Green, Red, Yellow coloured chandelier style kandeels are dangling from the banyan tree. Every time a gust of wind comes, they flap against each other making ruffling sound, like they are whispering sweet nothings to the passers-by. Otherwise an open ground, Laal chawk, is now created into the maze of lanes. Lined on both the sides are interesting handicraft make-shift shops, no bigger than any local panwala shop. Artisans from all over north India are very proudly displaying their creations and visitors are very intriguingly admiring them. Life everywhere seems to be in full bloom, there is a sense of celebration, wind of joy. Families, friends, couples are all out for Diwali shopping. We usually do our Diwali shopping together but this year papa is busy; so most of the shopping has been done by my mommy along with me. Though having papa around is always more fun as he never says no to ice creams and doughnuts.
Diwali mela is once in a year affair and Laal chowk mela is highly coveted amongst creme de la creme of Delhi. We are here, at Laal chowk mela in the potpourri of colours and celebration to buy diyas. They sell hand-made diyas here; not the usual types but artistic, carved, coloured, patterned. They are my mother’s favourite. She likes them not only because they are beautiful but more because they are hand made by the blind students. We come here every year, just for those diyas. Two dozens, every year. I have been told, Diwali is incomplete without lighting diyas.
It’s Diwali today but a lot seem to be amiss. To start with, my papa has still not come back. My mother is wearing her red banarsi saree, complete with her gold jewellery and black bead mangalsutra. She is looking like a goddess but with a smile that doesn’t reach her ears. Amma, my grandmother, is not in a good mood. She seems dull and low. Bade papa, my grandfather is also somber, quietly watching news which is very unlike him. He prefers cricket on a good day. Today being a good day, he should be watching cricket but he is watching news. Tina, my little sister is the only one who seems to be happily crawling on the floor and is strictly restricted to her mat. Mommy fears that she might touch electric lights or spoil rangoli colours.
My papa has been away for a while now. Mommy tells me, he is away for work and should be back by the end of the month. He travels often but usually he is back within a week and he is definitely here during the festivals. This time, he has been away for too long. I miss him a lot and so does everybody else at home. We have not even done Diwali shopping together. We didn’t even go to the mall to see the light decorations. But he has sent me a Diwali gift, a pretty golden haired doll, just like the one I wanted. I have named her Julia. I think amma misses him most, she has been crying a lot lately.
It’s pooja time, I can smell poori frying in the kitchen. Halwa, poori along with aloo sabzi is a must for Diwali. Roohi, the irritating girl next door, is already bursting fire crackers in the lane with her big brother. I don’t like him much; we go to the same school. He is quite a bully. Mommy asks me to ignore him. It’s amma who performs pooja at home on a daily basis with all the diligence. Mommy joins her later, most of the time. I am forced in, almost all the time. But Diwali pooja is special. We all participate whole heartedly. My papa leads the pooja but he is not here so my mother is performing all the rituals, with equal zeal and devotion.
Diyas, which my mom specially bought from Laal Chawk Diwali mela are glittering in the dark. Flames bright red, coordinating with the colours of diyas. I can hear crackers bursting outside, I am tempted to run outside and join Roohi but before I can, my mommy walks in and ask me to go with her. Maybe to a relative’s place, not sure.
I want to take Julia along, so I seek mommy’s permission and she agrees. My mommy takes the driver’s seat and we drive away quietly out of our residence. On the way, she explains me that papa has been away from home because he is unwell and we are going to meet him. I need to be calm and quite in front of him. This is too much information for me to process and I don’t know how to react.
I walk inside the corridor of a hospital holding my mommy’s hand. It’s dimly lit for Diwali night. I step inside a door, feel the cold, ac temperature is too low. I see a man lying on the bed, smiling at me. He is familiar but unrecognisable, wearing green and white stripped loosely fitted shirt and pyjamas. His hair seems unkept, he has got over-grown beard. He is smiling very kindly and warmly. I know this smile, I know the warmth. I know the look. He is my papa! My papa, here on this hospital bed. I want to run to him, hug him, kiss him, coil in his arms but I can’t. I am fixed, immobile, all I can do is stare, confused, perplexed. Thousands of questions are churning in my head but I don’t know where to start. Not been able to control my confused emotions, I start crying.
My papa makes an effort of getting up and hugging me, I run to him and hug him back tightly. I look at my mother, our eyes meet. There are hundreds of questions I want to ask, but I ask none. I just hug him with all the love and care and he hugs me back with equal passion. My mom, looks at us warmly, tears rolling down her eyes. She walks towards the sofa, where her bag is kept and takes out the carved red diyas from the bag. She walks swiftly towards the window, places them on parapet and lights them.
Immediately, the flame starts twinkling, they are as bright as they were at home!
Papa takes Julia from my hand to caress her, looks at me and smiles, and then just like that, he says the most beautiful words ever, ‘I will be home very soon baby, Happy Diwali!’ From the corner of my eyes, I see flame of the diyas twinkling, bright!