Playing with Fire

Contrary to what the title may suggest this post is not about the Israeli attacks on Gaza. While i was watching the fireworks at the Kingston waterfront on New Year’s Eve i found myself thinking how odd it was that in the individualistic West personal lighting of firecrackers is not permitted and legally proscribed whereas in countries such as India where community is prized above all bursting or lighting firecrackers is something enjoyed by individuals. I remembered that i had been asked by the Style Observer to write about my memories of Diwali in India. It was also a puff piece for a restaurant called Akbar’s in Kingston which has some of the best waiters in the country. Read on if you want to partake of my memories…

Diwali Riddim

Whenever I see young vendors dodging between cars at Christmastime selling what I think of as petty firecrackers like sparklers and rockets I smile to myself and feel superior. Having grown up in India my relationship to such incendiary delights is quite different; like most Indians, where patakhas or firecrackers are concerned I’m something of a hands-on connoisseur.

For in India there is Diwali, the festival of lights (and crackers and bombs and rockets). Usually falling in November or late October, it is the biggest festival in the country, the closest thing we have to Christmas. There are several versions of the reason Diwali is celebrated in the way it is but they all boil down to the victory of good forces against evil ones. The good forces having prevailed, Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and prosperity, is propitiated. Hindus paint their homes and buy new clothes to wear on this nationally celebrated holiday.

As a child I wasn’t really interested in the whys and the wherefores of Diwali. Instead I would be completely swept up in the preparations for this magical festival. A few weeks before the happy day vendors would set up their stalls all along the sidewalks, their carts overflowing with every manner of gaily-wrapped and decorated combustible. Over the days leading up to Diwali we would assemble our arsenals, buying judiciously and storing patakhas till the evening of D-day when joy oh joy we could all become pyromaniacs for the night.

Sparklers were for babies. My favourites were hawaiis or flying saucers, a more densely packed, airborne version of chakris or Catherine wheels. Chakris could either be lit on the floor where they would create magical spinning wheels of light or you could hold them on the end of a wire stick so that you looked as if your extended arm had a fiery wheel of shooting sparks at the end of it.

There were many different kinds and sizes of rockets and rocket bombs and the variety of bombs would leave you dazed if not deaf. Our favourites were the long ones that looked like green and red cigarettes strung together like Christmas lights. You lit the fuse and then flung it away from you and the string bombs would explode all over the place. The single fat ‘hydrogen’ bombs were more dangerous, sometimes exploding before you had time to run from them. The sound they made was absolutely dreadful. Far more benign were the phooljadis or flowerpots, triangular earthenware creations gaudily dressed in multicoloured foil. When you lit them–depending on their size–they would shoot a shower of sparks into the air that gained in intensity until it assumed the shape of a Christmas tree.

What fascinated me most when I first started celebrating Diwali however were the ‘snakes’. You bought them in rolls, flat black tablets a little larger than an aspirin. Put a match to it and the tablet would magically grow, shooting forth like a sooty fat tubular creature that writhed and twisted as it grew. It made a sizzling noise and left a sulphuric smell in the air.

Of course a big part of Diwali was the fancy food and feasting that was also a big part of the festivities. Hundreds of luridly coloured sweetmeats would make their appearance in the food stalls. As a child I wasn’t that interested in this aspect of things though that is mostly what Diwali has been reduced to now that I’m an adult.

I was reminded of this when I was invited to Akbar’s to participate in a Diwali lunch with Rajiv Bakshi, his sister, Rajni, and their friends last week. I am altogether more appreciative of good Indian food now and at Akbar’s there was no shortage of this. It was a pleasure to see Rajni again, visiting from Bombay, and catch up with Rajiv whom I see far too infrequently considering we inhabit the same city.

The food was fab and I tucked into warm tender rotis and naan with my favourite dal makhni. I could easily have made a meal of just that but there was also a delicious paneer cauliflower dish, tandoori chicken, rogan josh and alu raita. The food was not as highly spiced as I would have liked, no doubt taking into account the Jamaican palate, but extremely good nonetheless. The service too was good . There is something so comforting about going to a restaurant over the years and meeting the same staff. There were several familiar faces and I was particularly pleased to see Cyprian again. Now there’s a man who takes the job of waiting seriously.

Was it normal to have meat dishes at a Diwali lunch asked someone? Why not? Those who eat meat, will have either chicken or lamb, beef being taboo. And the large numbers of vegetarians will stick to what Rajiv dismissively called ‘ghaas poos’ or leaves and grass. In Bengal and Kerala fish is bound to be on the menu. In places like Trinidad and Guyana however there is apparently a lot of fuss about Diwali meals being purely vegetarian but in Mother India tastes and customs have changed. At any rate there is far more latitude at home than in the diaspora it seems.

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