There are days, running into weeks, when the city dresses up. In a general way, of course, you could say that big cities are always dressed up and showing off. Bright lights and neon define the modern urban experience, and separate it from life in small towns and villages.
Here, most streets are lit through the night. Here, there are billboards of the glowy sort and shiny names scratched onto the skyline. Here, glass-fronted stores show off their wares long past our bedtimes. Step out after sunset and the whole city appears to be floating in a dozen shades of light. It is this that brings “raunaq” to cities, or at least the illusion of it. Raunaq literally means lustre or brightness but it implies more — beauty, grace, freshness, an indication of well-being.
We grow immured to this everyday raunaq. So, come dress-up season, we must find fresh uses and hangings for light. My favourite decorations are the canopies of lights that follow you down the length of the street. At such times, I brush away the guilt of too much electricity wasted and allow myself to be warmed by the idea that the city is collectively celebrating, and that even those who are not celebrating, and who may not be able to afford such lighting for their own homes, can enjoy the beauty and symmetry of the lighting. The season usually begins before Diwali and goes on until Christmas, and then the end-of-the-year celebrations. Some streets will be capped and strung with lights, but there will also be lights outside shops, malls, draped around trees and the balconies of apartments. You don’t have to celebrate any of these festivals or go to any parties. Just take a walk outside and you may find yourself sucked into a sense of joy, or at least the calm self-assurance associated with the rhythm of ritual. Turn your head this way and that, and in every other window, there are tiny, colourful fairy lights blinking right into your eyes. It is hard not to be moved a tiny bit. If not joy, you could at least be nudged towards wistfulness and a sudden longing to call friends.
In Mumbai, though, the festivities begin earlier in the year. There are the ten days of Navratri and Dussehra. Many suburbs are all lit up on these days, and a few will keep the decorations going until Diwali. Even before Navrati, there is Ganeshotsav, or just ‘Ganpati’, as many people here refer to the 10-day festivities. There will not be as many streets lit up. But there are pandals on every corner, and sometimes even two or three on every street, with lighting, bhajans, flowers, incense, the clash of manjiras. Sweet shops appear to swell and spill onto the pavements with displays on tables and not one shop seems to lack customers. This is a different sort of raunaq.
From August to December, it is almost as if the city skips from celebration to celebration. Barely have the drums and aartis for Ganeshotsav faded out than the lights for Navratri start to go up. Children and teenagers have barely stopped swinging the garba sticks covered in shiny paper when all the streetside shops start to sell kandeels (lamps) made of paper and embroidered cloth. And even though you do not need any more lamps, and even though this may not be your way of celebrating, the raunaq will rub off on your clothes and hair. As long as there is no rancour of exclusion, and as long as cities and celebrations hold open their arms to all, we can all be brushed with the grace and brightness of the season.
The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen