Diwali: A festival of hope … and nostalgia

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Diwali diyas. Stock photo Dreamstime

Gone are those crazy busy days before Diwali, those days of cook offs and cleaning. Cleaning every inch of the household. Cooking a kitchen full of snacks and sweets.

The cook offs were like small personal parties. Mothers invited close neighbor-friends to the houses to get together and make ‘ghughra’, and ‘sev’ and ‘chevdo’ and ‘farsi puri’. The cook offs became an all day party of women cooking, chatting away, eating some of the items they were making, having tea, laughing, as the children went back and forth asking for one more ‘puri’.

Then would begin the frying party of the day. The ‘poha’ would be fried and kept for cooling down. The aroma of fried peanuts and cashews and dry coconut strips and curry leaves and raisins would tempt residents of other houses on the block. Finally it would all get mixed into the ‘poha’ and create an attractive mix of sweet and savory ‘chevdo’.  It would go on flavoring the air as it cooled in huge pans. Later it would fill tall steel containers and was expected to last one week, which rarely happened.

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‘Teekhi sev’ filled the house with its spicy smell. The spirals of the ‘sev’ were a wonder of artistry. It was amazing to watch one ‘aunty’ or ‘masi’ smooth the batter and make balls, another one to fill the ‘sev maker sancha’ with them, and yet another to manage to move the machine in circular fashion on the pan full of hot oil, and yet another to take over moving the spirals around in that hot oil and decide when they were done and drain the extra oil and put them in a dish. Those ‘sev’ filled two or three tall containers. One would think they would last forever, but one container would be gone the minute one of the older children came home with friends, and one would stare at the empty container and the mother’s face wondering why would something so ‘spicy’ taste so good to some people.

Diwali Gift Boxes on sale at Patel Brothers’ store in Jackson Heights, NY. (Photo: Courtesy Ketana Gosalia).

Now ‘puris’ were something anyone would like. And, there were many varieties. There were ‘farsi puris’ with a hint of crushed black pepper and there were sweet ‘puris’ and there were ‘teekhi puris’ with red pepper. The ‘farsi puris’ were very tempting as they melted away in the mouth. But those white flour saltines were quite heavy and one could not eat more than one or two. So then, by the time the second round of tea was made, ‘teekhi puri’ made of whole wheat flour and salt and a bit of red pepper and turmeric and coriander and cumin powders took over. ‘Teekhi puris’ did not take long to disapper from the plate as the ‘masis’ joked about something or talked about something serious, quickly turning back to work.

The salty snacks were done with and the attention would now turn to the ‘ghughra’. Oils and salt and spices were put away. Kitchen counters were cleaned and got ready for the sweet item. Almonds and pistachios were being chopped. Cream of wheat ‘rava’ was being sauted in ‘ghee’. ‘Elaichi’ was being peeled and the seeds being pounded into powder. Sugar was being ground into powdered sugar. And raisins were being plumped in ‘ghee’.

All the while, someone would be making the ‘ghughra’ dough of white flour. To make it the right consistency, not too soft, not too hard, was an art and some ‘masi’ was an expert at that. Then would come the mixing of the filling on low flame, the sauted ‘rava’, the nuts, the raisins, the ‘elaichi’, the sugar were all mixed together. Spoonfuls would be passed around for taste perfection and at someone’s suggestion, more ‘elachi’ would be added or more sugar would be considered, and then declined to make the sweet palatable. If the ‘ghughras’ were too sweet, one wouldn’t be able to eat them.

Pune, Maharashtra (India) – Oct. 24, 2010: Cooks prepare traditional Indian food under a carnival tent. Every year before Diwali festival, a carnival isorganized by the government where rural culture of India is celebrated. (Dreamstime)

Then began the artistry of filling the rolled ‘puris’ of the dough that was covered with a wet cloth to stop it from drying out. The ‘puris’ would be folded in half moons and then filled with just the right amount of the sweet mixture and then the edges would be sealed and then came the fascinating part of pinching the edge to create the lace like border. Some ‘masi’ would be patient enough to teach one how to do it. Frying them on low flame in ‘ghee’ was yet another art. ‘Ghughras’ should not be over fried or they would taste bitter and burnt. They had to be browned perfectly, and tasted and approved.

The parties continued at other ‘aunties’ houses who also made special fried snacks ‘cholafali’ and ‘mathiya’. Both the items required a lot of preparations of the dough and so the parties at their houses were two-day parties.

Huge plates of prepared goodies were distributed to all the neighbors and packed boxes were given to the maid to take to her family. Diwali was her time for shining and being rewarded. And mothers who believed making one person happy and satisfied would give the maid a full month’s salary as bonus, new ‘nav vari sari’ and clothes for the children. No wonder the maid who was the reigning queen of the family would scold one for not going for the shower early in the morning, and would do anything for the mother who would advance her money from time to time through the year.

But the cook off parties came later. Before those came the crazy days of cleaning every inch of the house. Thorough dusting of each corner of the ceiling, lights and fans and wiping with wet cloth was only the beginning. Then furniture would be moved around and the floors would be washed on which the children had a field day sliding and creating a mess till they were shouted out of the house by the maid and the mother both of whom were on their knees on the floor. Windows were washed, walls were wiped clean. New curtains and new cushion covers were part of the Diwali welcoming committee.

The nights were given to firecrackers, but in limits, and were shared with the neighbors. But firecrackers were not very attractive to light. Walking up to them with a lit sparkler, bending over and lighting and then moving away quickly required special skills. It was more fun to watch them after they were lighted. And so one would butter up older brother to light them, and would be obliged seemingly grudgingly.

Now, as one looks back on those days, one wonders where has the joy of those days disappeared. Growing up and getting older should have increased the joy, and not reduced it. Perhaps, however superficial everything seems, one must repeat some of the rituals in the hope of recreating the joy. Diwali may be the festival of lights, but it is more a festival of hope. Hope in future, in the rewards of hard work, in the support of friends and partners, in the children and their future, in reaching an old age of contentment. The joy is within the heart, buried under everyday stresses. The rituals will help find it. So light the lamps, clean the house, clean the heart of grudges, eat sugar free sweets, visit friends, and have a chatty Diwali!!

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