He lit a sparkler and handed it to me. I held it at an arm’s length and lit one for my younger sister and for other children on the platform. Their eyes were popping out in excitement. Mom walked over to the lookout point and gestured at the magnificent manicured gardens and sprawling tea estates on the green face of the Himalayan mountains. The train had stopped for fifteen minutes at Ghum, perhaps the highest point (7,407 ft) of Indian Railways. As the sun set it brought into focus the splendor of the dazzling white snow-covered Kanchenjunga peak, the third highest mountain in the world at 8565 ft. It lies between India and Nepal in the mighty Himalayas.
Dad’s face was wreathed in smiles. He lit a cigarette and repeated Mark Twain’s words: “Darjeeling, the one land that all men desire to see and having glimpsed once would not give that glimpse for the shows of the rest of the world combined.”
I lit another sparkler and wrote the words Happy Diwali over and over in the mountain air. I am sure that even today that image is still imprinted in Himalayan ether. That was my best Diwali! It was the autumn of 1966. Dad was posted in Calcutta (now Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal) and we were vacationing in Darjeeling, a charming hill town in West Bengal, once used as a resort by the British elite and famous for its signature Darjeeling Black tea.
On Diwali day, dad decided to celebrate the festival of lights on a special train ride. We boarded the narrow (2 ft.) gauge miniature train from the New Jalpaiguri junction. The shiny steam engine chugged and three blue carriages faithfully followed through the verdant tea estates. It was magical to step onboard this historic Indian Railways train from the 1880s, now a UNESCO heritage. Our hearts were puffed with sweet and squishy emotions, stuff that dreams are made of. Tinkling bells reverberated through the hills. Prayer flags fluttered in the mountain monasteries. The train carefully scaled a circuitous path along the craggy cheeks of our national pride, the Himalayas. Thick forests where snow leopards and Himalayan bears prowled filled our hearts with excitement. When we crossed hamlets and villages, the train would slow down, so that we could easily shake hands with friendly Assamese children, their cheeks rosy-hued with the crisp mountain air. Their smiles were guileless.
As the train spiraled along the Batasia loop and into a tunnel, our gazes were pulled inward. Mom had set a traveling altar with a silver image of a four-armed goddess Lakshmi. In mom’s prayer thali was a baby Ganesha idol, kumkum, sacred thread, a couple of white orchids, and barfi (flavored milk solid fudge). Dad was writing family names in his beautiful script. He wrote the names of other passengers on our journey that day. We gathered around them and invoked Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, good fortune and prosperity to join us on this train ride. We prayed that she would bestow the four goals for a meaningful life on us: Dharma, kama, artha and moksha. Later dad offered Diwali prasad to everyone on the train. I remember carrying the box of sweets with him as he bent down to accommodate his tall frame in the tiny compartment.
Dad loved to celebrate life. At Diwali, he pulled out all the stops for maximum enjoyment. He bought tons of sweets, colorful fruit baskets, mounds of dry fruit, new clothes for everyone, firecrackers and gifts for family and friends. While he was doing that he always kept safety first and foremost. This Diwali, as my grandson will extinguish his crackling sparklers in a pail of water, the sizzle of my often revisited childhood memory will remain with me forever.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.