There was a time when diyas were in the spotlight, rangolis were drawn on thresholds and greeting cards were handmade. Food, prepared at home, was shared among neighbours and relatives, and we walked in and out of homes unannounced. Even today, there are festivals that cut across religions and regions. These include Eid, Diwali and Christmas. Markets are dressed up like newly-wedded brides and homes are lit with many time-honoured traditions.
Call it Diwali, Deepawali or Jashn-e-Chiraghan, they all meant the same to me while growing up in the small town of Ramgarh, Jharkhand. Being the youngest and, perhaps, the most-excited kid in our society, during the festival, my tiny legs could never sit still. I would leap and hop into homes within the society, particularly of my two immediate neighbours — one was a family originally from Kerala, while the other was from Bihar. Wearing my white chikan kurta, still brand new from Eid, I would participate in the Lakshmi puja, collect prasad, grab some food, and move on to inspect the rangolis that decorated our streets.
While I was given carte blanche to walk into my neighbours’ homes and eat anything, there was one condition: I had to lay out the diyas around the house, in the front and on the chapra (terraces/covered tops). But my Hobson’s choice was just as sweet. I would decorate their homes, but I would take the line of diyas down to my house as well, and the larger diya formation, after the puja, would be in front of my house. All those 21 years, the tradition continued. Meanwhile, assisting the mothers in keeping the house clean was part of the celebration.
The markets were another favourite haunt. On Diwali, I would rush to buy batashe. For a 10-year-old, these designer sugar drops were delightful. They came in various shapes, of houses, animals, birds, and in a variety of colours, including pink, green, yellow, and white. With puffed rice and muri, it was the prasad served to the goddess. I’d buy these for the puja at my neighbours. Very early, I had learnt that it was wiser to spend money on food than waste them on firecrackers. It’s all about priorities; people may argue otherwise.
While the elders went about meeting and greeting one another, the children only had eyes for the food. Some sweets like soan papdi got labelled as “travel mithai”, which went from house to house, with barely any takers.
The most common snack in many homes though was dahi vada. It’s been a favourite in our home and gets made for every festival, be it Eid, Diwali or Christmas. There’s a trick to making good vadas. It lies in incorporating air into your batter and then dipping it in water. This makes the vada really soft. Beat the curd well and season it right, and don’t forget the tamarind-and-coriander chutney along with roasted cumin powder. Skip any of these and you won’t get the best vada. Atleast not like the ones that have people claim: “It’s just like my mother’s”.
Nowadays, when you visit homes, it’s a buffet of online-ordered goodies, be it noodles, kebabs, mithai or other snacks. In the ’90s, it was shakkarpare, pidakiya, maalpua, sharbat, and a mixture that came from Gupta ji’s shop, in a newspaper bag with visible oil spots. Over time, Diwali parties have included alcohol and playing cards, unlike Ramgarh’s chai, sharbat or jal jeera. Today, Diwali cards are bought from Archies; my favourites are the pop-up ones.
But even today, Diwali is about lights and families coming together. Poet-musician Amir Khusrau called it Roshni-e-Zeest in a taslees (a verse of three lines) in the Pahalavi language. He writes: Zee astin rang-e-zeest. Zee astin roshni-e-zeest. Barmala mee azghaf jashn-e-durai (One festival bespeaks the colours of life and another one enumerates the light of life. Ergo, these two festivals are so dear to me).
Diwan Gautam Anand, veteran hotelier and founding trustee, Cuisine India Foundation, a platform that celebrates Indian food globally, remembers his Diwali festivities from the 1960s. Before travelling for work, he would walk around the house, chanting: Deep Deep Diwali, Vadiya Chotiya Vaali (Celebration of both small and main day of Diwali). Part of the rituals included bringing home statues of Lakshmi and Ganesha. Every year, his grandfather would write the names of all his ancestors on scraps of paper using saffron as ink. This was his way of seeking blessings from the elders who had passed on. These names would be written in Urdu, Farsi, or English. A young Gautam would receive Rs 101 from his grandfather, and before one knew it, all the children would be out to light crackers (this is before air and sound pollution became a national concern). Men would congregate to down some whiskey, while women would clink glasses of Wincarnis (or khuraq, as his grandmother would say), followed by baith bazi (verbal duel of Urdu poetry), singing, and dancing, complemented by a beautiful spread of mutton pulao, kofte, rilli milli sabzi, dal, pinni, aate ka halwa, and other delicacies.
Food has a way of retaining memories, histories and stories. Even today, Gautam Anand continues these traditions. As for me, I take boxes of kaju katli for friends and family to celebrate the zeest, the light of life.
Sadaf Hussain is an author, chef, and culinary chronicler.
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