Date: October 30 (Third-day of Diwali 2016)
The Diwali festival is a one of India’s most widely known and celebrated events. The festival is an auspicious observance, celebrating new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil represented as light over darkness. It is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. Although Diwali is actually a five-day festival, the word “Diwali” is often used casually to refer to the third day of the festival in which families spend time together, exchange gifts, and perform acts of worship symbolic of the themes of the holiday. On the third-day, known as Lakshmi Puja, observers extend an invitation for Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, to visit their homes in hopes that she will bless them with good fortune. In preparation for Lakshmi’s visit, observers clean and decorate their houses and, in the evening, light lamps to guide Lakshmi into their abodes. The festival is an intimate event that encompasses gift-giving and meals. In modern times, it has become traditional to light firecracker at night, a practice that riffs of the importance that light plays in the festival.
I had the good fortune to experience these practices firsthand with the Herr family, natives of Bir. I had met Arun Herr, an animated 21-year old, while searching for a guesthouse before starting a residential program at the Dharmalaya Institute. After getting off the bus in Bir, I had casually asked a group of young men — Arun among them — if they knew of a guesthouse. Arun led me to a room that he is responsible for renting out (although he works full time in a bank). Returning to Bir after the institute, I called him up to see if the room was available. Arun told me that it was and also insisted that I come to the store to celebrate Diwali with his family.
The store, as I had known from my previous visit, is actually the Herr family home. No larger than my childhood bedroom, it accommodates a textile and tailoring business, and the family of three: Arun, Arun’s sister, Lovely, and Arun’s mother, Miri. Arun’s Dad is out of the picture and from what I heard from Arun, sounds like a real bhenchod. Thus, Arun eschewed university, securing a solid government job at a bank in order to augment the meager income from their textile shop so that Lovely could pursue a medial degree. “I have a lot of responsibility” he explained to me as we walked from the guesthouse to the store, punctuating the last syllable of the word.
When not working or helping his family, Arun enjoys giving tours to foreigners of the area surrounding Bir. The bank even gives him time of to do so. He has a keen knowledge of the local flora, pointing out to me numerous examples of herbs with medicinal properties growing along the path between the guesthouse and the store. When asked if he’s ever become sick from eating a plant, Arun responded, “No, because if I don’t know what something does that I try it to a rat first.” Slightly appalled by this revelation, I changed the topic to Arun’s love life, discovering that Arun had a girlfriend but that the scope of the relationship doesn’t extend past the activity of Arun accompanying her the rest of the way to school after she passes by the shop in the mornings. Perhaps this is fitting because it was the character of how the girl walked that first enticed Arun. “She’s different,” he informed me. “She just looks straight when she walks, not so silly like the other girls who look this way and that.” When I asked Arun if he would like to marry his girlfriend, his fell into a facial expression as if I had dumped a load of paperwork on his desk. “It’s very complicated…” he explained, before delving into the explaining red-tape of Indian society.
When we reached the store, Miri was cooking chapati over a portable gas stove set on the floor. She remembered me from when Arun had brought me by the shop the last time I stayed at the guesthouse. “She jokes that you came back to marry Lovely,” Arun said to me, summarizing what his mother had said to him in Paradhi, the dialect of “mountain” language spoken in the region. “Only a joke,” he repeated, beaming. Miri sent us out to buy vegetables for dinner. On the way to the shop, Arun gave me a crash course on how to celebrate Diwali, pointing out examples of people lighting lanterns, rangoli patterns drawn in chalk on storefronts, and the sounds of puja rituals . At the vegetable shop, Arun stipulated that as the guest, I should pick out the vegetable that I wanted to eat. I agreed; eleven months in Indian had taught me that it’s a fruitless (if not vegetable-less…) task to resist these sorts of things. So I surveyed the baskets of reasonably fresh eggplants, potatoes, legumes, peppers, carrots, and cauliflower. “How about matar?” I said.
“Okay, we’ll get peas,” Arun replied, grabbing a handful of placing them in a bag.
So few? I thought. Arun must have seen the expression on my face because he explained that peas were an expensive commodity that season. “So then let’s get something else,” I suggested. Arun wagged his head and we mutually decided on a dinner of green beans and potatoes. I offered to pay for the veggies, citing Arun’s explanation of the gift-giving custom of Diwali. As I expected, Arun refused, suggesting that I purchase my gifts at a sweet shop instead.
