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Rangoli and sparklers for Diwali. (Photo: Getty Images, Design: Tina Tiller)
Rangoli and sparklers for Diwali. (Photo: Getty Images, Design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyOctober 22, 2022

A Diwali without fireworks

Rangoli and sparklers for Diwali. (Photo: Getty Images, Design: Tina Tiller)
Rangoli and sparklers for Diwali. (Photo: Getty Images, Design: Tina Tiller)

Diwali starts on Monday, and millions who celebrate are getting ready to let off fireworks throughout the five-day festival. Perzen Patel is an exception.

It’s six in the morning in Mumbai, and Mum is sitting on my mattress trying to prod 10-year-old me awake. Today is Dhanteras, the day we kick off Diwali celebrations by welcoming the goddess of wealth, Laxmi, into our house.

Mum, Granny and I have spent a better part of my Diwali school holidays cleaning the house from top to bottom. I love going up the six-foot wooden ladder, so cleaning means me sweeping the ceiling cobwebs while they stand below telling me to do a better job with the long broom.

I thought today I would be able to sleep in, but apparently, not. Groaning, I push myself off the bed. As I drink my chocolate Bournvita and start to feel semi-awake, Mum excitedly tells me it’s time to do the rangoli.

Creating a rangoli (Photo: Getty Images)

She’s got her special rangoli design stencils out. Our main door is wide open, and she’s already mopped the tile floor and laid one of the papers on it. Next to us is a steel plate filled with mounds of rangoli colours and a bottle of glitter. I sit next to her as she takes a fist of colour and starts to fill in the rangoli pattern: blues and purples on the outside, orange and red on the inside. I watch, mesmerised, and when she’s finished, Mum lets me sprinkle the glitter and dot the rangoli with earthenware lamps that we will light later in the evening.

Just as I’m about to go snuggle on the sofa, Mum calls me again. The kaju katli – cashew fudge – has finished cooking. Mum wants me to help her roll it out.

Ahhh, not again! I grudgingly get up and help roll the fudge into a long, thin aluminium tray. It needs to cool and set before we cut it into the signature diamond shapes and pack a few pieces into each of the boxes piled high in the lounge corner. The tiny square boxes already have almonds and chocolate eclairs inside. Once we put the kaju katli in, they will be ready to give out to all the aunties and uncles that will descend on our home over the next few days.

As I settle back into my book, Mum sets off with Dad to go gold shopping. It’s a tradition to buy some kind of metal object like jewellery, utensils or cars on Dhanteras, to symbolise to Laxmi that she should keep the wealth pouring in.

Thankfully, I don’t have to go with them. I’m counting down the hours to when the sun sets so that I can run down to our neighbourhood playground for the fireworks.

People watching the fireworks show on Marine Drive, Mumbai, during Diwali (Photo: Getty Images)

The week before, Mum and I had gone shopping for firecrackers. The shop shelves were loaded with fountains, rockets, ground spinners and smoke bombs. There was even a massive multipack of 134 different firecrackers.

I looked at the box longingly and then glanced up at Mum. She frowned and dragged me forward by my hand to the shelf where the sparklers were kept. “We don’t play with fire,” she reminded me, adding two boxes of the sparklers to her basket. I tried not to cry, aware that once Mum had up her mind there was no changing it. But you know, it’s not fair!

On Dhanteras evening, I get dressed in my kurta, place the lighted diyas on the rangoli, admire Mum’s jewellery and say polite hellos to the aunties that have come to visit. Inside, I’m counting down the minutes. I hear the first firecracker sizzle into the sky and burst.

That’s my cue. I take my one box of sparklers and run outside. Maybe my friend Rahul will let me light one of his fountains before Mum catches me. I light one of my sparklers and make patterns of eight in front of me. The small and large sparks of light are hypnotising. Next to me, I see bursts of light as the fountains and ground spinners light up the night. I go to light one of the smoke bombs but see Mum from our second-floor balcony staring at me. I better not.

The five days of Diwali pass in a haze of new clothes, guests, rangoli, diyas, gifts and aunties pulling my cheeks. And of course, many rounds of eating the sweet and savoury Diwali faral (snacks) like kaju katli, chakli, shakarpada, chivda and jalebi.

Rangoli and sparklers for Diwali (Photo: Getty Images)

Every evening I go outside to see the fireworks. My two boxes of sparklers are long finished. When I complain again to Mum she reminds me why we Parsis don’t let off fireworks.

Thousands of years ago, it was on Diwali that Lord Rama with his wife Sita returned to Ayodhya (an ancient Indian city that is the legendary birthplace of many gods and goddesses) after 14 years of exile. To celebrate, the entire kingdom was lit with earthenware lamps, homes were decorated, sweets were exchanged, and firecrackers lit the sky. Thousands of years later, the tradition continues.

While our family celebrates Diwali, we are Parsis, not Hindus. And since we worship fire, it’s disrespectful to play with fire and allow it to go to waste, as with a firecracker.

It kind of made sense, but it took me many years to finally shake my longing for fireworks.

It started with waking up to the acrid smell of the thousands of firecrackers let off the night before. And I’d read about animals getting hurt because some child thought it would be funny to tie a string of crackers to a stray dog’s tail. Gradually, I started to come around to my family’s simple, sparkly Diwali.

Lighting lamps for Diwali (Photo: Getty Images)

When Mum and I moved to New Zealand, we missed all the Diwali food with a passion. The sweets, cashews, and other snacks I had taken for granted were so hard to find here! Every Diwali, Mum would gather her friends at our home and together, we’d learn how to make something new. One year it was besan peda – chickpea fudge – and another year we tried chocolates. Once we even made karanji, a tricky, crescent-shaped pastry with a sweet coconut filling.

Afterwards, when the food was ready, Mum, her friends and all of us kids would gather on the driveway and draw rangolis. Proper rangoli powder wasn’t available here – nor were the stencils – but we’d make patterns with pieces of chalk or flower petals.

Then, one year, our families discovered the dizzying varieties of fairy lights you could buy at Mitre10. This meant that in the weeks leading up to Diwali, we’d take turns water-blasting each other’s homes before stringing up the fairy lights. The neighbours assumed we were getting into the Christmas spirit really early. And while fireworks were available at The Warehouse because of Guy Fawke’s, I didn’t even bother asking Mum about them. If she refused to buy fresh coriander because of the exchange rate shock, there was no way firecrackers were making the cut.

Now I’m a mum myself, and Diwali celebrations in my home are a bit more muted than the ones I remember. Why create a rangoli that my toddlers will only rub off, or light oil lamps they can knock?

But traditions have been on my mind this year.

To me, our traditions are a way for us to assert identity and celebrate culture. And I’ve come to believe that traditions can change and evolve based on your beliefs and what works for you.

So this year, the house is festooned with fairy lights but I hired someone to clean the cobwebs from the ceiling and do the water blasting. The earthenware lamps are ready but the plastic skeleton is lit up for Halloween at the same time. We’re not buying gold this year but I did buy some new utensils for my business. And the rangoli? It’s a colored mandala that I laminated.

The part of Diwali celebrations that remains a constant is family. And food. We’re onto our third failed attempt for kaju katli – I can’t get the diamond shapes right – but no one is complaining, because it all tastes great.

Keep going!