Holiday For Pyros

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This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, November 10, 2004 was originally posted on November 16, 2004.

DAY 389:  The Let’s Go: India & Nepal guidebook just has one sentence to describe the Hindu holiday of Diwali in all of its 891 pages:

“The autumn holiday of Diwali is an especially auspicious time of year when Hindus look to Lakshmi [goddess of wealth, fertility, and general well-being] to bring prosperity during the new year.”

This of course is a very textbook definition, akin to merely saying “Christmas is the Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ” without giving mention to the Christmas tree, the holiday lights, the decorations on the front porch, the last-minute gift shopping, the sweets, and the holiday movies at the theaters.  Diwali is practically identical to Christmas in a commercial sense, except that saffron flowers replace the evergreens and holiday movies are in Hindi.  (The big 2004 Diwali movie was romance epic Veer-Zaara, a Bollywood flick with the usual song and dance in palaces and countryside fields.)

Diwali is sort of like the Jewish Hanukkah as well, as it is the “Festival of Lights.”  But instead of lights coming from a menorah, they come from the single candles placed in windows and in front of doorways — and more notably, from the tons and tons of fireworks that everyone sets off by themselves without a permit.  In a way, Diwali is sort of “mega-holiday,” like Christmas meets Independence Day meets Hanukkah for five crazy nights. 


IT IS CUSTOMARY ON THE FIRST MORNING OF DIWALI for kids to wake up at sunrise and open their bags of firecrackers — or as they call them locally, simply “crackers” — to “go bursting” and wake up the neighborhood adults.  From my floor mattress in the computer room that Cuckoo and Nandu put me up in, I heard that some kids had already started before sunrise, with big crackers that set off car alarms. 

Like a kid on Christmas eager to open gifts, Cuckoo’s son Vineet was wide-eyed by 6:30 to open his big bag of do-it-yourself pyrotechnics, all while wearing his new Kawasaki motorcycle jacket he got for Diwali.  (The hi-performance motorcycle craze was big in Indian pop culture, as I saw in the Bollywood action film Dhoom in Jaipur.)  This particular Diwali was a special one for the seven-year-old, it being his first where he’d do the “big boy” thing of going bursting without his parents.  I tagged along simply as an observer to leave him to his pyrotechnic devices.

“Take him to where all the action is,” Cuckoo instructed him as she led us out the front door.


THAT MORNING, with dozens of young neighborhood boys and girls, I partook in the festivities of bursting crackers in the front yard for Diwali.  Cuckoo told me it was a custom similar to Halloween’s trick-or-treating in that one outgrew it in his/her mid-to-late teen years — which meant that India was perfectly fine with the fact that explosive devices were being handled by just children who had probably just grown out of their “spinning around in a circle until they fall down dizzy phase.” 

As a former child that never really got to play with fireworks in an area where they were deemed dangerous and illegal, I thoroughly enjoyed the loud bangs and miniature and short-lived light shows that morning.  I especially took a liking to “cartoons,” the small firecrackers mounted to cardboard cutouts of random things such as innocent bunny rabbits.  Cartoon bunny rabbits, when their fuses were lit, turned into nothing more than another marking on the ground

This holiday is awesome.

Vineet bursted his crackers and his “bombs” until he had no more for that morning.  A bright kid, he knew to save the better more spectacular ones for nightfall when sparks would shine through the darkness.  By 9:30 a.m., most of the pops and booms of the younger kids’ crackers had died down — only to make way for the bigger kids that never outgrew the custom, twenty- and thirty-somethings with money to buy bigger and louder firecrackers.  Two guys had three packs of “Vulcano” bombs, green cherry bomb-looking things perhaps five times louder than any of the others I’d heard so far.  One by one they lit the fuses and ran for cover. 

BAAAAMMMPPPP!!!

As loud as they were, they were probably nothing compared to the more expensive,  higher-end firecrackers on the market that Diwali season, ones that I had read about in the Times of India:  the “Bush Bomb” and “Bin Laden Bomb.”  (You really have to love marketing guys, huh?)


“DO A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE WORK TODAY?” I asked Cuckoo.

“No, just oddballs like aircraft engineers and journalists,” she answered as we were headed to the Thane train station to go back into the city.  (Her husband Nandu had already left for work early to do an early shift at Air India.)  We walked Vineet (who was still wearing his Kawasaki motorcycle jacket despite the morning heat) to his grandparents a couple of blocks away and then went back to the commuter rail station, where an elephant was blessing passers-by for a donation.  We hopped on a train for Victoria Terminus Railway Station in Mumbai; it was just another day at the office for some.  Working on the first day of Diwali wasn’t too bad; the festivities wouldn’t pick up until that night anyway.