Back at the family store, I tried to help Arun wash and cut the vegetables as much as I could between biting into the various sickly sweet sweets his mother and sister kept insisting that I try. Arun kept one eye on slicing the vegetables and the other on a small television playing WWE. When“we” finally finished with the vegetables, Lucky suggested that we set off some fireworks. It was around 8 P.M. and although fireworks didn’t light up the sky like the way I had imagined it would look on my first Diwali, the explosions and children’s dulcet screams could be heard at regular intervals from across the neighborhood. This must be what Aleppo feels like, a dark part of me quipped.
Miri joined us — lighting a few fireworks — and then we all went back inside the shop. Miri quickly disappeared behind the curtain dividing the front of the shop from the living area behind. “She is upset,” Arun explained. “Her mother died around this time last year.” Hearing Mira’s sobs from the other side of the curtain, I began to panic, becoming acutely awareof just how strong my presence was in the intimate setting of the home of this family I hardly knew. Arun went behind the curtain. I could hear him murmuring to Miri. A moment later, he reappeared and beckoned to me. “You need to comfort her now,” he told me.
“What!” I hissed. “Are you sure?!”
Surely a stranger’s presence would make her feel awkward, I thought, feeling like a rat in one of Arun’s experiments. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I asserted in what I hoped was a casual sounding whisper, certain that Arun’s demand was one of youthful bêtise and not of cultural difference. But Arun was insistent and, lacking the privacy to explain to him why I felt this was a horrible idea, I assented.
As I made my way behind the curtain, the rest of the Arun’s life come into view. The bed where the family ate and slept occupied most of the space. Next to the bed was an outhouse-sized scullery. The walls of the room were bare save a calendar covered by a purse and an Airtel poster, for which I suppose they received a stipend to display in their shop.
Miri stood in the scullery, sniffling over the stove, black half-moons under her eyes. I felt totally frozen, studying Miri’s marionette lines, unable to think of anything to do or say. College didn't prepare for this.
What was her name?” I asked, saying the first comprehensible string of words that formed in my mind.
“Miri” Arun said, misunderstanding the question.
“No, her mother’s name,” I clarified.
“Miri,” Arun again responded, after which, Miri started sobbing anew. Feeling that the whole thing was going horribly, I tried to save face and quickly close out the situation.
“Well,” I stammered. “Tonight, we’ll remember Miri and every time I remember this Diwali, I’ll also remember Miri,” I said, realizing only after I spoke that I had inserted Miri’s name when I meant to refer to her mother. Thanks Arun. Deciding that my failed words of condolence were in bad need of some sort of cadence, I reached out and gave Miri a squeeze on the shoulder. Miri’s eyebrows jerked upwards. Within the sphere of traditional Indian societies, members of the opposite sex don’t touch in public. I became very alarmed. But then, Miri’s face softened, and a deluge of relief swept over me.
“Let’s give her space now,” Arun said. All too ready to do so, I gave Miri a final nod and then navigated my way back to the front of the store, carefully avoiding the mound of green beans and potatoes on the floor. “Her mother used to visit every year — they would talk for hours,” Arun informed me as we exited through the curtain.
Miri came out to join us a few minutes later, the moons under her eyes gone. “We will come to eat now,” she announced. Again, I was led back behind the curtains. A big basket of fried chapatis now rested in the center of the bead. I helped the family spread out newspapers and then took my seat at the foot of the bed, which I felt was somehow the more public side of the mattress. Aside from the chapatis, the meal consisted of vegetable Sabjee (made from the potatoes and green beens) and two types of homemade pickles. Already stuffed from all the sweets, I struggled to finish the portions on my plate.
After putting the leftover food away, we all returned to the bed, sitting crosslegged across from one another. Arun inquired about the Dharmalaya Institute and I spoke briefly about my experiences there building earthen buildings, describing the various types of labor involved and emphasizing the robustness of the adobe brick structures compared to firebrick houses. When I was finished, Miri said something to Arun. “My mom wants to know if you know anybody to build us a house,” Arun translated. I explained that the Institute was still constructing its campus but that perhaps they would build houses for people when they were finished with that work. We lingered on the bed for a few more minutes, while I talked with Lucky about her studies. Soon, Miri announced that she was feeling tired. It was time to go.
The family came with me to the door of the shop. “Dhanyavaad, I will always remember this as my first Diwali” I said. I reached out and gave Miri another affectionate shoulder squeeze in place of a hug. She took my hand between hers, bringing it first to her mouth and then the space between her eyebrows. “Shubh raatri” she said to me, knowing that I understood the Hindi word for goodnight. Then she said something her native tongue to Arun.
“My mother would like you to come back tomorrow night,” Arun said. I nodded my head in appreciation, and then left with Arun to return to my guesthouse, carefully stepping over the extinguished candles on the ground, placed there to guide Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, into the Herr’s shop.