Six-year-old Hari climbed the stool and peered over the balcony railing of his third-floor apartment. Downstairs, the car parking of blocks B and C had been cleared for tonight to allow the residents space for bursting crackers. Some of the older kids were now arriving with their bags of crackers and sorting them into heaps of phool-jhadis, anaars, chakris, rockets, laddees and the larger bombs that were usually saved for the big bang at the end.
From the opposite building, Hari’s friend Ria waved at him from her balcony. Her father stepped into the balcony, carrying a string of electric Diwali lights, which he began arranging along the railing. Ria’s mother, dressed in a traditional red saree, appeared carrying a tray of Diwali diyas — small lamps made of clay with a cotton wick dipped in ghee or clarified butter — and began placing the diyas along the edge of the balcony.
Hari’s gaze swept over the balconies of the apartments in the opposite building, most of them sparkling with Diwali lights. He stepped back from the stool and turned around to inspect his own balcony with its two grey chairs and four flower pots containing withering plants, except the Araucaria in the corner, which was not exposed to the unrelenting Delhi sun during the daytime due to its corner position.
“Hari, beta!” Hari’s grandmother called out to him.
“Have you seen my chawki?”
Hari lifted the wooden stool and carried it to the pooja room, from where he had picked it up. In the living room, he passed by the framed photograph of his father, Major Vikram Rathore, in his military uniform with several medals pinned to his chest. Hari paused, wondering when his father would return home. Even though Papa was usually posted at the border and kept the very bad guys from entering Indian territory, he always came home for Diwali and brought with him a sack — yes, a real large sack! — full of all kinds of crackers. But where was Papa this year?
In the small pooja room, Hari found his Dadi lighting the sandalwood incense sticks in the pooja thali and placing it in the wooden temple in front of the framed photos of Hindu Gods and Goddesses —Lakshmi, Ram, Krishna, Shiva — and a bronze idol of Hanuman. Dressed in a white cotton saree, Hari’s grandmother had a rudraksh necklace around her neck and several stone-studded gold rings on her fingers.
“Dadi, your chowki,” said Hari.
“Thank you, beta,” said Dadi, slowly lowering herself onto the ornate wooden stool.
A crackling and buzzing sound rang through the air, followed by a loud crash, plunging them into darkness.
“Oh, no! The transformer,” murmured Dadi.
Adjusting his eyes to the dim light emanating from the diya, Hari ran to his Dadi and clung to her.
“Don’t worry, my boy. It’s okay,” said his grandmother, wrapping her arms around him.
Hari felt comforted by the familiar scent of the jasmine flowers that his Dadi usually wore in her hair. “Dadi, I’m scared of the dark,” he said in a small voice.
Dadi squeezed Hari closer to her. “No need to be scared today, beta. It is Diwali, the Festival of Lights.”
“Dadi, can we light some diyas in the balcony?” he asked.
“Of course, my dear.”
Following his grandmother’s instructions, Hari scampered to the kitchen to find the clay lamps and the bottle of ghee.
One by one, Dadi began lighting the diyas and Hari started placing them all along the edge of the balcony.
“Dadi,” said Hari. “Why is Diwali called the Festival of Lights?”
Dadi smiled, adjusting her rimless glasses on her nose. “On this day, Lord Ram returned victorious to Ayodhya with his wife, Goddess Sita.”
“What is victorious?”
“Lord Ram was one of the four sons of King Dashrath of Ayodhya. He was the eldest and first in line to be the next king. But his evil stepmother wanted her son Bharat to be the next king. So, she called upon a favour from her husband, King Dashrath. Lord Ram was exiled to the jungle for fourteen years.”
“Fourteen years,” said Hari, his eyes becoming rounder. “That’s one more than Meera didi’s age.”
“Yes, your sister is thirteen,” said Dadi, smiling.
On hearing the swoosh of an anaar going off, Hari looked down to see Ria tracing an eight in the air with her phool-jhadi while her parents mingled with the other parents nearby.