While Cuckoo went to write her piece for the Friday edition of The Economic Times, I had business of my own to take care of, namely trying to figure out my next move in my bigger, global trip.  Because of the still-healing crater from the abscess in my leg, I opted against the wet and sandy beach scene of Goa with a sigh — but had a more promising option to pursue because I had just gotten word that my good family friend Chrissy from New York had just started working at an NGO in the city of Chennai (formerly Madras) on the southeast coast of India.  I went to the Foreign Tourist Window at the reservations office at VT Station and got a ticket for the Mumbai-Chennai Express the following afternoon.  It was a good plan to me (as opposed to leaving that night on an overnight bus to Goa) because I’d get to partake in Diwali festivities that evening and the following morning.  Diwali, the holiday that quite literally started off with a bang, had instantly moved in my mind as my favorite holiday abroad.

Meanwhile, all the European hippie-types on the reservations line weren’t embracing the Hindu holiday as much as me; in fact, many of them just saw Diwali as a nuisance, thwarting their travel plans since most of the trains were booked solid by Indians traveling for the holiday.


WITH MY TRAIN TICKET SETTLED, I had to settle an airline ticket — try and find out if I could fly out of India from Chennai instead of having to backtrack to Delhi — and so I hopped in a taxi to the Air India office in the Nariman Point district along Marine Drive.  Keep in mind that I got a taxi from the tourist-frequented railway station, a place where scammers hunted for prey.

“I need to go to the Air India office in Nariman Point.”

“Okay,” the cabbie answered.  I flipped up the taxi meter as people do, but he ignored it.

“It will be one hundred rupees.”

“No, it should be about fifty.”

“One hundred.”

“It only cost me fifty to get here from Colaba.”  (Colaba and Nariman Point were fairly equidistant.)

“One hundred rupees.”

“If it’s one hundred, forget it, I’ll get out of the car.”  I put my hand on the door handle and he caved.

“Okay, okay.”

We rode to the big Air India office and I gave him a one hundred-rupee note.

“I thought fifty,” he said.

“Yeah, I need change.”  He didn’t have any of course and I went over to another cabbie, who gave me ten ten-rupee notes back.  I gave five to my cabbie.

“Ten more rupees.”

“I gave you fifty.”  He held it out and I counted it again.  “Ten, twenty, thirty, forty… see fifty.”

“No, it’s ten more rupees.”

“You said fifty!”  Can’t people just stick to what they say around here?  I can’t wait to get back off the tourist trail in the suburbs.

“Okay, okay.”

Jerk.  I left him, handled my business at Air India after waiting on line an hour, and then found another taxi driver to take me back to the Times of India — a non-touristy place I might note, which was why I think the new cabbie was honest about my fare.  Turns out that first guy (and the cabbie the night before) scammed me anyway; it was only Rs. 25. 


AFTER A MINT COFFEE ICED DRINK and some vegetable samoosas at India’s chain Cafe Coffee Day (akin to Starbucks), I met Cuckoo back at the office and we hopped on the train back home.  I sat in cheaper second class while she used her commuter pass for ladies-only first, but we met back at the station in Thane.

It was dusk by the time we arrived back in the suburb and it was easy to get back in a holiday mood:  saffron flowers were still being sold, holiday lights were starting to light up, and front porches sported their rangoli, decorative artwork made with colored powders.  Cuckoo and I went to her parents to pick up Vineet, who extended their hospitality to me by offering me some homemade halva, an Indian sweet made of flour and ghee, a dessert dish similar to brown sugar.  Cuckoo’s parents were a friendly couple that had moved in the neighborhood in support for their growing grandson; it was here that he got his fill of Cartoon Network since Cuckoo didn’t keep a TV in the house.

It was dark by the time we got back home, the perfect setting for the continuation of the Diwali pyrotechnic festivities.  “I will leave you two of you to each other,” Cuckoo said, leading Vineet and I out the door with a new ration of crackers.  It would seem that my role as an “observer” was code for “chaperone,” but when the elevator door closed, it seemed it was the other way around.

“Are you wearing cotton?” Vineet asked me.

“Huh?”

“Cotton is good.  It burns slower.”  Apparently Vineet was a little expert when it came to fireworks.  I told him my shirt was cotton but my pants weren’t.

“Oh, that’s bad.  You will burn.”  Later on at one point, he told me, “Be careful, you are my responsibility.”

