Chapter 1 (Excerpt)
Diwali at Rama Iyengar Road
“Happy Diwali, Princess,” Appa says, peeking out of the bathroom, drying himself off briskly with a white-and-blue-checked cotton towel. “It is time to rise and shine.” He pecks me on my head and tousles my hair lovingly. It is a rare treat to be awakened by my father. He is usually off to work at Binny’s, the local textile mill, by 5 a.m. It is Diwali—the festival of lights, and all of us have holidays.
“Happy Diwali, Appa,” I reply through my yawns, snuggling back under my sheets. I glance at my older brother, Ravi, and little sister, Chitra, curled up in their beds on the floor next to mine. I wonder why Appa and Amma always wake me up first. Why not Ravi? After all, he is older than I.
The scent of jasmine and sandalwood incense swirls through the house. I hear the tinkling of bells and my mother chanting mantras invoking the gods to awaken. Just as I try to close my eyes and sink back into slumberland, I catch a glimpse of my mother lighting the nandadeepa. Her hair, still wet from her bath, lies coiled at her fair nape, drawing designs on the back of her blouse.
One of my fondest memories of Amma, ever since I can remember, is of her lighting the nandadeepa, an brass lamp ornamented with a beautifully carved peacock. It is an ancestral lamp passed down through many generations on my father’s side of the family. Suspended from the ceiling by a thick brass chain, the lamp hangs solemnly by the family altar, paying homage to the many gods and goddesses holding court in a mantapa, a miniature rosewood temple tucked in the right-hand corner of our kitchen.
Each day at the crack of dawn and at dusk, as the light of day embraced the dark of night, Amma religiously filled the belly of the lamp with sesame oil and adjusted the cotton wick to ensure that it stayed aglow all day and night. Today, the light from the nandadeepa casts a luminous glow on my mother, and I marvel at her serene grace. She looks radiant in her new sari. It is the most beautiful sari I have ever seen. I remember how excited Chitra was when Appa came home two days ago with a package wrapped in brown paper.
“What is it, Appa?” she had asked, as soon as our father had parked his Java motorbike in the front yard and turned off the ignition. “Is it for me? Are they my new dresses?”
“I am sorry to disappoint you, darling. It is just my work clothes,” he had insisted, scooping her up with his right hand, the package clutched in his left hand. Later that evening, after dinner, Amma had asked Appa if he would like her to unwrap the package, iron his new work clothes, and set them out for him to wear the next morning.
“Thanks, Popsi,” Appa had replied casually.
“Popsi” was Appa’s nickname for Amma. As Amma carefully opened the brown package, Appa had shouted, “Surprise!” From Amma’s trembling hands cascaded the gorgeous sari. It was six yards of silk dyed in the most regal of purples, with stars of gold sprinkled throughout. The sari looked as though all the stars in the constellation were sewn into the rich colors of a glorious sunset. There were parading peacocks woven into the gold borders on either side of the sari that spilled into a breath-taking pallu. This was by far not only the prettiest sari in Amma’s meager collection; it was also the most expensive. Appa had been awarded a handsome Diwali bonus at work, and he had splurged on an extravagant sari for Amma this year. As tears of joy trickled down Amma’s flushed cheeks, Appa had drawn her into his arms and said, “Happy Diwali, Popsi.”
Each year, my cousins and I wait with great anticipation for Diwali to arrive. Unlike all the other Hindu festivals, Diwali holds the promise of a great party without the prolonged prayers. And it almost always brings with it the gift of two or more new outfits, instead of just one as we got for other festivals or our birthdays. Over the four-day celebration, our family of twenty-three—grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins—gathers with friends and neighbors to frolic with firecrackers and feast on mounds of mouthwatering mithai:sweets. Each night, we deck our homes with hundreds of clay lamps called diyas to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness.
“Happy Diwali, Gayu,” Amma says. “Wake up, it is time to get showered and wear your new clothes. Your cousins are already in the courtyard bursting their firecrackers.”
I rub my sleepy eyes and jump out of my bed at the thought of my cousins in their new clothes.
“Happy Diwali, Amma,” I say, running to the bathroom to brush my teeth.
I hear Amma and Appa waking Ravi and Chitra. We roll our mattresses carefully and pile them up neatly in the far right corner of our bedroom, which morphs into a living room by day. Amma hands us steel tumblers filled with warm milk with a touch of saffron and sugar.
“Drink up, my darlings. It is time for your oil bath now,” Amma says, deftly applying a dot of vermillion between our eyebrows. Appa hands her a little bowl filled with warm sesame oil. She gently rubs the soothing oil into our scalps and proceeds to massage us from head to toe, following the ancient ritual of abhyanga. By the time she is done, we are almost lulled back into sleep again.
“The water is ready, Popsi.” Appa gathers fresh towels and heads back into the bathroom. He props a little ornate teakwood plank on the bathroom floor for us to sit on.
“I want to go first, me first!” Ravi, Chitra, and I squabble, each of us wanting to be the first to get bathed. Finally, we settle that I should go first since I was the first to get up.