“What happened then, Dadi?” Hari asked.
“Lord Ram was accompanied by his wife, Sita, and his younger brother, Lakshman. In the jungle, they were joined by Hanuman, who became a devotee of Lord Ram. After some time, the evil rakshas Raavan kidnapped Sita and took her to his kingdom, Lanka. Lord Ram, with Lakshman, Hanuman and the monkey army led by Sugreev, rescued Sita and killed Raavan.”
Hari’s eyes lit up. “And that is why we celebrate Dussehra.”
“Yes, my dear. Dussehra signifies the victory of good over evil. Twenty days after Dussehra, we celebrate Diwali. When Lord Ram, Goddess Sita and Lakshman returned to Ayodhya, the people of the city lit diyas and burst firecrackers to welcome them home and celebrate their return.”
Hari stared at the dancing flame of a diya. “Dadi, when will Papa come home?”
Dadi took a deep breath and Hari thought she trembled, which was odd because it was October in Delhi and winter was at least two months away.
“Dadi,” Hari said.
“We hope that your father, my dear son, will be home soon. I have to pray now, dear. Will you be okay?” she asked, raising herself with great effort from the chair.
Hari nodded and turned his attention to the children squealing and clapping downstairs while the chakris spun round and round on the ground, emitting a steady stream of dazzling sparks.
Oh, how he wished to light an anaar and watch with awe as its hissing and spitting sparks shot high into the air — reaching the height of the boundary wall surrounding the apartment premises —and cast a wonderful bright light on the faces of everyone watching. Last year, Hari had been too little to light an anaar and his father had promised him that he would light one next year. But where was Papa this Diwali?
Mummy too had been gone since afternoon and she still wasn’t home. Meera didi had been shut all day in her room, leaving Hari all alone.
Meera didi! Maybe he could convince her to go downstairs with him for some time. At least he could get a better look at all the firecrackers going off.
Hari dashed to his sister’s room and threw open the door.
Meera didi lay on her bed with headphones stuck in her ear and her eyes closed.
Hari tiptoed to her bed and climbed in, bringing his face close to hers. He gently tapped her cheek.
Meera didi opened her eyes and saw her brother’s round face. “Hey, moppet! What’s up?”
“What are you doing, didi?” he said.
“Listening to music. Do you want to try?” Without waiting for an answer, she plugged an earphone onto his ear.
Hari shrieked at the loud voices barking in his ear. He threw the headphones away. “What’s this?” he cried.
Meera didi smiled for the first time. “It’s rock music. It helps me relax.”
“Rock music,” said Hari thoughtfully. “Do they have rocks?”
“No, moppet. Do you want something?”
Hari’s face glistened with hope. “Didi, will you go downstairs with me? I want to watch the firecrackers bursting.”
Meera didi frowned. “Watch from the balcony.”
“No, I want to go downstairs. Please, please, please...”
“Hari, no! Now leave my room,” she said, plugging the earphones in her ear.
Hari stayed in his sister’s room for a few more minutes, pleading and cajoling and sometimes downright demanding, but she did not budge. It ended with Meera didi forcibly removing him from her room and bolting the door.
Hari returned to the balcony, sighing. This was not fair. He so badly wanted to go downstairs.
Wait a minute! He could go alone. He knew he lived in block B, third floor, apartment number six. He could go alone! And he would return before Dadi finished her pooja.
So, Hari tiptoed across the living room, glancing at the pooja room where his Dadi sat praying with her eyes closed. He sneaked out through the main door, closing it noiselessly behind him.
Hari’s heart beat madly as he hurried down the stairs towards the hissing and fizzing of the smaller crackers and the loud pops and bursts of the laddees and the bombs.
Finding an empty chair on the ground floor of the covered parking that provided an unimpeded view of the festivities, Hari watched with awe and a little envy the other children celebrating the Festival of Lights with their families.