Outside in the front yard of the hi-rise buildings, all the kids were out with their “harmless” explosives and sparkly toys.  I set up a candle for a constant flame to light the fuses from.  Vineet had an incense stick for the transfer of fire to light his crackers and his bombs.  When that ran out, he used a sparkler stick, which was kind of tricky; with all the sparks it was difficult to see if a fuse was lit.  I swear he had a couple of near-misses when he threw some firecrackers in the air that exploded less than a second of it leaving his hand. 

Vineet and I were just two in a bigger group of kids setting off sparkly displays and isolated explosions left and right. 

BOOM!!!  SNAP!!!  PHSSTT!!!  BAAAM!!!  KEK!!!

“Light the black part, not the white or it will be faster and you will burn,” Vineet instructed me, the little pro.  I lit a few fireworks, running for cover after each ignition. 

“Woooo!” I yelped giddily.

“Why are you laughing?” he asked.  I told him it was because where I came from, firecrackers were illegal and it was fun to finally do it out in the open with a bunch of kids.  He really questioned why such a fun activity might be deemed “illegal;” he lived in a place where police patrol cars drove by the rambunctious display with a look as if to say, “Okay kids, carry on.”

My first Diwali was educational as much as it was fun; for me it was a look into the behavior of kids on such a holiday.  It was true a caste-leveling holiday where kids of different classes played together; Vineet even gave up some of his little crackers for some of the poorer street kids.  The street kids were funny, jumping and dancing in the sparks of a whirling wheel with their bare feet.

On the flip side, there were your kids bragging about their stash.  “Do you have Butterflies?”

“Yeah, I have one.”

“I have a whole pack that I’m going to burst tomorrow.”

Bursting crackers on Diwali wasn’t just a boys thing either; in fact, I think I saw more girls out there setting them off, trading particular ones with other girls and some boys.  There were many different types of crackers and bombs, from whirling “chukkars” to audible “musicians.”  My favorite was the “flower pot,” an upside-down cone thing that, when lit, erupted a big stream of sparks upward like a geyser (picture above).  One group even had the real deal, a couple of big fireworks like they have on Independence Day, and launched them straight up to explode in the air aside the hi-rise building.  Luckily there were no cases (like there had been in the past) where a fireball went through a window and set a fire in an apartment.

Speaking of fire, after all of Vineet’s pyrotechnics were exploded, he said it was “time to burn paper.”  He collected his empty cardboard boxes and lit one using one of the four remaining matches (after he had finished lighting most of them for fun).

“Hey, don’t burn the plastic—”

It was too late; his plastic bag was melting in the pile.  Needless to say, there was definitely an infectious feeling of pyromania because Vineet and his friends just kept on adding all available cardboard to make the fire bigger.  Police patrol cars went by and again saw everything was “in order.”  Move along, nothing to see.  Soon, people started throwing actual fireworks into the bonfire. 

“Move!  Run!” 

I ran for cover a couple of times, laughing the whole way of course.  It wasn’t until a building security guard that saw the fire might escalate into something much worse that the fun was put an end with a bottle of water. 


BEFORE ANOTHER FAMILY DINNER back upstairs in the lantern-lit apartment, the family from across the hall came over, the extended family they were, in a holiday gathering:  Pradeep, the father/husband; his wife Deepti; and his two young daughters Aksheta and Anjali (ages 7 and 11 respectively).  They were excited to meet me after Cuckoo’s introduction:  “Erik, who’s traveling the whole world.”  (She’d always introduce me to a new person with a circular hand gesture to show the circumnavigation.)  Nandu pulled out an atlas with a world map, and I traced my path for all of them thus far, with my stories.  Meanwhile the young ones were running in and out of the hall — Aksheta getting her hands all green from making a powdery rangoli painting and Vineet quite possibly playing with matches again.

Anjali, at the more mature age of eleven, seemed genuinely interested in my tales of my travel.  “Which country is the least developed?” she asked me.

I thought about it and answered, “Maybe Zambia or Ethiopia.”

“So not India?”

“No, India’s actually pretty modern.”  She smiled.

Modern indeed, especially in the modern suburbs of Thane, despite the barbaric sounds of explosions that had just started since the bigger kids had just arrived and were at it again.  The first day of a holiday that started off with a bang, ended with one too.






