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Diwali in My Village
Looking Back Not So Long Ago

My brothers and sisters and I would sense that a holiday festival was near. A number of activities seemed to be increasing around the house – a few days before Diwali. The hustle and bustle was obvious. Work in the rice field was tailored so that no one would have to go to the backdam on that day. (Except one or two of the older boys would accompany our father before sunrise [we said "before tea"] to cut fresh grass for the bulls, give them adequate water, and clean up the area where they rested. Late in the afternoon one of us would go again ?to water the animals? and give a final feed.)

In my village the weather was always hot, with either sunny dry days or wet warm rains. During the time of Diwali it was mostly dry, sunny and hot. Front yard and back yard would be weeded of any tall grass and weeds. Parapets and drains were cleaned. The dwelling area at the bottom-house and the kitchen was swept and daubed with a mixture of mud and cow dung. This was part of the women's or older girls' chores. There was the quick method of spreading a thin dilute mixture with a coconut branch broom. Using a heavy mixture was the preferred method in our household because when it was dry it looked immaculate like a new khaki-colored paint job with a flat very fine stucco finish (and felt cool to the bare feet).

Every household had a fireside in the kitchen. Older Indian folks called it "chulha". This was either on the ground or raised at table level. I observed my father and mother construct one using clay formed into blocks, with one opening for firewood and two "burners" to accommodate cooking pots. The fireside was daubed at least once a week and occasionally on special occasions (like Diwali) with a special clay from the seaside called "kadi". A special rag and a small bucket, known as "putna", was kept for this purpose. The kadi had a very fine smooth texture and left a light bluish gray sparkle when dry on the fireside. It was/is often said that food (such as curries, roasted corn and plantains, and "sada" roti) cooked on the fireside taste better! Maybe the burnt clay and firewood add to the flavor. Some pregnant women were also known to chip away bits of the burnt clay to nibble, presumably to satisfy a craving for minerals.

My "ajie's" (paternal grandmother) bottom-house had the only "jaata" (i.e. a mill stone or stone mill) which was also meticulously cleaned and daubed. I have had many memorable experiences – good and bad – in the jata room. The jata was in constant use by our household and other villagers. Women especially would sit around the jata to grind yellow peas, dried corn and parched rice to make daal pouri, poulourie, and satwah. The poulourie was eaten with green mango chutney spiced with hot peppers and garlic, or used to prepare karhee. Kids would join the older folks to help grind the grains and also to listen to the local gossip, for indeed this was a time for "name talking".

The adults in our household, as in others, were obsessed with cleaning. (Our household was an extended one, which included the matriarch ajie and several sons, their wives, and children; so that living there was fairly cramped with little room for privacy.) Floorboards, platforms (porch), and stairways were scraped with a homemade tin 'scraper' and washed clean. Even the outside latrine was scraped and washed. Brick pillars were white-washed with "chuna".

Most of the cleaning was done a day or two before Diwali. But in addition to this, "kadi" clay was dug from the seaside and brought home to make diyas. Everyone joined in – some more adept than others. All of us tried to be artistically clever with our fingers to emulate the fine precision of the diyas that were bought from Georgetown. These were expertly made and baked to give a rust brown color. Not many people (except those who wanted to show off, or those who could really afford) used these. We took pride in molding our diyas which we later placed in the sun to dry.

On the day of Diwali after our chores, our mother would caution us to bathe clean and put on clean clothes, then oil han? and foot. An air of merriment filled the house. The kitchen was the busiest place. My mother was multi-tasking in the overall management of the household affairs. Mostly she would be busy cooking and giving orders: "Bring this, bring that. Don't".... The aroma of the foods filled the air in and out of the house. Staple foods for the day was boiled rice, paratha roti, daal puri, and a variety of vegetable curries, such as bigan, bhagee, pumpkin, katahar, etc. – no meat, shrimp or fish.

As children we looked forward to such festivals in anticipation and excitement because we were also treated to some other traditional Indian foods that my mother would prepare fresh. She made mitai, gulgula, ghoja, sweet-rice (aka kheer or rice pudding), and biganee, poulourie and bara. These were special treats for us.

A day of labor in the kitchen would lend itself to moments of rest and relaxation until late afternoon. Just before dark the diyas were readied: they were filled with vegetable oil or ghee, in which homemade cotton wicks were arranged. My father and mother would take one diya into a bedroom and solemnly light it – before six o' clock. It must have been a moment of reverence and likely done with a silent prayer according to their Hindu beliefs. We never heard anything and we never asked. This diya would be burned with ghee and, on and off, my father would concentrate the soot on the concave of a tablespoon to make kaajal (also called kaajar). Kaajal was always part of the medicine cabinet for adorning the baby's forehead with a tikah (to ward off "bad eye"), and for treating eye colds. They would walk out quietly and then the other diyas were lit. The children were allowed to place the diyas in and around the house – in rows on the stairways and walkway. We the children wanted to have many diyas, for this would make us the envy of others. And with this kind of selfish thought we would walk in the vicinity of neighbors to make comparison.

Diwali night was special for us. It bought joy, gladness and friendliness to our house and the entire village. Our village, which did not have electricity, became ‘electrified’ on that night. Although only Hindus celebrated this festival in our village, everyone (Blacks, Christians and Muslims) would walk the public road in larger than usual numbers to admire the displays and frolicking. Children in our household would strain to keep their eyes open – to help top up the diyas with oil, to listen to stories told by the adults, and to wait for the last flicker from the diyas even as our eyelids drooped in obeisance to the darkened night and the deep ventriloquistic sounds of crickets, frogs and toads.

This is how it was many years ago in my rural village of Leguan, Guyana.

– By Gary Girdhari

P.S. In modern times the diyas are more elaborately made and decorated. But seeing them made of stainless steel (on Liberty Avenue) is the last straw! Nowadays, many places celebrate with elaborate electrical lighting, fireworks and motorcades.

© GuyanaJournal