October might just be my favorite month of the year. In New York it meant the start of autumn, and Halloween and all the frivolity it brings. In Delhi, it means the start of the holiday season and a long awaited respite from the monsoons. The sunshine beams benevolently after an invariably uncomfortable summer, and when night falls, the air becomes cool, quiet and perfectly still. The city looks its best with Diwali fast approaching. With everything from the trees to the houses to the market places lit up, its hard not to be in high spirits, even if like me, you have moved back to the place you once called home to find how much it has changed in your absence. I have found myself seeking comfort in the familiarity of tradition in an otherwise transformed city.
Diwali, known as the “festival of lights”, is probably the most widely celebrated festival in India. For Hindus Diwali is an auspicious time when people welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, into their homes by cleaning until the house is spotless, and creating intricate decorations out of colored powder in front of their homes (rangoli). Diwali also marks the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile, having defeated the evil demon Ravan, as told in the Indian epic Ramayana. He was welcomed back to his kingdom with rows of light, as a result of which the tradition of lighting oil lamps known as diyas symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. Of course now, the diyas are replaced or supplemented with bundles of fairy lights in every imaginable color, flashing and sparkling for as far as the eye can see.
During the days leading up to Diwali, people busy themselves with card parties where they play Teen Pati and Poker, gambling till the wee hours of the morning, and buying sweets, new clothes, jewelry and utensils made of silver during the auspicious day of Dhanteras. They light firecrackers, traditionally to ward off evil spirits (but really just for fun),and exchange gifts thereby renewing social ties.(Come to think of it, its Christmas, 4th of July, and Thanksgiving all rolled into one.)
This Diwali is my first in this new chapter of my life – in Delhi by myself. Previously, celebrating Diwali was a given, the arrangements for which were taken care of by my mother. But now it is up to me to choose to partake. So today I set out on a hunt for diyas and was somewhat crestfallen when I could only find the overly ornate, and frankly ugly kind, littering the stores of Khan Market. Finally I found exactly what I had been looking for – the small and simple clay bowls which are to be filled with oil and a piece of cotton for wick. Devika and I bought a dozen each and as soon as I returned home, I dutifully set them on the railing of my balcony and lit them one by one.
The process of making a house into home isn’t about filling it with familiar things. Its about the process. In the last few days I have received the boxes I shipped from New York and found a place in my Delhi home for everything I had in my New York apartment. I have made appointments for people to come install a water filter in the kitchen, and a washing machine in the bathroom. I have gutted and re-organized cabinets, labelled spices, changed lightbulbs, and put up shelves at the end of which perhaps it doesn’t look all that different to the outsider’s eye. But to me there is a home where there once was just another apartment. The buying and lighting of the diyas is then, the final touch in my endeavor to make a home for myself- one embedded in routine and tradition, customs and habits.