“Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall,” Chapter 3: Harborne, October 1960: Diwali, Part 1[Note: The featured picture is an early sketch of Stan, done during a brief period when we considered having the characters look like cartoons]
Diwali, the Hindu autumnal celebration of light, love and family — some said the start of the New Year — came early that year—20 October—and Stan and I spent the last few days leading up to Diwali helping to prepare the décor at Stan’s house in Harborne, a modest, well-kept, semidetached, faux half-timbered two-story, dating from the turn of the century.
We made brightly colored paper chains and wrapped them in tinsel before stringing them along the tops of the walls, near the ceiling. We fitted undersized light bulbs within ornate, cheerful and vividly decorated holiday lanterns that we hung in front of the chains and tinsel. Dr. Gupta had rented a pump from a street vendor and purchased a few tanks of helium (with a very strict understanding he had to return pump and empty tanks a week before Halloween). With these, Stan and I blew up enough balloons to completely festoon any remaining bare space on the walls.
Most importantly, we unpacked boxes of what seemed to be hundreds of candles in every imaginable size, shape and color.
Dr. Gupta insisted on these, not traditional oil-filled diya lamps, which he deemed too unstable and a fire hazard. They’d been in the boxes for a while and we had to clean them, get them in shape to be lit and then place them all over the house.
Stan was comparatively subdued, trying hard to fulfill his role as a dutiful, reverent, deferential son. I had to conscientiously remember to always call him “Sanjit,” not “Stan,” lest I inadvertently end up sowing family discord, and I was always a bit on guard as a result.
He and I did steal some time now and then to amuse ourselves by gulping a bit of helium before singing “Singin’ in the Rain,” “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” “Heigh-Ho,” or songs from the Goon Show, particularly “Ying Tong Song” or “Bluebottle Blues,” in our newly cartoonish voices. But we had to be careful to do even this only when we were out of both the eyeshot and earshot of his parents.
So I was relieved when we sneaked off one afternoon to pick up a few boxes of sparklers for Bonfire Night. On impulse, Stan picked up one of the semi-legal “fountains” the street venders sold, sequestering fountain and sparklers alike in the Guptas’ garden shed, behind a bag of potting soil.
Early that week, Mrs. Gupta had slipped me an envelope to give to Mum. I knew, or rather correctly deduced, that the envelope contained an invitation for us all to join the Guptas for Diwali at their house.
In some respects, Diwali, more often than not, parallels Thanksgiving, as Americans and Canadians celebrate it, as well as Christmas.
The atmosphere is festive but also includes prayers of petition, thanksgiving, and/or devotion. There was usually a gift exchange.
But if the English economy was only in its first stages of improving and life was still a struggle for most native English, the struggle was twice as difficult for the recent arrivals from India. Gift exchanges either were more modest or were dispensed with altogether.
Diwali feasts became closer to a potluck. Unknown to me, Mrs. Gupta slipped Mum a recipe for onion, pea and mushroom samosas too. Mum and Cressida had teamed up, managing to produce some samosas that would be favorably received when the day arrived.
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G. H. McCallum
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