Donna and Joe have finished their assignment in India. Occasionally they still travel somewhere.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Nov. 8th began the most important holiday in India, the Hindu Festival of Light, Diwali. It was truly like an experience in a different reality; which, of course, it is for us. Diwali is a very ancient festival, so like Christmas in the west, it has picked up many traditions and meanings beyond it's original meaning. At lunch one day some of my colleagues were lamenting that many people had forgotten the meaning of Diwali, focusing only on food and fireworks. They sounded a lot like Christians talking about Christmas. They were not very precise in explaining exactly what the real meaning is. The key idea is that the lights represent good, and Diwali celebrates the triumph of good over evil. There are apparently regional differences in how Diwali is celebrated and what it means. At least Joe's colleagues thought that in the north there was much more emphasis on worship of Lakshmi the goddess of wealth. Punjab to Lakshmi ensures a prosperous new year especially for businessmen.
In the south the idea of personal renewal is an important part of diwali. For those following this idea, diwali begins well before dawn with a ritual bath, following by putting on clothes which have never been worn, and then meditation. The point is to greet the sunrise with the mind and body renewed.
When I asked if there was a particular historical event associate with Diwali the conversation took a surprising turn. They began to tell me about modern "proofs" of the validity of Hindu hymns and scriptures. For example there is an epic poem about a God whose wife was kidnapped and he had to go to Lanka (Sri Lanka) to get her back. He did this by building a rock bridge to the island. If you look at satellite images you can see the remains of the bridge today. What you actually see is coral reefs, but there must be a reason they are in that place connecting Sri Lanka and India. The scriptures are reported to also contain reasonably accurate values for the distance to the moon and the speed of light. This discussion also reminded me very much of discussion I have had with some Christians about the historical accuracy of the Bible. I think this speaks of both profound human need to connect to the spiritual world, which requires faith and the great difficulty that scientifically educated people have in believing things which cannot be proven.
For everyone, even the non-religious, diwali is a time to be with your extended family, exchange gifts with family, give gifts of sweets to friends and give money to the poor or to charities. And of course lights. Many buildings are decorated with electric lights on the outside, much as Americans do for Christmas. And inside buildings you will see small oil lamps burning on tables, the floor and any other flat surface.
But the most important lights are the fireworks. The IBM club sold fireworks and donated the profits to charity for diwali. Of course for safety reasons you can't bring fireworks into the IBM buildings, so they only sold them in the parking lot in the evening and instructed customers not to take them back into the building.
Our Diwali started quietly. Since we had given our driver and house friend the day off, we spent the afternoon cleaning the terrace, which everybody insisted we had no business doing. It felt good to work, and to get some areas cleaned that someone else might get sick cleaning when it was moist, or without a mask.
(Sometimes in India you just want to scream like a 2 year old, "I do it MYSELF!!")
When the sun set, the world changed.
The whole city started celebrating. Now this is a holiday to warm a child's heart. What could be better than a holiday which actually REQUIRES setting off fireworks as part of a home religious ceremony? Apparently both at the beginning AND the end!
And set them off they did. All over the city fireworks went off. We went up to our rooftop terrace, and in every direction you could see fireworks--usually 2 or 3 within the width of your field of vision in any direction. And the sound was phenomenal. It sounded like a war zone. The firework types and big Bang types sounded like bombs dropping, and the smaller ones sounded like machine guns. Also coming from all directions at once. It gave the impression that the city could indeed be bombed during Diwali, and people wouldn't realize it for quite some time.
Our neighbor had told us that their 7 year old would get no sleep that night, because the festivities went on until 4 in the morning. By about midnight I was getting tired and cranky, and just wanted everyone to get it over with and go to bed. I did put ear plugs in for the first time, and fell asleep.
The next night more people in our area seemed to be celebrating. We were surprised (and a bit shocked) to discover that multiple families were setting fireworks off on the community room terrace which was about 100 to 150 feet from our living room balcony. That is what the pictures show. Coming from a state where fireworks are outlawed and the most you can get is sparklers, it put the phrase "shock and awe" in a whole new context. Yes, they were cool to watch, but there was the underlying fear that someone was going to lose their sight, or a hand.
Joe estimated the terrace they were on was about 15 by 25 feet in size.
I had been pining for my dog, Luna, but I realized that after the stress of a 3 day long trip that no one could explain to her, coming into a "war zone" might be incredibly traumatizing. Not to mention the fact that anyone with post traumatic stress after being in the service should totally avoid being in India at Diwali.