DIWALI

After nightfall, I decided to take a moment to head up to the terrace and see the lights that preceded the THUD-THUD-BANG shelling that the city had been taking all day. Not war, anarchy. The ultimate celebration of freedom.

My eardrums had blown out earlier in the day. We had set off atom bombs at my great aunt’s home. Light the match, let the fuse catch, run, cover your ears. I forgot to cover my ears. My father’s cousins laughed at me. This was the first time I had met them. I stumbled back into the house, feeling like I was underwater. My balance was shot.

Appa, I can’t really hear.”

Appa laughed at me, faint, distorted, burbling. I laughed too and drank some buttermilk, waiting for my hearing to rejoin the party.

We drove back through a battleground. Rows and rows of children were setting off chakras and flowerpots, atom bombs and sky shots. There was a very real chance that we might drive over a bomb, mid-detonation. Later, I would raise the same hell on Krishna Street with my little cousin, Abhijit. Our pyromania would escalate to the 5000-walla, which would sting our arms and make us quiver with power. The same pattern. Light, run, duck, laugh.

I had been awake since four in the morning because that’s what you do on Diwali, so I’m told. I lay in bed, thinking that this is what children on Christmas must have felt like. Waiting. Waiting and knowing that millions of other people were waiting with you, rising with you. It was raining. White Christmas, wet Diwali.

We sat in a line on the floor. Viji Athai sang as she adorned my forehead with kunkumam and chandanam. She sang as she spread a cool red paste along the sides of my feet, creating a hatched pattern with a dot in the center. She sang as she rubbed oil into the crown of my head and stuffed a betel leaf into my mouth.

“Chew,” she instructed. I did. Today was not a day for asking questions.

We lit crackers in the rain. The smoke was thicker, the air was heavier, and the light was brighter. My hair responded to the electricity. We broke to take real showers. Bloody rivulets followed the path of least resistance, toward the drain. I realized that the red paste had been mixed with turmeric. A faint yellow outline of the crosshatch emerged as the paste fell away from my feet. Clever.

My hearing came back suddenly on the roof. I was surrounded by damp clothes on the line, the stillest outlines of figures in the night. Clothes that were waiting for people to wear them. I was waiting for something too. Cartwheels of light surrounded me. Showers of gold, emerald necklaces adorning the hollow of the sky’s throat, the light danced for me. I spun around, slowly, out of my body. I felt like I might sink to my knees and cry for the beauty, or maybe just for the sulfur stinging my eyes. Light was everywhere I turned. I was in a story. The ascent to the roof was the rising action. The view was the climax. I felt like I’d lived three days in one. Bed was the denouement.

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