International project in India – A celebration day narrative

Divali in Mirdha submitted by Sue Wallace who is in India working with Gandhi College School for Teachers, a project supported, in part, by our Club.


Divali is the most important Hindu festival of the year, a combination harvest festival, commemoration of events in Hindu mythology and a religious festival focused on light in all its meanings: inner light, light to the world, light in darkness…..  Each day of the festival has its own particular meaning and practices. Children look forward to Divali as we do to Christmas. There are new clothes, special food and firecrackers which, Jagriti tells me, “we burst with our hands, Ma’am”. I am curious about this translation but will see. As with many American holidays the traditional food and activities sometimes take precedence over the religious meaning of the holiday but every child can tell me exactly what the meaning of each day is.


A member of the extended Shukla family (about 45 people within the equivalent of 2 blocks of my room) died recently. And, although not may people seemed to actually know him, I was told that this Divali there would be no “puja” – the religious part of the festival – but that on the day of the major festival there would be some celebrations.  It seemed strange to me that the death of someone who lived far away and was unknown to most of the family here could have this impact and, because these are all devout Hindus, that the part of the festival that would be dropped was the religious part. But I have ceased to expect western logic to apply to events here.


6:15 the morning of Divali: I am doing my daily chores which include shaking the dead bugs from my sheets and sweeping additional carcasses down the stairs.  Seeing my light on the neighbor girls come inside the gate to wish me Happy Divali and ask me to go for a walk during which they elicit a promise that they could choose my dress and jewelry, “You have nothing new Ma’am?  Can you at least wear something you have not worn many times? We will come at 10.” I realize then that, as usual, my day’s schedule would not be what I had expected and that I had best sort out the presents I had brought before breakfast so I would be prepared to distribute them when the girls arrived.


Breakfast: a plate of cauliflower and rice tinted a beautiful gold with tumeric cooked with onions, garlic and some nuts.  This and a cup of chai masala constitute the simple meal they had told me would be prepared (“because of that man who died”).  Normal breakfasts consist of 2 or 3 types of vegetables, Indian flat bread of some sort and tea.  Sometimes there is a sweet candy which is often served first.  Not as bad as you might think!!!


I distribute my Divali gifts to the family and rush back home to meet with my wardrobe consultants.  They pour over my paltry – from their perspective – jewelry collection, chose a spectacularly gaudy green bindi, the normal red dot married Hindu women wear on their forehead being replaced by one that is  – “matching Ma’am, matching”.  Jagriti, Racksha and Richa (age 13) spend at least half an hour arranging and rearranging the exact sequence of bangles for each arm.  Not at all deterred by the fact that my dress is green and purple – already a big stretch from my normal palate – they choose alternating red and purple bangles with a few pink or blue ones thrown in because: “They are looking so pretty Ma’an”.


They insist I come to their homes while they show my presents to their mothers.  More photos and more cups of chai masala and questions abut whether or not Divali is celebrated in America and, if not, why?


I have a few more gifts to deliver. “Auntie Shukla” gets a blue scarf good for colder weather.  Her husband, naked except for the longhi which covers him from the waist down, comes and stands by us and proudly point to various parts of his body (which are in very good shape considering he is about 80) and names them in English giving a satisfied “HA” after my confirmation of each correct answer.


Nandani’s house is next on my Divali present route.  She is a beautiful 5-year old girl who is part of the extended Shukla family and lives next door to my hosts. The last time I was here she “dropped” in around breakfast every morning and would stand holding onto  “Mai’s” sari and stare at me with her huge brown eyes and wild black hair.  For several weeks she would run away if I so much as leaned toward her.  By the end of the visit she was holding onto my pants or top and walking with me from the house to the corner.  Now she is a saucy 5-year old with a demure bob. In honor of Divali (and, I suppose because I am not related to “that man who died”) her mother paints my feet in the red pattern that married women here often wear for celebrations.  (Last visit my feet were painted the day of departure from the village. The next walking around in Delhi 2 beautiful sari-clad 30-something women approached me and asked in tones between horror and amazement…where did you get your feet done?…That is only done in the very far rural villages!).


