As a child I remember Diwali being a 15-day affair beginning with my mother going crazy over house cleaning, making 10 different varieties of sweets and savories, buying clothes for every member of the household and putting up lights. My 7-member middle-class family always had love unlimited, but put a cap on consumption of Mithai and quota of fire crackers. Thanks to this limit, our weights were kept under check and we never attended classes for mental math. Siblings weaker in arithmetic would end up with fewer laddoos. That explains my younger brother, always on the losing team but my partner in crime from mischief to firecrackers.
Diwali shopping was never complete without a trip to Standard Fireworks. In retrospect, scanning their brochure, calculating what we could afford and planning how much to burst per day seem like such life lessons. Diwali mornings would begin before sunrise those days. And bathing with herbal powder would set us smelling like walking-talking incense sticks, followed by bursting crackers, feasting on sweetmeats and meeting people all day long. Nights were spent sleeping under the stars of our terrace flat, gazing into the jet black sky flashing colourful fireworks by the second. My face would have a smile plastered all over as I would drift into blissful slumber.
The festival still clinches top spot on our list of family favourites. The sheer idea of getting a break from school, buying Indian clothes, lighting lamps, enjoying sparklers with friends, rightfully messing up the balcony with amateur Rangoli designs and ocassionally seeing grandparents and cousins, my girls love every bit of Diwali.
Much as we’d love to, we cannot make it to India this year. As I break this news, the girls feel upset. I narrate an incident from my childhood to cheer them up. As I speak of crackers, my 7-year-old lights up and barges in, “Oh you mean you had rice crackers and many more?”
It takes me a second to shake nostalgia off and come to terms with reality. At age 7, my limited vocabulary of biscuits, chocolates and wafers ensured me a fair share of the forbidden food. Crackers only meant firecrackers!
This year, welcome to Diwali or Deepavali as it is called here in Singapore, where Indians celebrate Diwali with a difference. NRI bazaars pop-up in every corner, painting the town red. Singapore government lights up the Little India corridor setting the mood. Campbell Lane gets a face lift as Festive Village forming the main Diwali market catering to essentials from prayer needs to clothes and jewellery. And just like the old, crammed markets in India, with tiny traditional shops swarmed by people, the shopping extravaganza at Campbell isn’t complete without brushing shoulders against hundreds of others, exchanging perfume and sweat. With tourists flaunting huge SLRs and Indian husbands running from pillar to post to strike out every item on the carefully curated list by the wife, to women going back and forth a few times hunting for the best bargains, this street is a sneak peek into the pre-festive shopping chaos.
What is Diwali without traditional sweets? The handful of sweet-marts here juggle with fulfilling mind-boggling mithai orders. But powdered milk, packaged ghee and a lack of the halwai’s sweat are no match to the authentic taste in India. I therefore roll my sleeves and dish out some original recipes from both my mother and mother-in-law’s kitchens justifying the tradition of adding weight to my already huge frame. From traditionally rolled laddoos, chakli, chivda to the more sought after shakkar-pala and sev, I have 4 unique taste buds to tantalise.
For the lack of families here, Diwali in Singapore isn’t a private affair. People indulge in parties and lavish dinners, setting the social media ablaze with festive fervour. We take pride in going overboard for the fear of missing out and shouldering the responsibility of leaving back a legacy of culture. And although parties last many weekends, the real festival dies in just a couple of days.
P.S. I miss all Diwalis spent back home with family and friends, carefree, dolled-up in my brightest silks, munching on my mother’s cooking; the aroma of fresh marigolds and mango leaves adorning the main door and colours of Rangoli surrounded by oil lamps creating a warm welcome. I miss spending endless hours of senseless banter with siblings without any television, camera or social media. Today, the picture perfect laddoo makes it on Instagram before it melts in your mouth. Families are found catching glimpses of each others’ perfectly lit-up up homes on WhatsApp video calls to bridge the void. But let’s call it evolution? I am just glad my kids love the festival of lights and will have colourful memories that will help them define who they are, years from now. So go on, hug your sibling. You never know where you are headed next. Happy Diwali!