DIWALI brings delight to both the young and the old in Indian families. That Diwali, however, was marked by disquiet. We had stocked a sizeable amount of firecrackers for the day. Besides, we had a good collection of pine cones, the poor man’s fireworks. They cost us nothing but were a lot more fun. All that we had to do was to collect the fallen cones from under the pine trees, tie them with ropes made of agave fibre, torch them and gyrate in the air with full force.
Hardly had we begun to move out to play with these rustic fireworks when we heard the news of the death of an old woman in the neighbourhood. A pall of gloom descended on the village. We looked longingly at our crackers. There was a deafening silence.
Leaving Diwali preparations midway, villagers rushed to the house of the deceased. As the sun had set, it was decided to consign the dead woman to the flames the next day. As per prevailing beliefs, the deceased was to be kept ‘under vigil’ throughout the night.
Elderly men observed that a death on the day of a festival defiled the occasion. The festival of lights could be celebrated subsequently only if a child was born in the village on Diwali day, they said.
Three Diwalis passed. Many children were born in the village, but none on the day of Diwali. Thus, no family celebrated Diwali. There were no special dishes, no sweets. No child burst crackers.
On the fourth Diwali after the woman’s death, a family was blessed with a girl. Although die-hard patriarchs harped on the preference of a boy, the liberals prevailed upon them, hailing the birth of a girl as the arrival of goddess Lakshmi herself. The festivities were resumed. Our joy knew no bounds.
We grew up and chose different careers. I joined the administrative services and was posted as an additional district magistrate. As ill-luck would have it, a bus accident took place on the evening of Diwali a few miles away from the district headquarters.
I rushed to the spot along with my team and reached there after an hour. Some local people had gathered at the site to assist the administration in taking the injured to the district hospital. Doctors declared a dozen persons dead. Their family members were inconsolable.
The news spread like wildfire, but as we returned home by midnight, we found the town resonating with the sound of fireworks as if nothing had happened. The wailing cries in the hospital had been drowned out by the din of crackers. The sweetmeat shops were still open and the people were swarming around them like flies.
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