Next entry: Hindu For A Day

Previous entry: Sacred Stones and A New Home




Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Holiday For Pyros”

  • HERE’S TWO MORE… There’s more where that came from.  Sorry it’s slow-going, but I’m keeping busy here in Chennai…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  05:18 AM


  • GREETINGS FROM PONDICHERRY!  I’m here for a night away from Chennai.  You may recognize the name if you’re one of the many who read “Life of Pi.”  Anyway, so far, this place is loaded with religious zealots and French…  Details to come as I slowly catch up!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  01:19 PM


  • you kick ass at making the local connections!  interesting stuff.  hey, is english the native language of that region/city?  are most people bi-lingual?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  01:24 PM


  • SCOTT:  Most people know English, not everyone though.  But enough and more to come as it’s taught in schools.  Otherwise they speak Urdu and Hindi mixed in with English.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  01:31 PM


  • Hey Cuckoo, Nadu and Vineet and of course Mr. E
    It was just so great to see you all. Wish I was at that dining table too. BTW, In Mumbai, Marathi is the local language - not Hindi. But Mumbai is just a cosmo city that you are bound to hear all the languages of India in this city. Down in Pondi, the local lang will be Tamil… (with french words thrown in for added effect).

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  02:28 PM


  • Erik: yeah, even when neeraj’s parents were here, it was their local language mixed in with english! sounds like fun!  enjoy! hope your leg is feeling better smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  02:30 PM


  • H’come they getta’ play with firecrackers and matches and we don’t? It’s not fair!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  02:34 PM


  • If you like the fireworks for Diwali, wait until you celebrate New Year’s in the Philippines =)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  03:50 PM


  • Hey Eric, greetings from Dubai, good to meet you in Chennai.  Just for the record I counted men coming onto my Air India Dubai flight, 41 out of 45 had mustaches.  Be well, TOM

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  04:04 PM


  • erik you seems to be enjoying your stay in india esp the firecrackers there. wait til you celebrate the newyear in the philippines were the firecrackers and lightings is abundant, its like a warzone when the 12mn is approaching with a very thunderous roars of different kinds of firecrackers.  grin

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  06:24 PM


  • KEK!!

    Yes!  Fire! Fire!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/16  at  07:07 PM


  • Isn’t Pondicherry the rainiest city on earth?

    Posted by Liz  on  11/16  at  11:32 PM


  • TOM:  Hey there!  Glad you made you’re flight.  The entries with you and the “ladies and friends” are coming soon…  Thanks for the moustache count; it’s been duly noted.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/17  at  02:49 AM


  • LIZ:  re: Pondicherry… I don’t know about that; it’s pretty dry here.  The canal that separates the French part of the city with the modern Indian one is practically all dried up right now.

    Tidbit:  I haven’t had one rainy day so far since that night in Tokyo we went to the arcade!

    P.S.  I finally read “Dave Barry Does Japan;” it’s actually not his best work, in fact, I was quite annoyed with it.  He’s usually a lot funnier than that.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/17  at  02:52 AM


  • HEY, I’m finally as caught up as India (worldwide pants entry) and I still can’t comment on the appropriate page. I’ll tell ya, I’m never getting back-blogged again—half the fun is commenting. So this is like volume 3 of me commenting too late but here it goes…

    Leg pic, I’m unimpressed. I mean it’s not like a pulmonary edema or anything. For the record, I smelled this coming from Katmandu.

    Sad to say, my IJATTOD memory is a bit weak, but I’m all on board with referring to you as Shortround, however. Sadly, it’s my least fav. IJ movie. Tho I heard on the news last week (again) that their starting work on the NEXT IJ pic. Hopefullly it’ll happen in our lifetime.

    I tried to email you and got “undeliverable” message. dood, check your email… it’s FULL!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/17  at  02:54 AM


  • CHRISTY:  Use my yahoo address, linked to my name below…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/17  at  10:32 AM


  • Hey Erik,

    I don’t believe that they would let a seven year old go outside by himself, let alone use fireworks! It must be safer there, aren’t they afraid he will get taken?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/17  at  05:44 PM


  • WARREN:  Well, all the neighborhood kids were out, so there was safety in numbers… 

    Taken?  As in kidnapped?  Nah, Thane was a fairly safe suburb.  In fact, in all of India (and other Muslim places I’d been) I never really felt a physical threat was imminent; it’s just all mind games and money scams.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/18  at  05:34 AM


  • Sounds tres fun - I love firecrackers. I used to do them when I lived in the boondocks - fun times… glad you got the opportunity to burst some. smile Those powder things look so fun!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/19  at  02:58 PM


  • OH! I forgot - I love halva!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/19  at  03:05 PM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


Next entry:
Hindu For A Day

Previous entry:
Sacred Stones and A New Home




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