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.
sooooo hilarious, can’t stop cracking up. the only form of cracker we are allowed to burst in this part of the world:)
I am ROFL ing and so sharing this. Thank you so much for this spot of humor sunshine on a gloomy day far away from home.
One other thing that was always associated with a Deepavali moring was playing of naadaswaram in the radio, as we get prepared for “oil bath”. Most of the times it was namagiri pettai krishnan or shaik chinna moulana playing it….Wonder if “diwali” has shehnai replacing it !!!!
There was also a small Nadaswaram band playing in front of houses briefly on Deepavali mornings till you part with a coin midway.Brothers had similar cloths stitched as head of family bought in Binny stores in yards.Cloth stitched by tailor under instructions from parents to (first wet and dry cotton to undergo shrinking process irrespective of Sanforized markings)outlast the growing non-complan boys or girls so much so it had ‘tack’ on hands and leg portions of stitches for future expansion. Puja room with kolam and thambalam full of new clothes with kumkum mark instead of Dhobi’s; bakshanam varieties with lava like lehiyam as side dish;Gingelly oil slightly heated with spices in wall-kinnam (elongated stand attached cup for stability),crackers (Lion brand was the most sought after) sun dried on a precaution and stored in a tin etc.,with a thick king size bathi non-scented for lighting crackers (some autos start the day with such size scented bathis)Head of the family decides the auspicious start mostly 4am, lights the lamp and with prayers and singing of ‘Gowri kalyanam vaibhogame’ oil is massaged on to heads symbolically by seniority and all make a beeline to the cement floored bathroom for further liberal application and bathing in warm water and shikkakai powder.The thavalai (hugh vessel) for veneer(hot water) preparation was on firewood stove and smoke should not matter.Gents towel their head easily as mostly they had close crop military-men style (no scissor cut those days either barber on house visit with his tools deftly handling the person on a stool clad to the minimum necessity or visit to hair cutting saloon for a little more stylish handling with water spray bottle,diluted dettol application ,white cloth covering seated on adjustable chairs with mirrors in front and back covering all sides of our head, the final wipe with small wet turkey towel cleaning hair remnants behind years,collar area etc.).Women rolled towel with the hair and tied after initial drying and patting like we see in Leo Coffee Ad. One by one pranams to elders and to be presented with share of Bakshanam,crackers and respective per-stitched clothes.By 7 am the din gets minimised and those who have reserve strength in crackers play ‘to the gallery’.Reservation for Karthigai (as a sort of second innings) coming the following month is also done.Head of the family with his simple dhoti and towel leaves a sigh of relief after a month of budget balancing with beseech-ed demands from women of the household for the craze of new model saree design in Nalli named after an actress. If the family had thalai deepavali then mappillai had to be taken extra care for ready made shirt of high value and a Gold diamond studded ring on his finger (mostly negotiated at the time of finalization of wedding).Mappillai camps in girl’s house and Mappilai’s mother gets worried that her son would be hypnotized to tow girl’s side.Mappillai is known as Athimber and girl’s family make sure to serve him choice lunch,tiffin so that he does n’t complain and report to his mother. Families exchange greetings ‘Ganga Snanam aatcha’ and barter sweets /savouries. Enaam (baksheesh) operations s start with sighting of postman,garbage cleaner.self styled Gurkha roving watchmen making thud thud noise with their stick,vegetable vendor,milkman,rickshawallah etc.. Bonus expecting housemaid shows her dissatisfaction while cleaning vessels.Then comes the urchins with their universal song and Gummi clap around a basket carrying collection of un-burst crackers. ‘enge vandhe-iyakitte- vaanghithaa- evvalavu-nalana- eppo-ippo’!
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