Our Diwali week was epically exciting, full of light, laughter, and life.
My weekdays were spent establishing a routine for the remainder of our time in Delhi. I dedicated each morning to Dignity Preserves, researching quality aspects of pickling. In the afternoons, I ambled my way through the snake of dirt pathways to the school where I would tutor a delight of a girl, Martha, in social sciences. This week’s topics were WWII, latitude and longitude, and the topography of India, a subject in which I am very knowledgeable.
The atmosphere in the city this week was one of excitement and anticipation. Diwali was coming! Streets and shops were bustling, families put up lights to decorate their homes, and even petrol stations had joined in, with flickering colours draped from their overhangs. Sector A, Pocket A was all dolled up too. My favourite of its decorative additions were red and white lights festively strung on the entrance barrier gate and a sign that a child made, wishing us “Happy Diwali”, hung with pride at the entrance of his mother’s vegetable stand.
What a wonderful time we had this week, filling our evenings with exploration! We visited the Lodi Gardens Tuesday evening – a lush park freckled with ruins from the 15th-century Lodi Empire. We strolled through the park at dusk, the evening light turning the round-topped, stone temples golden and then into silhouettes. The sky and the trees were filled with chattering birds, butterflies fluttered past us, and the otherwise oppressive smog coloured the air with an atmospheric mist. Our romantic evening was topped off with dinner out and an assertive command from our friendly waiter regarding mouth fresheners: “And now you will have some sweeties. Ok.”
The smog was so thick early last week that when Kyle brushed up against a leaf, it left a dark, black line across his face.
(None of the haze in the photo is cloud; it’s all smoke and smog.)
But Wednesday morning met us with a gentle breeze which, to our delight, had inspired the smog to continue on its journey. That day’s biggest surprises came from my conversations with Martha. When I asked for her birthday, she told me that she did not know because her mom had forgotten. Martha is from Nepal and I’ve since learned that it is common in the Northeast not to know one’s birthday. She also mentioned, during our discussion of longitude and latitude, that her mother would not believe her when she tried to explain that the world is round, not flat.
Later that evening, Thapa was excited to show Kyle and I that a live cricket match was on TV – India versus Australia. We joined him to watch, but after a few minutes he had to leave. Several minutes later, mid-match and without changing the channel, the program surprised us by switching games to Pakistan versus South Africa. At this point Kyle ran upstairs to grab something, and when he returned several minutes later, he found me watching tennis on the same channel! No matter what you do in India, you’ll be confronted with the unexpected.
Kyle spent the next two days at his conference on historical photography, and those evenings served as my inauguration to Northeastern culture. On the first evening, we met with Kyle’s colleagues (two from Holland, one from Germany, one from Delhi, one from Nagaland, and his supervisor, Joy, from Mizoram – the state which Kyle is studying) at Nagaland Kitchen. We all enjoyed the classic Indian beer, Kingfisher Lager, over tales of mischievous monkeys in Delhi. We were at the mercy of the Naga colleague in terms of ordering food, and when one person asked if we could order vegetarian, Joy replied that “we’ll be waiting a very, very long time…at a different restaurant!” Some of the food was delicious – charred pork ribs made out fat, sprout salad, Mongolian chicken – and some was, well, let me preface the next comment by recalling Kyle’s experience of introducing tomato soup to a person in West Bengal. The Bengali’s reaction was of complete disgust and revulsion. How could anyone ever eat that? One of the Naga dishes was fermented pork and soya beans. The smell was akin to eating a meat dish out of a Tupperware container, sealing the container with leftover food in it, forgetting about the container in your hot car for a week or so, then opening it to reveal the delicious contents inside. It tasted just like it smelled.
I washed that dish down with dessert at Cafe Coffee Day where I ordered a cappuccino and was delighted that a chocolate sauce topping is a common addition here. A trip to the washroom nearly caused me to succumb to giggles when I ascended the stairs and found that the ceiling was only about 5 1/2 feet high. I felt like I was in Loompaland!
The next evening, after Kyle’s successful paper presentation, we journeyed to JNU for traditional dance performances of the Northeastern States. It really was spectacular. The event took place in an amphitheatre just after the sun set and cool air refreshed us. The Mizos’ dance was particularly incredible: women dance a routine hopping in and out of long, bamboo poles that the men rhythmically slap together. All this is done in traditional, Mizo dress.
Afterwards, the crowd got pumped up for a fashion show of each State’s traditional clothing. The Nagas sported my favourite outfits, adorned with feathered headdresses for the men and, for the women, headbands with gigantic, gold chains attached to each side.
A Northeastern dinner followed (after an incredibly awkward experience of being escorted to the front of an enormously long queue by a Mizo woman from Kyle’s conference). The fermented foods were not nearly as pungent as the previous night and we really quite enjoyed our meal. The most notable delicacy was fermented King Chilli. King Chillies are the hottest chillies in the world! I am fairly confident, however, that the fermentation process dilutes its potency but they still sent what felt like a massive adrenaline rush to the top of my head, made my face tingly, and then left a comfortable warmth in my stomach.
