Deepavali – childhood reminiscences

S Balakrishnan
The simple dot caps and roll caps heralded the arrival of Deepavali since a month back during my boyhood days (1963-72). The pocket-friendly (cost-wise and convenience-wise) cap gave us so much of happiness but it needed much cajoling from us kids to buy them. Those were the days when money circulation was tight and consumerism was looked down upon. But to our delight we had much entertainment free of cost when we lived in Madurai.
There were two senior boys on the ground floor of our complex of 28 pigeon holes; they were not on good terms but lived next doors. One’s father was with Anil (Squirrel) Brand Fireworks, so he got lots & lots of fireworks for Deepavali; the other was rich enough to compete with this boy. If my six decades old memory is correct, the second boy was a Christian. Yet, he was sporting enough to compete with the Hindu boy merely for the sake of competing.  So, will the Hindu boy keep quiet ? It was vice versa on X’mas ! So it was literally lot of fireworks which we enjoyed from our first floor balcony.  If the ‘Anil’ boy lit one flower pot, the other would light a dozen flower pots in a row. If the second boy lit a 100-wala cracker, the ‘Anil’ boy would set a 1000-wala cracker to burst. We would merrily watch this free fireworks display and clap to take the competition to new heights !
Purchase of crackers topped our Deepavali list, pushing the rest, including new set of dress, only after this. We children would nag our parents to buy the crackers weeks ahead of Deepavali so that it can be dried in the sun to the maximum for a much effective Light & Sound show worth the money. Deepavali in Tamil Nadu falls during the North-East monsoon season (Oct.-Dec.) when cyclones are common; therefore, kids took care to sun-dry the crackers whenever the sun peeped out of the dark clouds.  
We would be preoccupied on Saturdays and Sundays, baking in the sun along with the crackers, every now & then turning over the crackers for full coverage. Despite our fervent prayers, it would invariably rain on Deepavali day, spoiling our mood. We three kids would first divide the purchase equally among ourselves and then start trading this for that and that for this, as per our preference. Out of each one’s share, one would set aside 1/3 for the Karthigai festival. This festival follows Deepavali later in the Tamil Karthigai month when houses and temples are decorated with oil lamps. Children would half-heartedly burst the saved up crackers as the next Deepavali was so far off, one long year after. But the grownups lamented that money was going up in flames !
A cracker shaped like small onion was the craze in those days; no need to light it up. Just throw it down with force and it would go bang. Naughty children derived much pleasure by using this vengaya vedi (onion cracker) to scare their ‘enemies’ in particular.
This cracker was banned for safety reasons, as it started bursting even while transporting. To burst dot cap, a nut-and-bolt shaped cheap device was available. The more dot caps you stuff in it and throw it down, the more sound, even beating the bang of an atom bomb cracker. Though the pistol was well oiled and preserved for the next Deepavali season, it never worked effectively. So this cheaper device was a boon to kids and parents as well.  Another cheap cracker was ‘olai vedi’, wrapped in palm leaf.
I remember preserving the empty matchboxes (at least a dozen for my share) to link them as goods train; 60s kids derived great pleasure through such simple make-at-home play items ! A bonfire of these matchboxes, cartons, crackers that did not burst, leftovers, bits & pieces marked the grand finale of our Deepavali.  The sparkler rods were all gathered diligently and sold as scrap.
I must consider myself blessed because our neighbor was in such a Government post that he received lots of gifts during this festive season. As he had only two little girl children, we were given the happy task of lighting up the fireworks for their enjoyment. Again, as we moved over to another town, the house owner there, a rich doctor, had three tiny kids. So, the task of entertaining them and getting ourselves entertained continued throughout my boyhood days!
The four wars with our neighbouring countries in 1965 and 1971 (with Pakistan) and in 1962 and 1967 (with China) gave us the kids patriotic fervor to stage battle scenes with Diwali pistols. Similarly, the launch of India’s first (sounding) rocket from Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala on 21 November 1963 sent our imagination high sky as we lit up the rocket crackers. Kollywood then was ruled by two super stars, Sivaji and MGR, whose new films would be released on Deepavali day. The crazy fans would vie and die for the first day first show record.
The concern for environment has now robbed the one-day Deepavali of its bright & colourful celebration with fireworks while our factories and automobiles continue to smog the world throughout the year.
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