Before I head to the bathroom, I go into the kitchen and stand in front of the God’s altar where Amma had carefully placed all our new clothes on a silver tray. Amma had anointed them with a dot of vermillion the night before, seeking God’s blessings before we wore them.
For months, we had shopped for fabrics and finally settled on a pretty multicolored silk brocade that looked like dainty plumes of peacock feathers. Chitra and I always got matching outfits. Amma thought we looked cute in them. Besides, it made life easier, she said, since Chitra and I always fought about having the same dress as the other had.
“Sew in as many gathers as you can into the dress,” Amma had told the tailor. “Add a net of tulle underneath, and line it with the softest muslin so it won’t scratch their skin. I want the girls to look like Cinderella.” After countless trips to the tailor, we had finally gasped in joy as he handed us our gorgeous new frocks, and another pair of red-and-white polka-dotted chiffon dresses Amma hadn’t told us about.
For Ravi, Amma had chosen a pair of navy blue shorts with a red, white, and blue plaid shirt, and another pair of khaki shorts with a brick red shirt. She was thrilled to find a pair of suspenders that coordinated with both of his outfits. And for Appa, she had bought a soft, cream-colored silk pajama and kurta. There they were, all our new clothes piled high, in front of the God’s altar, blessed and ready for us to wear after our oil baths. I carefully pull my “Cinderella frock” from the pile and place it gently on the stool by the bathroom, along with my petticoat and panties.
“Come on, Gayu, we need to get going now,” Appa calls out from the bathroom. I squat on the teak plank, ready for my bath. Amma wraps an old sari around her to keep her new sari from getting wet. She settles down beside me with a bowl of shikakai paste made with soap nut powder and water. I hate the shikakai paste. It always gets into my eyes, stinging them and making them red for hours.
“Why can’t we have shampoo, Amma?” I pout, enticed by all the glamorous advertisements for Sunsilk shampoo I had seen in the newspaper Appa used to read.
“Shikakai powder is good for you, bangari,” Amma insists. “It’s much better than any shampoo. It will make your hair soft and bouncy.” There is no arguing with Amma and her steely velvet way of cajoling us into her way of life.
Appa pours warm water over my head, making sure he soaks my thick mane and body. Amma scoops a handful of the shikakai paste and scrubs my hair. Appa rinses it with water, making sure all the oil is washed out. Amma lathers her hands with a bar of Mysore sandalwood soap and hands the sweet-smelling oval bar to me. She scrubs my back, as I scrub the rest of my body.
“All done,” Amma tucks my wet hair into a sheer cotton towel and coils it into a turban on top of my head. Appa wraps me in a thicker terry towel. “Send your sister in for her shower,” he says, patting me on my derriere.
I slip into my petticoat and panties and pull my dress over my head, careful not to topple the turban. I run back to Amma and ask her to help me with the buttons on the back.
“You look gorgeous, Gayu,” she says, twirling me around.
“You look like a princess,” Appa chimes in.
I feel beautiful, just like a princess.
When Chitra is done with her bath, I help her into her matching new dress. Together, we sing Ring around the rosie, A pocket full of posies, Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down! We twirl in circles and collapse into giggles, over and over again, our dresses cascading around us as we plop on the smooth, cool, red-oxide floor. Soon, Ravi is done with his bath and looks dashing in his new khaki shorts, brick red shirt, and Amma’s favorite suspenders. Amma slicks Ravi’s hair back with a touch of coconut oil, and brushes my hair and Chitra’s into a bouncy bob. She gently dusts Ponds talcum powder on our temples, cheeks, and nose with a fluffy powder puff, and applies a tiny black dot on our right cheeks.
“To keep the evil spirits from casting a spell on my angels,” she proclaims, encircling our faces with her hands and cracking her knuckles by our ears. Amma dries herself, removes the old sari that she had draped on top of her beautiful new one, and proceeds to the kitchen to help us with our prayers.
Every day, Amma insists that we shower and say our prayers before we eat our breakfast. Today is no exception. Appa changes into his new silk kurta—tunic and pajama—and squats on the kitchen floor beside us. Together, we devour the delicious mango kesaribhat—a delectable concoction of cream of wheat, diced mangoes, milk, and sugar, seasoned with crushed cardamom and saffron—that Amma has prepared for us this morning. As soon as we have eaten, Chitra and I nudge Ravi. Together, we dart out of the kitchen and into the courtyard before our mother can ask us to put our dishes away.
Tatayi, our paternal grandfather, has just completed his morning prayers and is settling into the wicker chaise in the courtyard. He is wearing a crisp white dhoti and undershirt. A red-and-white checked cotton towel is tossed over his right shoulder. Round brass-rimmed glasses perch on his nose. Atta, our grandmother, is sitting next to him, doling out instructions to our maid, Akkamma.
“Happy Diwali, Tatayi. Happy Diwali, Atta,” Ravi, Chitra, and I are prostrate at our grandparents’ feet, seeking their blessing. “God bless you,” they say, caressing our heads.