Twenty first century Hindu families pride themselves on holding on to traditional Hindu family values and traditions while making a switchover to modern western modernity. But Aryas are an odd Hindu family. They are confused between tradition and modernity. Three generations ago, the Arya paterfamilias converted to a new Hindu reform movement that swept the subcontinent. Speaking back to Christian colonialists who had labelled Hindu religion as pagan and its rituals and beliefs as superstitions, the reformists did away with all the elaborate rituals, festivals and beliefs that marked orthodox Hinduism. They returned to ancient Vedic practices and their monotheism. In the process, they did away with all the conviviality that accompanies all Hindu festivals.
As a staunch follower of the reformist movement, the Arya patriarch banned the observation of all rituals related to Diwali, the most important festival in the Hindu calendar, in his house. He declared that the family would neither observe any fasts nor offer prayers to idols. Following the colonial logic of extravagant celebrations of Hindu festivals as the prime cause of indebtedness, he would not permit his wife to buy new garments. Piety met frugality and he prohibited the bursting of firecrackers as an unnecessary indulgence. The sole ritual that the family, as a business family, was the exchange of sweetmeats with extended family, friends, and clients. Arya found an ingenious way of economizing even in that essential expense. Instead of ordering hundreds of boxes of sweetmeats as other business families did, he merely swapped the boxes that they received from others ensuring that the same box did not find its way to the giver. The leftover boxes, the ones that were too plain or stale to be gifted, were left for the family’s own consumption. Since sweetmeats were served only to guests the rest of the year, the members of the joint family looked forward to the annual or biannual treat notwithstanding the handful of sweetmeats that was their lot. A special meal was cooked on the day and shared by all the family members. Minimum number of lamps was lit to drive away darkness and the rest exorcised through a fire sacrifice accompanied by the chanting of Vedic hymns. It was important for families to bond over the evening chanting, the Arya patriarch explained to his children and grandchildren.
But the younger son’s new bride Asha was not convinced by his argument. Deeply disappointed at not being bought new garments for the occasion, she was amused when she was offered a single sweetmeat and annoyed when the children in the family were no allowed to buy firecrackers. When she was a child, their own father would take all of them shopping and ask each child to choose a wooden toy. Additionally, they shopped for clay toys, puffed rice bound together with jaggery and animal and bird figures made of sugar. In her parental home, they donned new outfits, gorged on sweetmeats, and burst firecrackers to their hearts’ content. On the Diwali night, they would go for a walk in the neighbourhood to admire the lights in others’ houses before returning home to a feast cooked by their mother. But she dared not voice her disappointment as a new daughter-in-law. Not only that, but she also adopted the mantra about families bonding on Diwali in spirit as her idea of Diwali.
After they left the joint family and moved into a home of their own in another city, she religiously followed the paterfamilias’ injunctions. Happy to have a home of her own, she did not insist on buying new garments, jewellery, or consumer goods for the occasion. Following the family rules to the letter, children were bought small sparklers not noisy firecrackers. She brought out all her embroidered linen to give it a festive look. She spent the entire day planning and preparing a festive lunch and dinner for the family. She bought their favourite sweetmeats for dessert. When the evening set in, she dressed in one of her formal saris and got the children to dress in their ethnic attire before lighting lamps in the house. The family stepped out together to admire the lighting in the mansions of the industrialists who lived a few lanes away before sitting down to relish the special dinner she had lovingly cooked. Diwali was spending the day in the warm embrace of the family. But as the children left home for higher studies and began working, she learnt to make do with merely lighting lamps in the empty nest.
A few years after her husband’s superannuation, they decided to move to the same city where their children had found employment so that the family could be together. Asha was extremely excited about having a Diwali family reunion and prepared a long shopping list of all the things she needed to make the Diwali memorable. She went back to her childhood and insisted that they celebrate it the same way – decorate the house with paper lanterns, clay toys and earthen lamps. They went to the Diwali market to look for puffed rice with jaggery and sugar figurines. Asha got the house cleaned and brought out her embroidered linen and cushion covers to give it a festive look. She prepared a special dinner for her children. She arranged flowers in a crystal vase and placed sweetmeats and snacks in silver bowls on a white lace tablecloth. She had the lamps arranged in rows and the oil filled in so that as soon as the children arrived they would light the lamps. Finally, she dressed in one of her formal saris and waited for them to arrive. The evening had set in. She could see lamps being lit in the houses of their neighbours. But there was no sign of their children. She and her husband quietly began to light the lamps before it turned dark in the hope that the children would join in soon. They might have got caught in the traffic jam, Asha reasoned, and kept listening for the sound of cars pulling in. At 10 p.m., she gave up and sat down to a quiet dinner with her husband and retired for the night.
