Dim Memories of the Festival of Lights

By Farouk Gulsara

Deepavali Kolam in Penang, Malaysia. Courtesy: Creative Commons

In my naive childhood, I thought that Deepavali was one big celebration all over India and of those of the Indian diaspora the world over, at least of those of the Hindu faith. Bizarrely, I must have thought the whole of India would be up in jubilation anticipating the arrival of the festival of lights. Obviously not: the discussions surrounding the recent UNESCO recognition of Durga Puja as an Intangible Cultural Heritage are anything but unison. Now the Gujaratis want Navaratri[1] as a cultural loom. Interestingly, the people in power in Tamil Nadu want the harvest festival of Pongal as the main Tamil festival.

Indians who were brought in by the British to work in the Malayan rubber estates in the 1930s were mainly from Tamil Nadu. They celebrated Thaipusam[2] and Deepavali with much pomp and fanfare. Both days were soon declared holidays in many states of Malaysia.

I do not particularly remember my childhood memory of Deepavali being particularly joyous. Deepavali was another unnecessary expenditure in my home. We were a lower middle-class Malaysian Indian family of the 1970s. My thrifty Amma looked at this merrymaking as a hindrance. It was also the busiest time of the year for her. She was a kind of Indian Auntie Scrooge. She would drum up upon us at every moment that if one is healthy and wealthy, every day would be Deepavali. Deepavali comes once a year, right. But then, it comes every year.

Amma was a kind of local rock star amongst the flat dwellers when it came to stitching saree blouses. She was the go-to person for the aunties to enhance their assets and anatomy to look good in their sarees, even though most of them were overtly oversized and out of shape, to look trim and alluring, in their eyes, of course. Amma would use her talent to supplement Appa’s meagre take-home after the creditors’ scavenging.

She took in more orders than she could chew in her zeal to make hay while the sun was out. As the days grew nearer, she would become edgier and edgier. She would burn the midnight oil trying to finish the orders, as her customers would trickle in, demanding in desperation for their Deepavali blouses. She would smile apologetically to her clientele, but once they left, all of us, including Appa, would be the brunt of her frustrations. She would go on a monologue about the hopelessness of life, blaming all the people in her life, including God, for her miseries.

My sister, Sheela, grudging, had to help her, cutting loose ends, stitching buttons, edgings, and general tidying the blouses. Occasionally, Amma would cut or sew something wrongly, and that was when all hell would break loose. No one was spared of her screaming tirade. The smacking of children was legal then.

Deepavali was generally not what Malaysian Indian students, that is, those keen to score well in the Malaysian public examinations, looked forward to. Most, if not all, major public examinations were held at the end of the year. It made perfect sense as that was when the rest of the school would have finished their academic year, and there would be peace and quiet to conduct examinations. The trouble is that Deepavali mainly falls in late October or early November. Sometimes, the celebrations fell right smack between papers. The school would also be holding their end-of-year examinations if it was not for the public papers. Hence, we thought Deepavali was just another off-day to cramp up for the tests.

We, the children, could look forward to our annual sort of ‘pilgrimage’ thronging the bargain-hunting haven of Penang’s Campbell Street’s cheap sale’s stores two to three weeks before the auspicious day. We could look forward to the only two sets of new attire they would buy for the next twelve months. Seeing Amma bargain with the shopkeepers for the best price, I sometimes pitied the sellers. Sometimes, I feel like telling Amma to just pay what he asked. No, she would not do that. She would go to another shop, start another boxing match, loose, and return to the first shop smiling sheepishly.

As the days got closer, Amma would get even more and more high-strung. The children would be at the receiving end as the sewing orders piled up, and she could not find the correct thread colours for her blouses. In the midst of all that, some cloth piece or button would go missing, and then there would be a ruckus. Everyone would be roped in to search only to find the missing item right under her nose, where it would have been all the while.

