Greeting each other with “Ganga Snanam Aachha?” (Have had you bath in Ganga jal?) on Diwali morning is what I remember of my childhood Diwalis. I don’t recall the pre-Delhi ones at all, which probably reflects the low key festival it is in Kerala. The excitement about Diwali for me then was, that it was the only one time in the year that you got a pair of fancy (well fancier that the daily wear ones) new clothes – not that you were taken to the shops or had any say in what was bought!! And then on Diwali morning, we were woken up really early, and each of us in order of seniority was made to sit on a palakai (a low wooden seat) which had kolam on it, while a palm full of warm oil was placed on your head. You then got to light a few noisy variety of crackers and then had to have a bath with shikakai. It was one of the few traditional rituals I remember my father partaking in. After the bath, dressed in new clothes you did namaskaram of all elders.
I don’t remember the significance of these rituals ever being talked about. But we were keen to get it over, as only then you got to eat the wonderful sweets and savories that my mother had spent many hours making, in the days prior to the festival. The usual breakfast was of idlis with chutney, ukkarai, laddoos and mixture, ompodi etc… Ukkarai was the signature dish of Diwali, and made only once a year. In the first couple of years in Delhi, that was all it was – no visitors, no visiting, no lights or diyas – these were and are not part of the Tamilian Diwali. (Here I must qualify that my ‘Tamilian’ refers only to the Brahmins, I am sure there are many other Tamilian ways in the many other communities). At that time, my language skills did not extend much beyond Malayalam.
And then as we settled down in ‘alien’ Delhi (definitely for my mother, who also had no Hindi or English skills) we assimilated some of the local flavors – lighting the diyas in the evening, exchanging sweets (always home made) with the neighbors…. Friends would drop by around mid-morning, and after my father got his first car in 1957, breakfast was followed by visits to other senior TamBrahms who were family friends or my father’s mentors (in those days the Government was full of this breed) in the civil service. This was a boring ritual for us children, as the elders settled down for a chat and these senior folks did not have children of our age. Slowly, came the need to have patakas like all our other friends in the neighborhood, and we had to cajole money out of my father – I think he felt very generous when he sanctioned Rs10/ one year in the early 1960s. My brother Gopal felt great sitting pillion behind my bother-in-law’s scooter to make the trip to Sadar Bazaar. He had cajoled a couple of my father’s bachelor friends and others in the family to part with donations and had a royal sum of Rs 65/ for the trip!
And so we developed this hybrid celebration of the ganga snanam and traditional breakfast in the morning and diyas and patakas in the evening. Of course the Laksmi Pooja never got integrated – and as I grew older, I sorted out the story behind the Ganga snanam. The day is a celebration of the victory over Narakasur (the evil), the patakas symbolizing the victory. The bath (snanam) is to cleanse oneself of the sin of the killing – but why Ganga I used to wonder, which was so far away from the Tamilians? It was much later that I gathered that any water under the starlight is equivalent to the all purifying Gangajal!
After marriage, I saw another variation of the same theme – the Goan Diwali, although I have never been in Goa for Diwali in these last 40 years. But here too, the celebrations are before sunrise when the men go out and burn the effigy of Narakasur. Then there is a ritual oil bath using the special powder or utnem (also containing shikakai). Then the women of the house, all dressed in their fineries do aarti of the conquering men folk. The men step on kareet, a very bitter fruit, and symbolically lick its flesh (the killing of evil) – followed by a feast of poha dishes of every variety. I learnt all this the first time my mother-in-law was with us at Diwali in 1976, and adapted the easy parts – no Narakasur (we were the only Goans in Chandigarh), the bath and the aarti with a karela substituting for the kareet, followed by the poha.
So various convenient combinations of the traditions have been part of my Diwali, but the Ganga Snanam followed by the new clothes still defines Diwali for me. The food has reverted to the Tambrahm variety, ukkarai et al (This is a chana ka dal preparation using gud) with some innovations thrown in (nankatai this year) as my mother is here these days. And each year as we continue to enjoy the food, friends and the mad consumerism, I hope that at least for a moment each one of us will remember that it is the victory of good over evil that we are celebrating.