Upon my return to India, I was very pleased to discover that there was another festival in the works, and that the days leading up to it reached anticipatory heights that rivaled the pre-Christmas celebration in the United States. Diwali is the climax of these last few months of festival season, an all-out blaze of celebration and bombast. In my opinion it's the second-best holiday in the world. The only better that I have experienced is United States Christmas. Frankly, there are almost zero things in the world that make me happier than Christmas at home, so it's not a knock on Diwali that it isn't quite up to those very high standards.
Now, Diwali is the celebration of the return of Lord Ram to his village where he was unjustly exiled from some 14 years prior, I believe. The story of why he was exiled and how he returned constitutes the entirety of the religious epic poem The Ramayana. I am familiar with a very condensed overview of the story, and it is far too lengthy and complicated to attempt to explain in blog form. If you'd really like the full story, I'd be more than happy to give it to you, but not at the moment. The point is, folks were overjoyed that he came back, because by all accounts he was pretty great. Here's what is done.
People take colorful chalk and draw a new, intricate design on the street in front of their house every morning. They're cool. I wish I was a good enough blogger to post pictures to go along with this, but it just takes way too long to upload a picture with my internet at the moment. They did this from the day I returned (November 1st) up until several days after it ended (November 7th), and some people have continued to draw them in front of their houses, although they have slowly gotten less multifaceted and colorful.
Then there are lights. They string lights all up around the outside of their houses. Every business does the same. This sounds comparable to Christmas but it's not, because the sheer number of lights on display absolutely blows Christmas lighting out of the water. At some malls it's almost as overwhelming as like, Times Square. Ok, perhaps that was a stretch. But it's really overwhelming. They use all colors, including orange. For some reason you never find orange in any United States Christmas lit scene, and I think I understand why. The color orange, for all of its merits, is an exceedingly ugly color when used in neon lighting. They use these strings of lights enthusiastically to the point of garishness, but it's so festive and genuine that it is very easy for me to forgive a little aesthetic displeasure.
Diwali season is considered a lucky time to buy and make investments, so a huge amount of people do things like buy cars and houses. At the very least, everyone buys something, and stores - clothes stores especially - respond with insane discounts, like "Buy 1 get 5 free" or "80% off all items". Everyone took advantage of this. They also buy new things for around the house - my house got a new portrait of Sai Baba (kind of a Hindu saint - he's quite revered), new couch covers, new teacups, new curtains. And all of us got some new clothes. Young Indians are exceedingly focused on things like "looking cool" (which is one of greatest frustrations but I'm not going to get into that now), and they especially care about it during Diwali time.
Then there are the fireworks.
The English language is marvelously expressive, but there simply are not words to describe the effect of Diwali fireworks. I will still do my best. It's absolutely nothing like the Fourth of July. Nowhere near. Take the amount of fireworks and firecrackers that are used on the Fourth and multiply it by about a thousand and then you will some idea of the sensory effect of being in India on the day of Diwali.
The thing is, there are no restrictions on purchasing them. Someone who had no idea what they were doing could go to the store and buy hundreds of them. A massive explosives industry springs up right around this time, and for a few weeks there are these fireworks superstores that have a seemingly unlimited stock of things that blow up.
People are constantly setting off firecrackers in the street, and these are not friendly firecrackers. Some of them light up in the same way that ours do - fountains and spinners and stuff - but the vast majority of them simply explode violently. Little pieces of firecracker shrapnel go flying in all directions at high speeds, and it really stings if you get hit by one. I was told a story last year where an explosion in our very narrow street was so violent that someone's window got blown out. They have strings of firecrackers that are 10,000 units long. It takes like a minute and a half to get through all of them, and each and every one is disruptively loud. Now I mostly reveled in the uncontrolled ability to explode all of these delightful devices. I mean, blowing things up is really really fun. But there is one product that goes by the name "The Bomb" that sucks. It's like a stun grenade. Or at least it has the same effect on my ears that a stun grenade does when I'm playing as James Bond in Nightfire. We had just set one off in the street and I looked around, too late, to see that everyone in the neighborhood had plugged their ears except me. My right ear only stopped ringing four days ago.
As for the fireworks themselves, on actual Diwali night we went to the roof of my house and watched them. I took two videos of fireworks, and I'm going to post them to Facebook soon. There's simply no way to describe how incredibly noisy and overstimulating it is to have millions of fireworks exploding. And I really do mean millions - my city has four million people in it, and most people fire these things off. There is variety that you can't find in the US. It is noisy and it is beautiful. Fireworks are a wonderful thing. I loved every second of it.
The biggest explosive night was November 5th, but every once in while even now, you can still hear them.
On November 4th, one of the Rotarians rented a plot of land and hosted a dinner/dance party for all Rotarians and their kids. Now, I really don't like dance parties, as most of my friends know. It might be because I'm too self-conscious or whatever, but I just don't do them. At least in the US. Inexplicably, I kind of went off the rails (by my standards) and kind of had a crazy-good time. I've always been reluctant to change very much about my identity here, but I mean, this was fun. The rest of the Diwali days, I just conducted my own business, saw family and friends, and blew stuff up.
Diwali is an amazing experience. I have to recommend to every single person who reads this blog to try and come to a good-sized Indian city sometime during Diwali. These are sights that you will never see in the United States. I never counted myself more lucky to be in India. And think about - early November isn't much of a travel time - school and work will be holding me back for most of my life. I may well never be back for another Diwali. I sure hope I am though.
I was going to write about more things. But this has gotten to be quite a bit. So, until next time.