What Diwali means to us

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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.

Do you feel disrespected if my child addresses you by your first name?

A few days back we attended a dinner party; the birthday celebration of a very dear friend. Although she loves to go out and meet other people, I normally don’t like to take Rumi along, simply because organizing her meals, carrying all of her diapers and clothes and disrupting her sleep schedule means more work for me such that I can’t really relax and enjoy myself. However, this time we agreed to take her along because we did not want to drop her off to the grandparents’ and repeat last week’s fiasco where she refused to come home, and also because the husband pulled his best sad face and said “I would have taken Rums along and given you a break, but I just love it when you come with me.” Thus, we dressed up and set out on the long drive in search of the house where the party was to happen.

Rumi was very quiet throughout the car journey. Our usual route to my Mum’s place takes us on one of the busiest, brightest, most bustling roads of Pune. There are horns and swear words to be heard and lots of people to roll down the window and wave to. This route was tree lined and dark and very quiet. Our little social butterfly did not like it one bit. For the first time ever I heard her say “Anurag madhe jaycha ahe” (‘I want to go back to Anurag’: the society where we live, which she normally claims to hate!). I comforted her and told her how fun it was going to be once we reached and explained to her that we would leave immediately if she didn’t enjoy herself. And so we went into this beautiful house that almost looked like a movie set. The party was on the terrace with gaadis (mattresses) laid out and a canopy of fairy lights over our heads. The food was all vegetarian but so yummy; Bruschettas and Pav Bhaji and  Ras Malai and this new scrumptious corn concoction called ‘Butte ka Kees’. We were drinking and having a good time and although Rumi wasn’t having the best time, she was quiet and didn’t make a fuss. The only way I knew she wasn’t really thrilled to be there was that she kept coming to me and nuzzling me and burying her head in my shoulders every few minutes. It was one of those days where my heart swelled with love for her and pride at how well she was behaving.

Later in the night, after the cake was cut and we were lounging in the sit-out complete with beautiful plants and a big jhoola, the host casually remarked, “Tum tumhari beti ko culturally bighad rahe ho” (You are spoiling your child ‘culturally’). My jaw almost dropped to the floor and I looked at Abhi in shock. I had been under the impression that Rumi had behaved unusually well that evening. I racked my brain to think of what we had done wrong, before my common sense intervened and anger at this ‘horrid’ remark welled up in my heart. The host continued “Dekho ye kaise subko naam se pukaarti hai, chacha ya kaka bolna chahiye na” (She addresses everybody by their first names, shouldn’t she be using the terms ‘uncle’ or ‘kaka’? ). In India, it is customary to use ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’ or at least ‘Bhaiya’ / ‘Didi’ while addressing those who are older to us, as a mark of respect. However, Rumi very often imitates us while speaking and thus tends to use first names with our friends. While addressing any of my friends in front of Rumi I don’t call them ‘Kaku’ or ‘Maushi’, I just use their first names because it feels comfortable and right to me. (Call it one of my personal oddities but I shudder at the thought of addressing my friends as ‘Ae Saee Maushi’ or ‘Aga Gauri Kaku’ in front of Rumi. Just as I hate using ‘we’ for anything that Rumi does; WE are not in a good mood today, WE are now identifying colors and so on). I have never perceived this as a problem, I figured that nobody around really minds what a child actually calls them and Rumi will eventually grow up and figure these social hierarchies out on her own. It is enough for me that she talks with great consideration and politeness to all those she meets and says ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’ on her own.

So I was quite taken aback to hear that this was perceived as a problem in the way we are bringing her up. The host continued to admonish me about it and I did what I do best in situations where I’m nettled and provoked and embarrassed. I plastered a wide smile on my face and nodded and pretended to agree but I had immediately tuned him out in my mind. That is my coping mechanism because I refuse to be confrontational; I nod and agree but stubbornly continue to do my own thing. Abhi, however, intervened and an argument began. It had all the makings of a social argument: both parties spoke with smiles in clipped, over-polite tones but there was an icy, awkward undertone to it. I was really mortified because well, we were at their house after all and I didn’t want to be disrespectful but I knew that Abhi was really making an effort to stand up for what we believe in, against his own non-confrontational nature. I silently thanked him for it and cheered every time he made a ‘good’ point. The argument went on for a while and we left soon thereafter.

We discussed this at length on the long car ride home. What does respect mean to us? Did we perceive Rumi’s behavior as disrespectful during the course of the evening? Does the use of the first name indicate that we are ashamed of our own culture and want to ‘copy’ the West? Do we see this as something that would be a problem for Rumi growing up? The answer to all these questions is an outright, unequivocal NO. I reminded him that this is not the first time this issue has come up. At the in-laws, my MIL gently admonishes Rumi with “Asa nahi mhanaycha” (Don’t say that) every time Rumi addresses one of us as ‘Abhi’ or ‘Alisha’ or ‘Smita’ or ‘Sushant’ although we laugh and find it extremely endearing.

And though I do not want Rumi chided and ‘corrected’ unnecessarily, I can also imagine how hard it is for Aai and many other people to see this as anything but disrespect.  Abhi has a good solution. “It is between Rumi and the person she meets. Let her ask people what she should call them. Let them decide.” I agree and so, we encourage Rumi to pose the question “What should I call you” to every new person she meets. Works like a charm. She’s happy, we’re happy and the ‘Kakas’ and ‘Chachas’ of the world are hopefully at peace too.