Celebrating the margins

At the edges of festivals I find interesting human stories, the sort that I like to capture in photos. The last couple of years have not exactly been productive times for street photography, so I’ve rescued some photos from the dark depths of a hard disk. The featured photo is from the end of the Ganapati festival. Families from a fishing village gather at the shore of the sea to watch large images of the god being brought for immersion in the waters at the end of the festival. The children had created a viewing platform to watch from. I backed up against the crowd-control barrier at the edge of the sea to take this photo.

Around every religious place you find commerce in the necessities. Outside a Durga puja, I found this young man trying to sell flowers to visitors. I hung around across the road, sensing that a teenager at a repetative job would give me a good shot at some point. It wasn’t long before he started showing signs of boredom. I got my shot.

There are families who hop from one Durga puja to another, eating dinner at food stalls around them. I like to hang around these stalls, and not only because I like a snack. You can see interesting stories build and resolve at food stalls and the nearby tables. Festivals are times when families eat much more than they would normally do. Late one night I found this sleepy child apparently abandoned by his family at a table piled with the remnants of a feast on the go. The father came back soon with another fizzy drink for the child.

Diwali is a private time, spent with families. It doesn’t give you too many opportunities for a camera roving the streets. Instead I spend time at the pre-Diwali markets. Families are out buying lights and decorations for the home. The strange forms of these long stems of artificial lotuses created an interesting forest for shoppers looking for something new and different, and salesmen trying to convince them that they have found exactly what they are looking for.

Still recovering from Diwali

Plates full of laddus: rawa, besan, moong. Plates that are refilled constantly before they empty. Sweets and namkeen. A constant flow of tea, beers, and wines. Large dinners and lunches. Exchanging gifts. Youngsters raiding the fridge for a midnight snack. All rooms full of people talking. Calling up the people who are not in the country, and passing phones from hand to hand as more and more people wanted to chat. Lighting diyas or complaining of the smoke. We had great fun having The Clan over for a two day party.

The effects will linger for a while. For a while the shadow of the pandemic lifted. The pleasant warmth is something that I hope will take its time fading. The kilo I gained, sadly, will have to be shed quickly.

In a mellow tone

Diwali is a time when nobody will be too critical of a failed culinary experiment. You know that at worst the food will remain unfinished. Since Picnonotus was visiting, I decided to appoint her as a consulting chef for my experiment. I wanted to make a traditional Bengali sweet, called a pithe, but with a different filling. It could be my entry point for many kinds of steamed dishes.

The main ingredients were chocolate, cream, honey and rice flour. Niece Mbili looked very pleased when she saw me shaving long strips of cooking chocolate. Picnonotus demonstrated how fluid the rice flour batter would have to be. As you can see from the photo, it should flow smoothly, but not be thinner than needed for it to flow. When you pour it into the buttered steaming tray, the batter should flow and settle into a thin layer. If it is too runny then it wouldn’t support the weight of chocolate and honey. You can see that my expert consultant got it absolutely correct.

Two steps remain. Steam the pithe until it sets. When it is ready, the chocolate will have melted into it without flowing. The honey may spread, depending on how much you added. Slide the crepe out on to a plate, spoon the cream on, and roll the pithe into a patishapta (the word means a rolled up mat). You can serve this warm or cold. Fortunately the skepticism about this un-traditional fusion disappeared when people tasted it. The worst comment that I got was “You can call it fusion, not pithe or patishapta.” I am perfectly okay with that: diwali has a mellow tone, after all.

The doors of life

On the day of Diwali, today, I recall one of the quietest Diwali days that I had. It was in Tawang. We visited the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, a quiet little temple called Urgelling gompa. There seemed to be no one there. We looked at the beautiful 600 years old white gompa with its two yellow doors, uncertain about what to do. Our driver was a local boy, and he went to a nearby house and came back with the caretaker. The lean middle-aged caretaker carried two keys with which he unlocked the doors.

I’ve written about this place earlier, and the tragic-romantic life of Tsangyang Gyatso, the boy who became the sixth Dalai Lama. According to Gelug Tibetan Buddhist belief there is only one Dalai Lama, a living Bodhisattva, and the ruler of Tibet, reincarnated in body after body. The boy from Tawang who became Dalai Lama is said to have planted three trees and prophesied that he would return to Tawang when they died. One is said to have died in the 1950s, a few years before the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled from Tibet and came to India. I walked around and took photos of the two remaining trees.