The weekend came and brought with it much excitement. On Saturday morning we visited Gandhi Smriti, the place where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. He spent the last five months of his life in this peaceful, green oasis. The house in which he stayed has been converted into an excellent museum that outlines his philosophies and the story of his life. On display are his remaining worldly possessions such as his canes, sandals, and, most notably, his glasses – perhaps the most iconic glasses in the world!
In the surrounding area is Gandhi’s outdoor, red stone prayer chamber, the interior of which has now been decorated with a vibrantly-coloured mural that depicts the story of his life. Unquestionably the most powerful part of our experience was seeing the monument that was erected in the precise location where Gandhi was shot and killed. Stone footsteps were laid down so we could retrace his last steps. It was an amazing place to reflect upon how significant Gandhi was and is, not only for India and our world, but also on a personal level, as a seeker of peace through non-violent means, and on a religious level, as Gandhi reflected some of Jesus’ teaching perhaps better than most Christians do.
For a complete change of pace, we went afterwards to Dilli Haat, a Surinder-recommended artisan craft and food market. As soon as we entered, we were surrounded by everything that is colourful, sparkly, and fantastic. Stalls of food to represent every state sent aromas wafting by as we shopped, and eventually succeeded in luring us in. Tempted also by hand-painted silk scarves and wooden-soled shoes, we bought a leather-bound journal with handmade paper, and two black stone mugs from Nagaland.
With the intent of finding Diwali gifts, we also went to the INA Market, which was madly busy with locals scrambling for their own Diwali gifts and food to enjoy. Every inch of every stall was covered with wares, from sparkly saris, to boxes of Indian sweets, to trays of nuts wrapped in red ribbon, to shoes of every colour. I fell in love with a beautiful grey and red frock set and we bartered hard to lower the price to only 900 rupees (about $15). We also stumbled upon the unventilated meat market, the stench of which made my stomach turn, and saw a display of chickens – the bottom rack made up of cages filled with chickens milling about, and the top rack lined with dead chickens, plucked and prepared for cooking.
(At the Saturday market in Vasant Kunj.)
(At the Saturday market in Vasant Kunj.)
Later that evening, we took Surinder and Pawan up on their invitation to play cards. It is said that those who play cards on Diwali will have a prosperous year, so every year Pocket A neighbours get together with bits of change and try to make a few rupees. We enjoyed snacks, sweets, and dinner and played cards late into the night. We lost terribly!
The next day was the big day! Diwali! We met two women from Oregon, Antigone and Kelsey, who are also staying at Chhoti Haveli and the four of us decided to take a trip to the Hauz Khas Complex – a complex of medieval, Islamic ruins. With permission from our auto driver (“four people no problem”) we all piled into the tiny three-seater and the little engine chugged us along with audibly significant effort.
On entering the park, we finally saw a sight that I had been greatly anticipating – a family of monkeys! Clearly having just stolen someone’s lunch, the whole family was tearing apart and enjoying pieces of naan bread. When I got close to the smallest monkey to attempt a photo, he looked at me right in the eyes, his eyes widened, his mouth opened as if to gasp, then he hastily tried to put the naan behind him so I couldn’t steal it and jumped off into a tree to continue eating. He stole that naan fair and square after all!
The Hauz Khas Complex was stunning. The central portion of the Complex was a man-made lake that, though shockingly unnatural in its green colour, was strikingly beautiful. The setting sun reflected pink on ancient ruins of fantastic architecture. We tried to follow my mom’s Rule of Ruins: “Every staircase must be climbed and every room there is to explore must be explored”. This lead us to gardens of colonnades, lookout ledges framed with stone flourishes, narrow spiral staircases, and dome-capped tombs that carried a sound for seconds after it was made.
(In Hauz Khas village.)
Diwali evening in India holds the sale caliber of excitement as does Christmas morning in the West. As we arrived back home it was beginning to get dark, fireworks were starting, and Surinder and Pawan came up to light the dozens of diyas (Diwali candles) that they had arranged. The whole place looked sparkly and magical and we four travellers enjoyed our dinner by candlelight. Afterwards we enjoyed Indian sweets with smooth peppermint tea from Oregon as we listened to bursts of fireworks and firecrackers ramp up until they became a constant background of celebratory noise.
Kyle and I wandered out to see the neighbourhood looking its best and, instead of enjoying the peaceful walk we expected, we encountered an obstacle course of children with explosives! It was completely terrifying and outrageously fun. As we walked down a back lane, one of the women we’d played cards with the previous night appeared and invited us into her home where we enjoyed conversation, rice pudding cake, and sizeable whiskies. As others arrived, the table was excitedly cleared for more cards, and we continued on our smoke-filled walk.
Completely exhausted, we fell asleep that night to golden, flickering candlelight on our balcony, the joyful sound of fireworks, and bellies full of Indian sweets. What is a privilege it was to experience Diwali in Delhi.
Here’s a picture of a dog on a pile of sand: