Each city, town and village in India celebrates Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, differently. So does Delhi - a city of paradoxes and of myriad migrants, who have made it their home. While they are inexorably shaped by Delhi, they in turn put their own distinctive stamp on it.
Petite Romola Gupta laughs delightedly when asked to recall her childhood memories of the festival. "My childhood Diwalis? Oh, I'm 72 years old now, but it is still a fascinating story. My father was the first proper allopathic doctor in Delhi. And do you know how the family arrived here? They came up the River Yamuna by boat all the way from Bengal to Agra. There were stories of river pirates attacking travellers, so my grandmother hid her jewellery in a pillow and clung to it, feigning illness. What an adventure! My uncle settled in Agra and my father carried on to Delhi and began his practice. It was a roaring success. We had a very big house in Daryaganj in Old Delhi. In fact, the road from Fountain to the Railway Station in Old Delhi is still called H.C. Sen Road - and it was named after him.
"A few days before Diwali, a tailor would settle down on the wide verandah and stitch new clothes for everyone in the house and the domestic help would roll strips of 'mulmul' (muslin) for the oil lamps. Candles were never used. We girls could only light 'phuljharis' (sparklers); it's the boys and domestic help who got to light the firecrackers. Those times were different. Many tropical diseases were fatal; so my father's rich patients would send across as gifts firecrackers, dry fruit and 'pista burfi' (a pistachio-flavoured sweetmeat) in big silver platters. Some even sent my mother gold jewellery. The minute a tray arrived at our door, we children would hover around inquiring 'thali me kya aya (what is in the plate)?'"
Romola's daughter Lolita Dutta, a design professor, chips in, "My father was a pilot who flew for the Birlas (a prominent business family in India). When I was little, they would send across 'kaju' (cashew nut) and 'pista katli' specially ordered from Varanasi. Mmm... I can never forget how they tasted! I still prefer Indian sweets during Diwali to all the chocolates in the world. A few years ago we got pulled into this hectic gambling frenzy that consumes Delhi-ites during the Diwali week. We then realised that it was simply not our scene. Neither is the family overly religious. Diwali for us is more about dining and wining and spending time with friends and family. My grandmother would tell me stories from the epics, but Mother's very clueless. Everything has become commercialised now. Earlier, people gave gifts in gratitude or in affection. Now bribes come disguised as Diwali gifts!"
At the other spectrum is unlettered Poorani. Unable to eke out a living in the tiny village of Attandamardur in Tamil Nadu, she migrated with her husband to Delhi seven years ago - with just the clothes they wore, their baby girl, Sandhya, and hope in their hearts. But they were met with an alien language and callous strangers in the city of their dreams. To add to Poorani's despair, Diwali - or Deepavali as she calls the festival of lights - came along at that point. She'd lie in bed for hours imagining how the houses along their street back home would have been lime-washed for the festival.
Today, she can effortlessly recall how her married sisters would bathe early in the morning, smear their faces with turmeric, before sweeping the house spotlessly clean. Then, dressed in new saris with fragrant jasmine garlands entwining hair, they would visit their extended families. She particularly remembered the revelry, as the women fried 'vadas' and 'murrukkus' (fried savouries) to a crisp and steamed 'idlis' (rice cakes) to spongy perfection before offering them to the gods, especially Balasur. The men in the family would then go forth to destroy the paper demons in the morning and then return to enjoy a hearty lunch that always included mutton curry followed by 'payasam' (a popular sweet dish in South India). At night, they would visit the stalls near the temple, which sold idols, clothes, balloons, snacks and sweetmeats. Street theatre and dancing would follow. "How different the atmosphere is in Chennai!" she exclaims in fluent Hindi, as she expertly rolls 'kuttu rotis' (Indian bread made from buckwheat flour) and stirs the 'makhane ki kheer' (puffed lotus seed milk pudding) for the Navratri lunch in the Delhi house where she works as a domestic maid. "Now I cook the night before the festival and rush through my 'puja' so that I can help all the 'memsahibs' during Diwali. I'll lose my job if I dawdle at home. But my employers are kind and give me pressure cookers, clothes, sweets and crackers for the children during Diwali. But what I value most is time these days. It has become a scarce commodity - we only find time to feast and celebrate the festival late at night. And that too just the immediate family. Most of our family members are so very far away. Delhi is our home now and we have to adopt to its ways."
Even as she speaks the doorbell tinkles. Poorani's three sprightly children in new clothes, hair well oiled, hold aloft a stainless steel tiffin box. "For you," the eldest girl Sandhya smiles, eyes brimming over with pride. Crisp 'medu vadas', homemade 'idlis' and halved bananas. I grin delighted, wondering when Poorani found the time to make all this. I ask what they want for Diwali. "Jeans with sequin flowers," says Sandhya. "A BIG gun," pleads Venkatesh. "I want to visit Madras," declares the youngest firmly, who calls herself Vanilla.
Everybody in this city of migrants may imagine Diwali differently but the one common thread that runs through their narrative is the optimism, good cheer and sparkle that is intrinsic to the festival of lights.