I was warned to be in a safe place during the intense Diwali celebrations. Delhi is not it, obviously, and normal people would have remained secluded in an ashram. But a local friend and I were developing a workshop for young women, to be held the weekend following the holiday. I had to be there.
Arriving a week in advance, and thinking it enough clearance, was foolish. I stepped off the train, fresh from quiet Brahma Vida, into monstrous New Delhi Railway Station at its highest capacity, bodies pouring through every available space in the holiday rush. With all senses overtaxed and being jostled along, my inner shock rejected all things Delhi in bitter lament.
The modern, air-conditioned metro (ladies compartment included) deposited me at her northern neighborhood, populated by universities.
It’s a good thing that I eventually leave the apartment, because Diwali feels like Christmas. The houses in my friend’s neighborhood are bedecked with lights; it’s a free-for-all of colors. Some people are unknowingly referencing Hanukkah or Easter with their color combinations. I’ve never seen this much energy in the neighborhood. Stacks of honey-drenched or foil-crusted sweets take over the sidewalk, covered to keep away the determined flies that linger on the fabric folds. Chocolates, dried fruits, and nuts are packaged and on display. People move with anticipation and good humor. As the day of reckoning approaches, the energy builds.
A ball comes flying out of the alley around the corner (my shortcut to the shops on the other side of the apartment buildings), and two young men come running after it. I am using my first line of defense against harassment and overstimulation: headphones roaring over the meaningless or insulting noise. I keep my eyes fixed on the dirt, turn the corner, and make my way through a small crowd. I’m in the middle of them when I glance up — the young man in front of me is holding a cricket bat. I look around and realize I am standing in the center of a game, children and all. I gasp and apologize and smile and dart through the waiting group. Expecting harassment and getting the equivalent of Thanksgiving football skirmishes.
I weave through the stalls and fret over gift giving. In the tiny bakery, I hold special tea biscuits and a large tin of cookies, wondering about appropriate Diwali gifts for my friend’s family. The shopkeeper hands me a bag with two carefully packed slices of cake (need to explain American food to my Keralan roommate), and I wish him a happy Diwali.
“You know about Diwali?” As if anyone could miss the chaos and preparations.
“I’m taking these home to Indians!”
The week’s sporadic fireworks have increased as we approached the day of insanity. Smoke wafts in through the front door window on the peak night. My roommate and I, laughing but spooked, shutter away the chaos of Delhi’s Diwali celebration. The ubiquitous family gatherings pitched against the general anarchy echoes India’s reputation as a land of both extremes. I repeatedly tell my calm Indian friends that it sounds like a war zone, the great booming mixed with the clustered spatters of sound. I find myself hoping that any veterans with PTSD have left the city; anyone who has witnessed combat would fall apart at the incessant rockets. My childhood fears seem to surge again as I adamantly declare that I do not like fireworks. I’ll set them off, but not in tiny crooked streets with overhanging buildings and wires.
In the morning, the haze remains, resting low in silent streets with closed shops, as everyone nurses their hangovers and wounds. I’m stunned that the city hasn’t burned down.