diwali

Warm sesame oil simmered with turmeric, garlic cloves, cumin seeds, cilantro – scooped with fingers, pressed to scalp.  Come, come; va, va. Before the sun, come, come. Crouch on the pavement, pour colored powder through your fingers, build a transient protector of your home, a design of pink-chalk lotus flowers and lamps (ladies only, please come, come.) Later, sparkle the sky with tiny stars of your own making; joyful danger.

You long for the world to look like this: everyone outside on their roofs for as far as the eye can see; soft darkness, fireworks in every direction, too beautiful to be frightening (in your own country, fireworks are neatly planned and officially executed, right on time by people with licenses, from a certifiably safe distance from the gathered viewers.)  All day, you’re tired from waking before the gods but you couldn’t nap if you tried, for firecrackers we all call “atom bombs” alight outside on the street, upstairs on the roof.

Tears fill your eyes when, after scrubbing the oil from your hair, the whole family gathers, prays, blesses the new outfits, tiny gold dresses sewn for the children, expensive saris with threads of gold for the women, crisp, plaid dhotis and kurtas for the men.  (A turquoise sari with navy and gold flowers and the border that Appa and Amma purchased for you only after their attempts to inspire you to choose a sari that was “not designed for aged persons” failed.)  Amma kneels before Appa and touches his head to her feet; you look away; Appa, also embarrassed, says, “Not before all these people” to her, and she rises. Foreheads marked with ash, hands clasped, incense permeates, coconut chutney and mutton curry are served on banana leaves with idili, and sweet lime sodas; children scoop up the sweets laid as offering to the gods.  You have to excuse yourself to cry at what you cannot understand or truly take part in; at what is lovely and strange.

But that afternoon: Deepan, Appa’s son, has a high fever: Diwali subdued. It always happens; whenever there is a great crowd I get a fever. Deepan, who lived in North Carolina for a few years, who is quiet, friendly, sad, indiscernible.  You and him don’t talk much, but he tells you he doesn’t like the food here, much: he prefers your food. Mexican, Thai. Chicken. He misses the quiet.  He stays inside to listen to a British talk show rather than watch the explosions in the sky.  I know you! you want to cry to him. The most reserved Indians you meet are the ones who went to America and came back.  Deepen’s wife, Prema, wanted to go home. She missed being surrounded by family; she missed the food, and home. Tears spring to your eyes when their car drives away. Their sadness looks like your reflection in the mirror.

The night after they leave, Appa tells a story of an Indian couple arrested by the American government for mistreating their son. What right does the government have to interfere. A parent knows best. American students are less driven, perform less well, than Asian students. You people have no discipline. He emphasizes his age, his wisdom built in all those years. He links high divorce rates in America to women’s freedom, emphasizing that the cost of women’s rights is too high for the family to bear. He suggests that women who adopt do so because they fear the pain of childbirth. He wonders at the money we spend on our pets but not people who are suffering. Much of what Appa says frustrates and saddens me, but some of it, I am glad to have heard. Perhaps the “American government” who arrested the family maybe didn’t listen, couldn’t listen, to the Indian family; so much is lost in translation, always. I did after all cry twice on the day of lights and sweets, because cultural exchange is rising at 4am with only the women in the house to build something beautiful on your hands and knees, that will last only until darkness falls.

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