On Diwali, when I decorate my house in Madurai with wax candles all around the compound wall, terrace and verandah railings, window sills and doorstep, it evokes much curiosity even from passers-by. Invariably, in the dark lane, our house stands out after 8 p.m. with the flickering flames of neatly arranged candles.

Having grown up in Delhi, I remember as kids we were always in competition with our friendly neighbours. Whose candles would last longer on Diwali night? We would light them as late as possible. I always thought Diwali and ‘mombattis’ (candles) were inseparable till I crossed over the Vindhyas.

The journey from the top of the country to the tip took away many familiar symbols and festivities that mark the occasion. Diwali became Deepavali. The South’s Deepavali is the North’s Choti Diwali. The main (or Badi) Diwali in the North is celebrated a day later and predominantly marked by lights, new clothes, midnight Lakshmi puja, exchange of sweets and bursting of crackers.

In the initial years, it was a struggle to find packets of slender wax candles in the open market in Madurai. This was in sharp contrast to Delhi and other places in the North, where every other grocer, ration shop, roadside vegetable or fruit vendor or even pushcart selling knick-knacks would stock candles. They came in multiple colours in packs of 12, 24 or 36 and were plentiful even at the last minute. For those who preferred designer and scented candles, there was never a dearth of choice at the annual Diwali melas. Over the years, thanks to power cuts, candles started appearing in a few shops in Madurai but still not exactly the kinds one was so used to.

Mela hopping is another fun activity during Diwali up North. We would go from one locality to another. Bazaars during this season wore a festive look with glittering and fluttering buntings, festoons and light decorations. And I never imagined firecrackers could be burst at the crack of dawn with such enthusiasm.

“It is a culture shock, but we try to mix and match different things from different regions,” says Deepa Kapoor, a Mangalorean by birth, raised in Kerala, married to a Delhi-ite and now settled in Madurai. “We perform Lakshmi puja in the morning, light up the whole house with candles and diyas in the evening, the family gets together for an elaborate meal. With lot of awareness raised on pollution in schools, children are choosy about bursting crackers,” she says.

Diwali is a three-day affair for Shweta Bansal, starting with Dhan teras, the day before Choti Diwali. “On this day we buy some silver item and light five earthen lamps in the house. On Choti Diwali, people light 11 or 14 diyas. On main Diwali, we perform Lakshmi and Ganesh puja and light 31 diyas, of which one diya has to keep burning the whole night.”

To ensure that one lamp keeps burning through the night, people in the north normally remain awake and play cards. Another reason for remaining awake is that people believe the Goddess of wealth walks in to bless her devotees with prosperity on this night and so doors are left open.

“Few customs may differ, but new clothes, sweets, crackers and gift hampers are common everywhere,” says Babita. Hailing from Rajasthan, she feels she is back in her native place when she lights diyas and candles all over the house during Diwali. “The entire day, friends, neighbours and relatives keep visiting and we serve the traditional home-made dal badam halwa and dal pakori to all,” she says.

The festival of lights acquires different hues for different people as we cross boundaries. But sparkling crackers, dazzling dresses, and syrupy sweets no one can omit, irrespective of where we belong to and where we live. Most important, the joy and spirit of celebration embrace all.