“That’s my chair,” said a stern male voice.
Hari froze. He knew that voice. It was Ballu, the burly security guard who always wore an angry look.
“Sorry.” Hari scrambled to get out of the chair.
The guard kept standing, eyeing the empty chair. “Why are you alone, kid?”
Hari stared at his feet, mumbling something.
“Are you Major Vikram’s son?” the guard asked, his voice softening a little.
Hari nodded. “Do you know Papa?”
“Yes, he’s a good man. He will be okay,” Ballu added after a pause.
“Yes, of course. Dadi is praying for him.”
“Go and play, kid. I’ll take you home when you’re done playing.”
Hari found a little pebble under his shoe and kicked it away. “I don’t have any crackers. I want anaars, and phool-jhadis to light the anaars with. Papa says that’s how you should light an anaar — not with a candle but with a phooj-jhadi.”
“Come with me. I’ll buy you some crackers.”
Hari’s head jerked up to look at Ballu’s face, but it was obscured by the light bulb directly behind his head.
Mummy’s words rang in his ears.
Do not go anywhere with a stranger, even if he offers you sweets.
But Ballu was offering to buy him crackers, not sweets, and he wasn’t a stranger. Ballu knew Papa. He was Papa’s friend.
“Okay,” said Hari, grinning.
He took Ballu’s hand and together they left the apartment premises through the back gate, usually used by the drivers and the domestic help. It was a dark, narrow road but Ballu assured Hari that it was the fastest route to the small shop nearby that sold crackers.
Hari’s hand was sweating in Ballu’s grip, but he didn’t complain. As soon as the lights of the shop became visible, Hari squealed with joy. He watched with awe as Ballu emptied all his pockets to produce Rupees 350, the price of one box of eight anaars and one box of ten phool-jhadis.
As they began walking back with the packet of crackers held firmly in Hari’s grip, a thought occurred to him. “Ballu uncle, why are you not at home today celebrating Diwali with your family?”
Ballu uncle smiled and a hundred lines creased his face. “Have you noticed how old I am? I am old enough to be your grandfather.”
Hari thought about this for a moment. “Do you have a grandson?”
“Two granddaughters — the younger one is about your age. But they live far away.”
Hari looked up once again at his benefactor. “Do you miss them?”
When Ballu smiled, Hari thought he saw a tear in the old man’s eye.
“Very much,” said Ballu.
They now reached the gate and entered the apartment premises.
In the open space in front of blocks B and C, Ballu uncle lined up three anaars and lit a phool-jhadi for Hari. They lit the first anaar together, Ballu uncle showing Hari the right way to do it — place the anaar on the ground, crouch nearby, keep your face as far away from the anaar as possible, stretch your hand with the lit phool-jhadi towards the tip of the conical anaar and run away as soon as it catches fire.
They were lighting the fifth anaar when a taxi stopped in front of block B and Hari’s mother stepped out of it.
“Mummy! Mummy! Look, I’m lighting anaars!” shrieked Hari. “Ballu uncle showed me how to do it.”
On hearing about Ballu’s kindness and watching the joy on Hari’s face, the weariness on Mrs. Rathore’s face disappeared. She stood waiting while Hari finished lighting all the anaars and the phool-jhadis.
Then, Hari ran into his mother’s arms. “Mummy, how is Papa? When is he coming home?” he asked.
Hari’s mother’s smile reached her eyes and Hari knew all was well.
“Your father is better. The doctor said he’ll be okay,” she said, kissing her son. “Your father asked me to buy something for you and your sister.”
She pointed at a large carry bag she had brought with her.
Hari’s eyes widened with wonder at the boxes of phooj-jhadis and anaars and chakris and small bombs.
“Thank you for your kindness to my boy,” Hari’s mother thanked the security guard with folded hands.
As Hari and his mother stepped into the building to climb to the third floor, the power was restored, illuminating the whole building.
Hari clapped with joy. Everything was well with his world.