Diwali glow sets in

Diwali was a low-key affair in the city, till a few years ago. SUNANDA KHANNA writes on the changing scenario

EIGHT YEARS ago Smita Asher did some brisk business sitting at home. Weeks before Diwali she would order different varieties of mithai from Bombay and sell it to her friends and colleagues at her husband's office. And in an instant she became a harbinger of high tides. Though done at a small scale, it served well and all were happy because every year the festival of lights would coolly pass the city by. The celebration which takes on a pulsating fervour elsewhere has been traditionally low key in these parts. Life has somewhat changed since and Kochi refuses to be ignored. Says Smita, "Nowadays everything is available here." Part of this revolution is because the city is fast acquiring a cosmopolitan attitude with people from all over making it their home. But even emigrants need to preserve their festivals, especially the one that is deemed to be the most vibrant. Everyone agrees it is on the pockets of the sizeable Gujarati community that sweet shops do vigorous selling during the season. Annapurna, the sweet shop in Mattancherry doesn't close down ten days prior to Diwali. After the last customer leaves at around 9 pm, the kadais are back on the fire for the next day's demand. Milan, whose grandfather started the shop in 1944, says the reason why Kochi does not have too many high quality sweet shops is because "the average Malayali doesn't know what mithai is. Sadly, a preparation with heaps of sugar is a delicacy for him. Catering to this need brings down the quality." However, he hastens to add that on Diwali night his shop compares well with any sweet shop in North India, both for its richness in variety and decoration. Starting at an affordable Rs 70 per kg the range is extensive and caps at Rs 400 for the discerning buyer. Like in most festivals, food plays an important role. Shantirams in the vicinity offer cashew rolls, Surya Kala and Raj Bhog, all mouth-watering delicacies that people, ready for an annual splurge don't mind spending on. "We have to have a wide variety because customers want to give to their servants as well as distribute amongst friends and relatives," says Narendra of Shantirams. Typically, shops start taking orders a week in advance and Krishna Sweet House on M. G. Road stops four days before Diwali, tendering free delivery to customers that have placed bulk orders, read 100 kgs and above! It doesn't dither from trumpeting what celebrated client Padma Bhushan K. J. Jesudas has proclaimed in reference to its product, "Everything that is pure and true is divine." With a mind boggling 63 varieties of sweets on its platter made of pure ghee and khoya, the bedrock of all milk-based mithai, the shop is choc-a-bloc with its latest temptations. Another vital item is crackers. Even as they cause noise, air pollution and panic amongst the aged and pets, at a metaphysical level they are meant to reduce one's will and ego to smithereens. Besides children love them. "There's a select crowd that buys crackers," says George Mooken, chairman of 71, Round Table, an organisation that will sell crackers and put its profits to noble use by feeding the poor at St Peters School. Last year the unit sold diyas, but realised the pitfalls in distribution of this fragile item. This time, sales of crackers are up and the economics are lucrative, adds Mooken, who is hoping that folks will stock up for Vishu celebrations, which chase Diwali. Most hotels hemmed and hawed when asked about preparations for Diwali; others were upfront. "We haven't ever had anything lined up for Diwali and this year is no different," says the manager at Grand Hotel. Some promised they would break new ground this year with illuminations and lighting of tiny flickering lamps but later decided against it. Trident however will have a special fare for its employees and in house guests. Even as mithai shops don't feel the need as yet to extend their area of business by putting up shamianas, there's a growing feeling of partaking in the fun and pleasure associated with the festival. A cheering metamorphoses. Happy Diwali.

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