Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, dawned on a clear, crisp morning, with electric blue, serotonin-inducing skies and golden sunshine. My mother’s cheery voice bubbled out of my cell phone, as I sleepily made coffee.
“Hi San!” she chirped and I quickly turned the volume down.
The pale morning sun that warmed my skin as I stood on the black and white tiled kitchen floor had already set in India, and night, Diwali time, had arrived. Fireworks boomed in the background and fizzy sparklers hissed and crackled as they spouted silver showers into the night. My mother’s voice was ripe with the rounded, happy notes of family close by and an evening spent in good company. I could hear my sister and her husband laughing and was suddenly filled with envy.
I was very far from my Bombay roots, in a small Minnesota town called New York Mills, population 1,158, near Fargo, North Dakota. I had been away from home for over a decade, having left New Delhi for college in Philadelphia and then moving to New York, where I had lived for the past six years. I had been awarded a grant from the Jerome Foundation to be the writer-in-residence in Mills for October.
As my mother chatted on, I pictured the scene clearly. The day would have been spent rolling little wads of cotton into wicks, filling earthenware diyas with oil and lighting the whole house with a welcoming glow for the goddess of wealth. I could almost see bright red boxes of mithai scattered about with their pretty golden ribbons tossed aside. And, of course, there would be firecrackers:anaars, little triangle shaped crackers that showered a geyser like fountain of sparks into the air. Catherine wheels, whose crazy circles my cousins jumped into, as they zigzagged around in giddy happiness. Rockets, put into empty glass soda bottles, which shot into the air and burst, setting off the barking of the neighboring pack of stray dogs.
Suddenly my tranquil morning in a tiny, all white town blanketed in serene silence was shattered. I wanted it to be a festival night, I wanted fireworks, I wanted the pomp and splendor of Diwali.
After the phone had been passed around to various family and the conversations were over, the click of my cell phone as I flipped it off echoed in the silence. I walked over to my desk and turned on the computer. The calm and quiet had turned into a clamorous emptiness. Wake up and smell the gunpowder! I thought, not for the first time. What am I doing here?
The inevitable decision of whether to make a permanent life in the U.S. or to go back to India was made more complicated by my acquisition of a green card after a decade of waiting, and, almost as difficult to get, a rent stabilized apartment in the city. But the choices I had made, as if to counteract the factors that pinned me down to New York, became increasingly about getting away.
I left my full time job of five years in television and accepted invitations to be the artist-in-residence at colonies in different parts of the country. I went from the mountains of North Carolina to a 22,000 acre ranch in Wyoming, to an estate that bordered the Saratoga race track in upstate New York, before arriving at the small, mostly Finnish town in Minnesota, named after the defunct lumber mills that flanked the railroad bisecting the town.
I enjoyed the solitude of the residency, interrupted only by the occasional yoga lesson at the cultural center or Thursday night cards at the local bar with the director of the center and her friends. But today, picturing the rose-colored night skies over Delhi and the bobbing yellow flames lining windowsills of homes all over India, I felt hopelessly adrift. Fatal doubts started to creep in, poisoning the cheery yellow walls of the cottage, turning the picket fence outside into prison bars and the cheerful Halloween-carved pumpkins into mocking gremlins.
As I was sinking into self-pity, the phone rang. It was Alice, one of the Thursday night card players at the bar. She was retired, blond and regal, with a gravelly smoker’s voice and bore a distinct resemblance to Peggy Lee. She wanted to take me to a party that evening at the lakefront estate of her employer, a well-to-do lawyer. It didn’t sound too tempting: a party outdoors on a chilly night amidst complete strangers. On Alice’s urging, however, I agreed to go.
She picked me up at eight on a pitch-black night, and as we moved away from the city the stars grew larger and picked up luster. The lawyer’s property was off a tiny turn from the two lane highway into a cornfield in the middle of nowhere. We bumped across rutted fields in darkness, squinting to decipher tiny signs (turn right at a haystack). Finally we saw the distant glow of a fire and drove the car straight for it.
Most people, wearing checked flannel shirts and baseball hats, their faces flushed and ruddy, were gathered around the huge bonfire in the middle of a field. Some sat on lawn chairs near picnic tables loaded down with soda (“pop,” in Minnesotan lingo), chips, hot dogs, and 6-packs of beer. Alice and I got ourselves some beer and edged our way to the fire. A big sheepdog and a Labrador romped around and allowed me to make a fuss of them.
