Instructor: Faina Polt
My First Real Diwali
My First Real Diwali
The beautiful land of India, far across the vast seas, had a fascinating grasp over me throughout so much of my childhood. Among those lands were generations upon generations of a vibrant culture that I could never truly experience. Growing up thousands of miles away from the world my parents and their ancestors lived in created a deep cultural disconnect that I never could seem to fill. I especially felt the painful longing for the culture I was promised, during the great festival of lights; Diwali. This emptiness was transformed by the splendid experience of my first real Diwali that would remain with me for a lifetime after that night had passed.
I still remember that frigid Diwali evening and the way the piercing November air bit into my nose and sank into my bones. I could barely feel the sparkler that I held in my numb and achy fingers. It had burnt dead, nothing but a charred stick in my hand, but I paid no attention to it. This is nothing like Appa's wondrous stories of the Diwalis in his childhood. Around me, my family and the few friends we had invited whispered and talked quietly. While there was noise, I could hear nothing but the thick silence and could feel nothing other than my secret yearning to retreat into the warmth of my house.
When it came time to crack the patas or firecrackers, my father walked up to me and asked me if I wanted to light one with him. In response, I pasted a smile on my face in a weak agreement.
So we lit it. The cracker burned and burned until it couldn't anymore, and everyone lit one after another until there were no more left. Then we all filed indoors so that not a single person remained outside in the frosty air. As much as I hated to admit it, I was happier inside than I had ever been outside lighting firecrackers in what was supposed to be a joyous celebration. But the way I felt that night would not prevail, forever transformed by that one warm night of my first real Diwali, when I learned that perhaps culture is a feeling that we carry within us.
A gentle breeze caressed my face and enveloped my body. India. I took a deep breath in, filling my lungs with her sweet and familiar scent that gave my soul satisfaction and comfort. Today was the day. My first Diwali in India had arrived. I stepped out onto the terrace atop my grandparents' apartment. The pitch-black sky was clear and crisp in a way I had never seen before. From here, there was nothing my eyes couldn't perceive. The ordinary world of Chennai became extraordinary, metamorphosed into a world that was a thousand times more beautiful. All around me, apartment buildings stretched for what seemed like endless miles. The anticipation grew in my heart, so strong it pushed violently against my insides, longing for the moment I had pined for my entire life.
On every roof, were huge groups of people from which I could hear excited whispers and joyous discussion, and around me stood my family, extended as well. No sooner had they begun initiating the setup of our firecrackers and supplies, when I ecstatically rushed over, grabbing sparklers in both hands and waving them around in large circles. I spelled out my name over and over again in the air. Amma reached out held my hand which she gave a light squeeze as if to ask me if I was ready. I smiled back at her and planted a soft kiss on her cheek.
A sharp crack cut the air. I looked up and saw a fierce spark of light piercing the sky in the distance, its brilliant green color astounding my eyes. From every rooftop, claps, cheers, and whistles, erupted. Then I heard another firecracker explode. Then another and another, until the deafening sound was all I could hear. From every direction, the sky lit up as far as the eye could see, as the colorful bursts of light and sparks flung themselves across the sky like a million shooting stars. Every hue of red, green, blue, and oranges was present, leaving no room for dullness. Above me, the heavens were now a dark tapestry splattered with flamboyant colors as beautiful as the aurora borealis itself. On every building, the sparklers people twirled in their fingertips, became twinkling diamonds embedded into the landscape around me. I felt my head fall back onto my shoulders and I stared at the animated atmosphere in astonishment.
With every firecracker's explosion, I heard the roar of what seemed like all the people in Chennai. Within my chest, my heart pounded fervently alongside each boom, in sync with the rhythm. Something built up inside of me, something I had never experienced before and that I could never forget. Never had I felt less lonely as I became one with the people around me, united with my brothers and sisters, joined hand-in-hand in one powerful and passionate celebration.
Up and down, my chest began to heave as a sob wracked my body, and a tear cascaded down my cheek. So this is how it feels? For the first time in my life, I felt my culture surging through my veins and I sensed it in my bones. I wiped away my tears with my sleeves and realized I had a huge grin on my face. The cheers continued throughout the night and so did the brilliant sparks of radiance that lit up the sky as they had lit something within me.
One year later, the cold November air again hit my face, but this time it was crisp and refreshing. As I held my sparkler, my fingers were chilly and numb but its light was filling me up with warmth. What I had once heard as silence, was now the excited whispers of my family and friends and the quiet awe with which they observed the brilliant firecrackers filling the air with their hues. My father approached me with a joyous look and sparkling eyes that restored the youth within him. He held my cold hand, warming it up, and placed a sparkler in it.
"Chammu Kanna, do you want to light a spinning firecracker with me?" he asked.
I eagerly nodded. We placed the spinning top on the ground and touched the burning area of the sparkler to its wire. As soon as the flame grew, Appa and I ran to the back of the patio excitedly, laughing at the thought of it potentially bursting on us and hugging each other to keep warm. On the ground, the spinning top made vivid circles of blue, red, purple, and green light as it revolved like a whirlabout toy. I closed my ears preparing for the burst and after a few seconds, flames and sparks shot up above it.
As I looked into those flames, I could feel the warmth of the lands once so distant. The colors again ignited the sky and the thunder of my people surrounded me. With each explosion, I can feel my heart beating with my culture and I am left with a tear on my cheek and a grin on my face.