I wrote this a couple of years ago for the in-house magazine of Chamiers, run by Mathangi Srinivasamurthi. Things haven’t changed all that much.
Nowadays Madras is called Chennai. Deepavali as it used to be properly called in olden time (not so long ago, how old you think I am) is now Divali. Perhaps it is representative of the changing trends in this, our city.
Last year I received an invitation for a cards party on the eve of Divali. To say I was surprised would be to put it mildly. Card sessions were always popular in the North where it is considered auspicious to lose money on the eve of Divali. But that they flourished outside Sowcarpet in Madras was news to me. Given my orthodox upbringing I had never learnt even one card game. Come to think of it, I cannot even shuffle a pack of cards and in those Math sums involving probability I needed counselling on what was an ace and what was a club etc. To me, the Queen of Hearts was a woman who made tarts that were stolen by a Knave. I called my friend and begged to be let off the card session, but my wife insisted and so we went and I made a fool of myself. I can in fact be called the Ace of Duds. However card parties before Divali are the rage in Chennai now.
To come back to Deepavali, time was when it was celebrated in Madras in the wee hours of the morning. Now we celebrate it by gambling and dancing into the wee hours, returning home with the milkman. Even in the old days we never slept the night preceding the festival and if we did it was invariably with the tailor. No, no, don’t get me wrong. It was just that we had no malls selling ready-made clothes and so all households bought yards of cloth from Binny’s and got them stitched. A favourite anecdote of my grandfather’s was of a corrupt brother-in-law in Government service who would order extra bales of curtain cloth for his office each year during Deepavali.
All brothers and even dads and uncles got the same designs and we all looked like a particularly badly assembled army regiment. The tailor would invariably take on more than he could chew, I mean sew and so we would all throng his doorstep the evening before the festival and return home late at night, triumphantly with the clothes. They would invariably be large and our tailor always consoled us by saying, “So what if it is large? You are growing children and soon the clothes will fit you.” Women fared better and got their stuff from Nalli’s.
The festival involved us waking up at an ungodly hour, like most Tambrahm events and also necessitated us taking an oil (ugh) bath. Apparently Naraka, stipulated this to Lord Krishna just before he was bumped off. And so we all endured the shikakai (no shampoo) falling into our eyes and turning them blood red and also feeling oily all over for the day. The new clothes, being all starchy, did not help. Crackers were burst before dawn, also as per the Naraka Standards. Then would come the bhakshanams (the savoury and the sweets- made at home and not bought from Grand Sweets) and we would fall on them. This would always lead to an upset stomach for which there was an antidote as well – the lehyam, which was a gooey, dark substance which tasted of flavoured mud but which magically put your system right.
By midday, Deepavali would wind to a close. The radio (and in later years DD) would always play “Unnai Kandu Naan Aada” from the movie Kalyana Parisu just to drive home the fact that it was Deepavali in case we had missed it. To make it clear to the meanest intelligence, they would play the happy and the sad versions and the latter would always cause some orthodox aunt or uncle to demand that the ungodly radio be switched off. Playing dirges on a happy day was simply not done. Wonder what they would say now when the channels bring special films all day long with murder and gore galore!
Doing the rounds of the homes of elders and getting blessed was de rigueur. If a newly wed couple was present it would be “talai deepavali”. Blessings would include the request for some “good news” from the couple pretty soon. Quite often the “good news” would be on its way or sometimes be present in person, a bundle of squalling humanity. Those were fertile times. Some of the younger uncles and cousins would under the guise of visiting someone far away push off to the theatres to see the latest Deepavali release. The others would fight for the latest Deepavali Malars, the huge tomes that all the Tamil magazines brought out for the occasion. These were so big and would change so many hands that they would return to the house only in time for the next Deepavali.
By evening, Madras would be dead. Or at least the Tambrahm side of it would be. No good event is celebrated after the lighting of the lamp in the evening was the motto. And as for lighting lamps all around the house, forget it. Why do we have Karthikai, would be the answer.
Wonder what happened to all that? Madras has changed and today the city speaks knowledgeably of Choti Divali, Dhanteras and so on. It is now a five day event, with the oil bath surviving amidst it all! Go for it Chennai is my verdict. One thing however has not changed. It always rains during Deepavali and keeping the crackers dry remains a challenge.