On the way in we had turned the prayer wheels, helping to keep in motion the Dharmachakra, the wheel of Buddhist law. If you are religious, this is said to give you a spiritual connection with Gautam, the Buddha, who set that wheel in motion when he gave his first sermon in distant Sarnath. For me it is an automatic gesture, feeling the balance, listening for a squeak or rattle. The caretaker had a different interpretation; he thought the Buddha in me speaks when I pass a wheel. Behind the row of wheels I’d seen a chamber with chortens and lines of butter lamps.

In the days before Diwali the sight of oil or butter lamps with their wicks lit in a steady frame puts me in a mellow frame of mind. The Family says this is just my excuse for eating too much. That is certainly part of the mellowness. In any case, when I asked about the lamps, the caretaker was happy to take us through the lower yellow door into this chamber. The room was filled with these large chortens, with only a narrow passage left for us.

We walked past them to a table with lamps set out in rows. We began to light them. The ritual meant different things to different people. For the caretaker it was part of his duty, his dharma, so to say. For me and The Family the lighting of lamps on the days leading to Diwali was a continuity with the mellow memory of family gatherings in the past. Our beliefs give meaning to our actions, but, independent of meanings and beliefs, little acts like these are the doorways through which the continuity of our lives pass. We lit the lamps. The caretaker and our driver took a few and placed them below the chortens. Then we locked the door behind us and went away.

Diwali eats

In recent years I’ve resigned myself to putting on a little weight between the end of monsoon, when the Ganapati festival kicks off a season of festivals, and January, when the last of the indulgent feasts are done. Unless you are particularly unsocial, you cannot fend off the many invitations to parties from family and friends, or the boxes of goodies presented to you by neighbours and colleagues. Of course, social customs need you to reciprocate. This seasonal increase in weight across India must be sufficient to make the earth wobble a bit in its orbit.

I wonder how long ago Indians started stuffing themselves with sweets during the seasons of sharad and hemant. In my childhood I remember that push carts full of neon coloured lumps of sugar, molded into animal shapes, would make an appearance on the streets during Diwali. As a child these took up more processing space in my brain than all the crowded mithai shops around town. There would be a permanent space for laddus on the dining table, sadly with a strict count of how many had disappeared when adults were not keeping an eye on the box. This was also the time when several coconut based sweets were made at home. So I guess the tradition stretches back at least to the late 19th century.

I found it easier to trace this history in my own memory than by searching on the net, because of the confusion between history and mythology that is now rife in writing on this subject. I could not find mention of these festivals in the writings of late medieval or early modern travelers, although that could just be because they were not perceptive enough. I must really start to read more memoirs from early colonial times to see whether they mention these customs. So, for the moment I’m happy with these photos of the last of the chakli and laddu.

A decade of Diwali

2011 Tokyo: This was a quick visit to a small private university known mainly for its departments of music. I remember this meeting now as a time when I caught up with old friends, and made some new ones.

2012 Hong Kong: We planned this long lay over so that we could make a short trip into the city, look at the main sights, eat in one of the small but brilliant places in TST, and scope it out for a longer visit. We still haven’t made the return trip.

2013 Mumbai: I don’t remember why we didn’t travel that year. Perhaps we put off the planning for too long.

2014 Germany: A last minute trip to celebrate the 65th birthday of a colleague. I remember meeting up with so many friend; it was such a pleasant trip. Diwali should be a time like this.

2015 Germany

The featured photo is from that year’s trip. Another trip for a friend’s birthday. Again a lovely meeting with many people, but it rained all the time.

2016 Bangkok: We’d thought it would be a relaxed weekend, but it turned out to be hectic. We did enjoy this ice cream which looked like a plate of katsu.

2017 Mumbai: I remember this year quite definitely. We stayed home because we had traveled in October and we had a family trip planned for December. It is good to stay home for Diwali now and then.

2018 Guangzhou: One of the most charming cities that I have been to. The Family and I sat by the Pearl river on the evening of Diwali and had a long dinner.

2019 Wuhan: I wasn’t to know it for another three months, but the flu that I caught was to lay the world low the next year. Apart from that, I enjoyed this trip. Wuhan normally is a lively town.

2020 Mumbai: Like everyone else, we spent the year at home. We met family in fits and starts. A few people came home over the month, and the day after we had our first large family gathering, risky, of the year.

There’s a bit of contrast between previous years and now, but we are not doing things we’ve never done before. Its just that we’ve never done so much of the same thing before.

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