I make it back to my room in time to get a phone message from Abhishek – a former student from Marylynne’s and my first class.  “Ma’am I have talked to Shravan (another former student) “We are coming to see you now Ma’am we will be there in 5 minutes”. Well, OK…I had been thinking about some emails but…there is no electricity in any case so… The visit turns into a good opportunity to interview both boys about their experiences at Gandhi College and their opinion of the role of the college in the life of the village and surrounding area.  Both boys, especially Abhi, speak English well and are quite articulate.  They reinforce what I already sense, “Ma’am, we are boys if there is no college here we can go to the city but girls can not go and it is very costly”.


3:00 PM: My phone rings …please come, lunch is ready. Mitul is making Samosas.  I watch in awe as she sits crouching on the kitchen floor over 2 gas burners and makes about 100 samosas starting from scratch.  Sanju, takes over the large grinding stone (about 2 ft by 1 ft with a pestle that weighs 5 pounds).  She mashes fresh coriander, garlic, radishes, nuts and chunks of coconut into  chutney.  I eat the samosas as soon as they are slightly cool; they are fabulous.


Colored flour waits in heaps in the middle of the floor the for the rangoli pattern they will create later.  I expect them to start after lunch but after eating Mitul heads upstairs and invites me to “watch this very funny TV program”.  I sit for a while then notice, it is almost 5:00 PM.  I run back; the girls are waiting to help me into my Divali clothes.  Dressing includes a heated discussion about my hair style: plait, side plait, pony, free and color of lipstick: “Ma’am don’t you have more brighter lipistick?”  Should I wear my everyday sandals so my foot painting shows or my shoes with the sparkles- the shoes win.  The dupata (the long scarf worn with salwar camiz suits) causes another lengthy discussion: it is too short, they decide, to wear in traditional fashion dipped low over the chest and flung back over both shoulders.  What about around her neck… too hot, O.K. Draped over her arms…No, no she cannot eat that way.  They settle on a one-shoulder approach carried off with the help of 3 large safety pins.  (I am only pricked twice).


“Now, Ma’am you must come to our houses, to show how beautiful you are looking”.  More tea and sweets. I enjoy the feeling that I am among friends chatting with the mothers and aunties, even some of the fathers and uncles in Hindi, English or a mix and knowing that while they still see me as “other” that I am becoming more and more just part of the local scene.


I watch as the candles and small oil lamps are lit and placed in every corner of the room, as the rangolis are made and some of the children change into new clothes.  They lead me to the roof to watch the first of the rockets and sparklers being lit.  Promising to come back after dinner, I head off for “my” house.


All the women are in bright saris (actually, everyday they wear what I consider “party” attire”. I have never seen any of them except the oldest, without a necklace, earrings and bangles even when I come on school days at 7:45 M for breakfast).  Fireworks are being carried up to the roof.  Mai sit on her usual table cutting up vegetables. The baby crawls toward the rangoli. Dozens of boxes of small tapers are being opened.  The women exit the kitchen and bar the door.


On the roof I help the women light the tapers and melt their bottoms to fix them to the railings (the roof is flat and open with waist high walls with wide tops.  For the next 2 hours we give ourselves up to pure childish fun.  We shriek as cherry bombs go off, laugh as we make patterns with sparklers, duck as a spark from another roof appears to be too near.  “Have you ever seen anything like this?”, I am asked over and over.  I look out across the village; in every home there are candles burning on the roof and firecrackers being set off.  There are Nandani and her older cousin Binaya on the roof to the left, on the right Piyanka and Salone’s family with Deepak beginning to set of crackers, Raju’s children run down in the courtyard with sparklers…I am surrounded by people I know in the midst of this often confusing and frustrating  experience that is rural India.  No, I have not seen anything like it..