing up on Eid and pretending to kneel on the floor and offer Namaaz. We are also more motivated and enthusiastic about these celebrations for her sake.

But I often get nagging doubts at the back of my head about what gets passed down to or taught to her, although she is still very small. This thought first occurred to me when she was asked to do “Namaskar” to (touch the feet of) a distant relative. This concept was quite alien to me before marriage. I have hardly ever touched my parents’ feet. Even when we visited my Ajji or other relatives, we were hardly ever asked to touch their feet. At my husband’s however, this is a phenomenon that takes places with great frequency: whenever we go out of town (even for a day-trip), whenever anyone older than us (everyone in the family!) goes out of town (even for a day), whenever there’s a pooja at home (again, quite regular!) and on all birthdays, anniversaries and festivals (and there are so many in the Hindu calendar!). I acquiesced in this habit with no (ok, minimum) resistance and derived my own ritual out of it (while touching anybody’s feet, I ask to learn one positive trait from that person that I lack), but I’m not sure I so much like my daughter to do it all the time.

I once asked my husband about it. We had a long discussion on the sociological aspect of these rituals (how stepping out of the house in those days meant so much uncertainty that it was always better to take the elders’ blessings, how menstruating women sat in separate chambers for reasons of hygiene and rest etc etc). It is always so interesting and enlightening to have these talks and our conclusion after all of these discussions is the same: logic and reason and rationality and self-will over rituals and traditions, every time. Which means again, asking questions and demanding, and relentlessly searching for satisfactory answers. Also, more than rituals and the way things are done (so very differently in both our families), we think about the different values that the two sets of families bring in that we want to pass on to our daughter.

I, for instance, want Rumi to experience the relaxed, loving, peaceful atmosphere that Aai brings into the family. This side of the family is very, very calm and grounded. Getting late for a family event? No worries. Missing the Muhurat (auspicious timing) for bringing Ganpati home? No problem at all, do it whenever everyone is ready! Just so stress-free compared to my parents where Abbu becomes a red-faced monster if we are running even a minute late! On the other hand, my parents bring their strengths to the table: generosity and warmth and those ‘big’ memorable celebrations that form such important memories growing up.

Sometime back, Abhi and I had a very depressing discussion after attending a funeral. I asked him about the different rites and rituals and then solemnly told him that I would like to be buried and not cremated. He in turn expressed his wish to be cremated. Almost nauseously, I thought of our child.  If ever we had to live through such a terrible day, would we agree on what we would like for them or would we argue about cremation vs. burial? Immediately, I was filled with shame and repulsion at my own thoughts and superstitiously chanted a prayer for Rumi’s well-being. We know that these discussions are important but naturally, we avoid them like the plague out of the fear of uttering unwanted, negative words. When the kids turn eighteen they can decide, we conclude and leave it at that.