Asha was up early and went about clearing up the lamps from the window sills. She put away all the fine linen she had brought out along with the fine bone china and cutlery. She gave away a large portion of the special dinner to her house help and the cleaning lady. Then, she served her husband breakfast and sat down with her own breakfast and cup of tea waiting for the phone to ring. It finally did at 11 a.m. It was a call from her children apologizing for not being able to make it home for Diwali as they were busy celebrating it with their friends. But they would dearly like their parents to visit their swanky apartment in the evening and watch their lighting and decorations. Asha and her husband, always ready to adjust, quietly acquiesced to their plans. This pattern repeated itself in the decade that followed. Each year, Asha would hope that this year family could get together in their home on Diwali. But Diwali did not mean families reuniting any more. Diwali was another pretext for holding a party for friends. Asha moved in with one of her children after her husband passed on. She particularly missed him and her own home on Diwali. They would be alone every Diwali but they would be alone together.
This Diwali there were restrictions on people getting together. She assumed that it would be the perfect opportunity for families to bond with their immediately family members. She was up with the sun and waited for others in the house to rise. Perhaps she could cook a special lunch, she thought to herself. But she was afraid to try on the new state-of-the-art gadgets. Besides, her hands shook and she was likely to drop food stuff adding to the cleaning lady’s work. She made herself a cup of tea and sank into a reverie. She could see herself as a young housewife tidying the house for Diwali celebrations. Her husband had brought hot jalebis for breakfast and other sweetmeats for the evening. She pulled out fresh vegetables from the basket and set out to cook her family’s favourite dishes for both lunch and dinner so that she would be free to celebrate with them in the evening. Her husband was now asking her to light the lamps and the children were pulling out the few sparklers they had been bought. Before she could warn them to be careful, she was shaken out of her daydream by the sound of coffee brewing loudly in the kettle.
Her children, absorbed in preparing Sunday brunch, hardly noticed her sitting alone in a corner. After brunch, they disappeared in their rooms and emerged in their festive best carrying a long list. Unable to organize a real Diwali party, they had settled for a zoom party. She watched them take up their positions strategically in front of the webcam. The calls began soon after. They made several zoom calls to those they had been celebrating Diwali over the last few years. Most of them were friends and the rest were to distant relatives. Suddenly they noticed her sitting in a corner and politely invited her to join in the fun. After loud greetings wishing each other a Happy Diwali, there was a lot of oohing and aahing over the outfits and the jewellery. Decorations in the house were exhibited with pride with zoom-ins of pictures of gods and goddesses. Festive meals ordered from a takeaway were prominently displayed. Locked in with their immediate families for months, the revellers were grateful to see other faces, even if online. Despite having no connection with those with whom they were celebrating, she found herself enjoying herself. At least, her children were not busy at work and the house was filled in with happy sounds. Three hours later, when all the zoom calls were complete, they sat down to eat their special Diwali lunch. Sick of eating leftovers from the refrigerator the entire fortnight, Asha feasted on the samosas, naans and koftas and sweetmeats that had been delivered home.
In celebrating with friends and distant relatives in another continent, she had forgotten to call her other children and the family in India. She glanced at the clock and realised it must be close to midnight in India. Unable to make WhatsApp calls herself, she got someone in the house to help her call. There was no response from the other end. Some of those she called were making zoom calls to their friends. Others had gone to bed after waiting for her call all day. “Don’t worry”, she was assured, we will upload our zoom party pictures on WhatsApp. She found the next morning that WhatsApp was choked with photos of families celebrating with their loved ones or with friends. But she did not know how to open them.