Amma would become more desperate. The children, all preparing for the examinations, would be nagged for not helping enough, unlike other children – as if we were the only children in the world who needed to study! The sewing sessions would go on and on till the morning of Deepavali. On one occasion, probably due to fatigue, she actually cut out the wrong design for the wrong customer, and Amma had to replace the material later. Probably that customer must have ‘celebrated’ Deepavali that year with no saree blouse!  She might have passed it off as another new fad – as an empress in ‘new clothes’, perhaps!

About a week before Deepavali, cookies would have to be prepared in the middle of this entire melee. By tradition, the first to be cooked must be oil based; hence the opening ceremony was done by pressing murukku (a deep-fried snack made from rice flour and spices) and ghee balls (ney orundei). With a traditional and cumbersome murukku squeezing device, I would be assigned to give my muscle power to press down the murukku dough. A few other cookies would be baked in the then-spanking-new electric oven. To add to the local flavour, Amma would stir up sticky glutinous in brown sugar for a delicacy called ‘wajik‘.

One particular Deepavali eve, I remember an incident that triggered a stir in my neighbourhood. We were living on the 15th floor of a 17-storey low-cost flat. Residents were packed into tiny pigeonholes we called home. Privacy was the most diminutive of the priorities as we paved through life. Sheela was left to guard the fortress as my parents went off to the evening market to get groceries for the big day. I had gone off to school. I was in the afternoon session[3] that year.

I returned home to a big commotion outside my flat. Most of the neighbours were standing outside the unit, banging on the door, calling for Sheela and talking loudly amongst themselves. I peeked through the blind panel of the door. I could see Sheela slouched cosily on a sofa with her hands on her right cheek deep in slumberland. The television in front of her was blaring loudly, further drowning all the commotion outside. She was not too far from the door, but she continued snoozing. I guess all the late nights helping Amma must have gotten to her.

 Residents getting locked out was nothing new in our neighbourhood. I suppose it is one of the events that got the neighbours together to mingle and get to know each other. Among us were self-appointed ‘specialists’ who devised their own gadgets to deal with any locked-out situation. The most typical item used by most was a charcoal stirrer. I guess that is how laparoscopic surgeons got the idea of performing keyhole surgery. One with hyper-flexible joints was sometimes sorted after to insert his hand through the door blinds!

Yours truly saved the day when I managed to manoeuvre my hand through the door to flip the lock open. All through the melee, my sister was in total bliss. Finding her snoring, oblivious to all the pandemonium outside, Appa went on to reprimand her in the usual way – KABOOM! (i.e. smack).

With all that build-up, preparation and countdown, Deepavali was actually an anti-climax – except for the new clothes, the food and the angpows (money packets) we received after distributing cookies to our neighbours. Amma would be sleeping after finally finishing her sewing and cooking. Appa would catch his forty winks on his easy chair, and we, the children, would watch all the special programmes on TV. Nobody actually came to visit us, even on Deepavali day. The afternoon would come, and the family would again manifest in front of the idiot box to watch the Deepavali special Tamil movie on TV. When this was over, essentially Deepavali was over and reality bit in. It was time to prepare for school the following day. On Deepavali nights, we would fire up a couple of Chinese sparklers.

All the money collected in the angpows would go straight into our Post Office Savings accounts in the next few days. The grand finale of the Deepavali curtain would fall a few days later with the family outing to the movies, a Tamil movie, packed with cookies that Amma had prepared as viewing snacks. Then, it was the school holidays, and another school year would come.

[1] A Western Indian festival in honour of the Goddess Durga, celebrated around the same time as Durga Puja

[2]  The festival in January- February (called Thai in the Tamil calendar) commemorates the occasion when Durga gave her son, Murugan (or Kartikeya) a divine spear to defeat a demon. It is also commonly believed that Thaipusam marks Murugan’s birthday. It is a national holiday in many countries such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Mauritius. In India, in Tamil Nadu, it  is declared as a holiday but not celebrated in other parts of India.

[3] Schools in Malaysia and Singapore often ran two session – morning and afternoon.

Farouk Gulsara is an occasional writer who blogs at Whenever he gets nostalgic about the time that whisked by, he pens down whatever his grey cells are still able to retrieve.