The night before Deepavali is a culmination of days of preparations for one of my favorite festivals of the year, and if you grew up in India, I suspect yours too. The bathroom has been washed down, the stone floors scrubbed clean with a heavy brush and every single utensil cleaned to a shine. A massive brass vat encased in stone and cement sits in one corner of the bathroom, with a medium-sized hole taking up one half of one of the two cement walls that has been cleared of all ash residue, wood pieces and coal. The brass vat is now filled with fresh bathwater and fresh firewood is at the ready to be lit the next morning for boiling it.
My brother and I and any of the assorted uncles, aunts, cousins and friends have already been to one of the massive outdoor fields that has been converted into a firecraker market. We have braved the crowds, shouted at the top of our lungs to make ourselves heard to the man or woman running a particular stall, hurried from one stall to the next to get our hands on the most popular firecrackers and come away with bags full of goodies for the next day.
When at last the last of the relatives have gone back home to finish up their own preparations and every little thing is in order in our home, we reluctantly get into bed, with the very firm resolve of waking up at 3 a.m. The goal, every year, is to be the very first in your neighborhood to burst a firecracker. Tradition demands that firecrakers be set off before sunrise so their light can chase away the darkness. Three a.m. is the goal so we have ample time to be properly oiled down, to have a bath and for a small ritual, where those sweets are the first thing we eat, before we are allowed out on to the street to light the firecrackers. We most certainly do not want a repeat of last year when someone else's firecrakers woke us up. Oh, the horror and the ignominy!
Groggy but excited we - all three of us, including dad - line up in front of the prayer room as mom pats some oil onto our heads and hands us our new clothes. It's a race to the bathroom to see who gets in first. In a matter of minutes, we are ready. It's barely even four. We tear into the firecraker boxes, pick the one that has the reputation for the loudest sound (aspiringly called the atom bomb), and head out into the street. Not a peep from anywhere else yet. Dad and mom walk out behind us with a matchbox and a box of incense sticks. We each hold the fuse of the atom bomb between two fingers and carefully snip off about an inch of the paper encasing the thread of the fuse. This, so that the fuse doesn't light as fast and gives us time to get away after lighting it.
Dad hands each of us one incense stick, we light them and with the firecracker in one hand and the incense stick in the other, both held far apart so they don't accidentally come together in our hands (that would not be funny), we approach the middle of the street. We stand a few feet apart from one another and light our respective fuses and run back towards our gate. We stand there, all four of us with our palms covering our ears. (We know it's loud, we chose the loudest firecraker, we want it to be loud. Pray, why then do we cover our ears? I look at photographs of Deepavali and the most I have are of a whole lot of us with palms, sometimes forearms because the palms are holding lit incense sticks, over our ears.)
Two loud booms and Deepavali has well and truly begun!
A few more varieties of firecrakers - a string of the longer ones, flower pots, sparklers - and we head back in. A couple of other early risers are already up and we hear sounds popping up from the homes around us, but content at being the first, we are ready to climb into bed again. The day has arrived but it's a long way to go before we'll allow ourselves any rest, so we might as well catch up on sleep before the house and the streets get too noisy.
A couple of hours later, it's breakfast time and then family starts arriving in drips and dribbles. By lunchtime we have a full complement of everyone in town. The more the merrier, especially at Deepavali. There's good-natured ribbing of the less brave among us, someone makes a loud noise just as your incense stick approaches the fuse making you jump, bravado and machismo are on full display as one or the other consistently picks the largest, loudest firecracker.
Soon this too gets tiring and it's on to a game of cards or carrom board. Bravado and machismo and teasing on full display here too. There is no space for everyone to sit down and eat together. But we've all been eating all day long and it continues well into the night when it's time for another session of firecrackers. This time around, the neighbors are also out in full force and somehow all the firecrackers get pooled and we're all into each other's stashes, laughing, running, hiding and covering our ears together.
Nighttime on Deepavali always has a different flavor. It's time for the more visually spectacular firecrakers to come out - the flower pots, the bhuchakras (they spin on the ground), the vishnu chakras (held in the hand), the rockets that shoot off into the sky (when they work as they're supposed to, or else they land on your neighbor's roof to be discovered months later). It's definitely time for the oohs and aaahs.
The next two days of the festival are more religious, with the Lakshmi Puja (prayers to the goddess of prosperity) and Balipadyami. More visits from relatives and more visits to relatives' houses, but nothing compares to the pure fun of that one day.