Alice pointed out the lawyer, a genial giant well over six feet tall, with a friendly face and a salt and pepper mustache. He strode over to his tractor, started it up, and headed towards the fire. We walked quickly out of the way as he drove straight at the fire with the front shovel attachment, picking up coal and firewood from the edges and heaping them on top of the flames.
As he shifted and reversed around the whole circumference of the bonfire, the flames flickered shadows across his face, which was red from exertion. He looked like the grinning gatekeeper of Dante’s inferno.
A beer later, I walked through a thicket of trees to the house, having refused Alice’s suggestion to “Just go behind the car!” When I came out of the bathroom, the lawyer’s wife was sitting on the sofa in their large and well-decorated living room. She seemed to want to talk, so I sat down across from her as she told me the story of a German exchange student who had stayed with them during the harsh northern Minnesota winter.
The girl was fascinated that her spit froze in mid-air. “And so she kept spitting!” Mrs. Lawyer said wonderingly. I could imagine a stout fraulein with blond braids wrapped around her head, spitting fiercely out into the atmosphere as frozen little balls pinged to the ground.
Today was a special day, I told her. A Hindu New Year in fact. According to legend, on this day Lord Rama, a very popular god, returned home after 14 years in exile. People all over India lit lamps to illuminate his path home and set off fireworks in celebration.
She didn’t know Rama, she said, but her husband did know the person who lit the Fourth of July fireworks in their region. It turned out that he had a bunch leftover and was going to set them off at the party.
“You’d better go or you’ll miss them,” she warned.
I jumped off the couch and said goodbye. I knew that another guest, at another party, would be told about the Indian girl who celebrated Diwali here. It was a nice thought that I, too, like the German exchange student, would become a story and live on in that tiny corner of the world.
I made my way back to the fire. In my absence, Alice had explained Diwali to the party, and they were delighted to be sharing a celebration with a billion people halfway across the world, with a real Indian in their midst.
Just then, the darkness right in front of me burst into a shower of golden shimmering mists, their expanding tendrils reaching towards me. The entire sky seemed to be taken up by the green, red, and gold shimmers, falling down to earth like the fronds of palm trees. They were so close that I could see where they started and follow their trajectory into the atmosphere. The night was crystal clear, and each spark was magnified in the rarified, freezing air.
I watched awestruck, my mouth gaping open in wonder. The host came up to me. His eyes twinkled into his jovial eyebrows.
“Want to set one off?” he asked, opening his hand.
Nestled in his palm was a tiny gray remote control with buttons numbered 1-9.
“Press number four,” he instructed, putting the remote into my hand.
I aimed the remote at the sky, as if it were a giant flat screen TV, and pressed 4.
Hmm. He scratched his head comically, peering at the remote.
“Ok, try nine.”
Nine—my lucky number.
I aimed at the stars again and pressed nine, and the big bowl of sky in front of me exploded.
Arms of gold reached out and embraced the party, the field, and the universe. They shimmered and twinkled and expanded across the sky, and I was enveloped in their golden glow. Gold reflected in our eyes as chrysanthemums of color splashed across our vision, again and again, filling my heart with delight and wonder. The people around me cheered and clapped at the magical display.
And there, in a cornfield in the land of 10,000 lakes, one lake for each mile between my home and me, a group of middle-aged mid-westerners and I celebrated Diwali.
Later, as we drove slowly home, Alice switched on National Public Radio. We heard the tail end of a radio announcer’s voice and then the strains of a sitar filled the car. I instantly recognized the song. It was from the now classic Indian film Umrao Jaan, set in the 19th century, about a child who is kidnapped from her home and becomes a tawaif, a highly skilled courtesan. Many years later, she finds herself back in the village from which she was abducted. Because of her profession, however, she remains an outsider.
The film is an expression of her longing to find home and is among the greatest Indian films of all time, not least because of the haunting ghazals she sings as she goes through her many transformations. The soundtrack to Umrao Jaanhad been my most frequently played tape ever since I had left India 11 years ago. I told Alice this and she shook her head in amazement.
“And to think you weren’t even going to come out tonight!” she remarked.
She pulled into the garden of my pumpkin colored house. As Asha Bhonsle’s voice filled her little car, we listened to the end of the song together. I closed my eyes and felt right at home.
|Sanjna Nanaki Singh’s personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, and her award-winning documentary “Out of Status,” has been broadcast internationally. She worked for five years at HBO New York and now divides her time between New York and New Delhi.|