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Casting a warm glow

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Old Delhi’s Diwali. Changing times. R.V. SMITH has experienced them all. Here are a few nuggets from the memory bank

Diwali evokes the spirit of joy, irrespective of caste, colour or creed, more so among the young, for whom festivals hold greater interest than for grown-ups. And of course they are the heart and soul of any festival, because it is they who maintain tradition despite all odds.

But personally speaking, Diwali means a visit to the Walled City. It has been so for the past 38 years when as a young man I lived in hotel in the area and carried my children in my arms, with their mother following in the hunt for Diwali toys sold in the temporary shops set up in Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazar. Television had hardly made its pressure felt in those days and mechanical toys were not much in fashion. Clay toys or papier-mâché toys attracted children. There were special toys for girls, which included the whole kitchen with nearly all utensils, and even a well. For the boys there were soldiers, especially the bugler, and of course animals and birds. The pride of place, however, was taken by the Gujaria, with a mutka on her head, in which the kheel was placed. Toys made of sweets were also popular and eaten with great relish, starting with the elephant’s trunk and ending with the camel’s hump.

To bring the toys home without breaking the beaks of the delicate birds or the soldier’s bugle was a difficult task. And God forbid if any of these broke on the way! A howl of protest greeted one as soon as the loss came to light and only another visit to the market could satisfy the one whose lot it was to receive the broken toy.

Profusion of crackers

The evening came with its profusion of crackers and to play it safe, one generally went in for the less noisy ones, with the sparklers dominating the show. And after the children were safe in bed it was time to see Diwali glow all over the town. For this, one walked down Esplanade Road, past the temple of Rama and Dauji and into Chandni Chowk again. The scene that greeted the eye there was one of serenity. The shopkeepers sitting on their gaddies with their wives and children filling up the shops for their once-a-year special visit.

There were shops where the families were missing and only an old sethji sat with folded hands praying to Lakshmi. The diyas burning in front of him cast a magical glow over the shop and one felt that here certainly was the true spirit of Diwali.

One has long ceased to make such visits. The children have grown up now and toys do not interest them any more, save for one who is doomed to be a child all his life. Yes for him toys are still brought and broken beaks adjusted with wet flour and the gujaria’s mutka filled with kheel-batasha. Diwali crackers interest him if they are not loud and the lights of diyas hold a fascination as they shine in the colony from every house that the eye can see. It is for children like these that Diwali still holds a natural thrill and for them toys have to be bought, though not from Chandni Chowk but nearer home after the change of abode.

It is a nostalgic experience year after year and something, which one has come to relish, both for the sake of the child with Down’s syndrome who does not grow up as for one’s own memories hidden away in the years of youthful jollity. And when the last crackers have ceased to make a din, one sees in the mind’s eye the wealthy seths of old making obeisance to the goddess with their families. It makes you wait for Lakshmi one self, keeping a light near the door. But she doesn’t come this way anymore, you know. Nevertheless one hopes against hope and this year too it will be the same hope and anticipation that will make one peer at the main door through the darkness to the spot where the candle burns in anticipation of cherished desires and all the good things that one longs for on a Diwali night.

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