The man was clutching a torn, faded imitation of a tweed coat around himself. That, and the fact that he had a moustache, is about the only clear memory I have of him. He was probably middle-aged but one never knows, poor people usually look much older than they are. (Besides, how do you define “middle aged” for people who live in makeshift slums or beneath flyovers, unsure if they’re going to survive the next 24 hours?)
For the rest, imagination has combined with idealism to fill in some details: he seemed a decent sort, my mind’s eye tells me; he had a scared look on his face; he shuffled guiltily two steps back each time someone turned his way, aware that he might be impinging on an intimate family celebration; he was shivering in the cold. I have no idea if any of this is exactly true, or if it’s just my mind playing tricks on me.
What I do know is that we were standing around that Diwali night (it was either 1988 or 1989, just a couple of years after we’d moved to Saket) and tracing outlines in the air with phooljadis (sparklers), just four of us – my mother, her friend, the friend’s son and myself. Diwali had never been a rambunctious affair for us, we’d never been into either bombs or rockets and I think I’d already more-or-less outgrown the other, flashier types of crackers – the chakras, for instance, those insane, whirring concentric circles of light, or the fountain-like anars. But we still enjoyed our brief phooljadi ritual.
That night I had dimly been aware – or is even this retrospective? – of this shadowy figure who wasn’t part of our group, somewhere on the periphery of our vision. It was no big deal – we were in a fairly public spot, just outside the house, and neighbours and their servants were walking about close by. But then my mother or her friend – I forget who – said something that stuck with me: “Poor man, he’s standing near us because he wants to warm his hands.” It was then that I noticed him for the first time, really looked at him.
Our colourful, ephemeral, inconsequential sparklers playing bonfire to a poor man trembling in the Delhi winter! The thought was so absurd I probably would’ve dismissed it outright if it hadn’t been said by a figure of authority. The effect that simple remark had on me was no different than if I’d been told that those Toblerone chocolates our relatives living abroad brought on their visits – in their instantly recognisable pyramidal packets, such a cherished treasure back in the pre-liberalisation days – that those chocolates might have been wolfed down by a poor man not for taste but for nourishment, because he had no other food.
In a way, this incident may not have been such a big deal. I would’ve grown out of Diwali eventually, probably within the next three or four years; and most of my friends today feel the same distaste for crackers (not just the noisy ones) as I do. But what happened that night certainly expedited things for me – it led to an almost-violent break with the festival and the celebrations. The next year I just didn’t feel like going down for the phooljadis – it was that simple.
In the years that followed, other factors came into play. Abhilasha, who’s into festivals a lot more than I am, mentioned recently that the one thing she hated about Diwali was the effect the noise had on her cats, and that immediately reminded me of how terrified Kittu would be on each of the eight Diwalis he was with us. I suppose back then, that contributed to my abjuring the festival. And then of course, with time, I gradually became distanced from the whole “beautiful Indian culture and tradition” thing. And from the idea of people getting together on a specified day, like so many automatons decked up in finery, conducting pujas, saying sweet things, wishing each other prosperity for the year ahead, and then getting back the next day to the more practical business of conniving, gossiping and backbiting their way through life.
But all these other factors notwithstanding, a lot of it does, I suppose, go back to that man in the torn coat all those years ago. I’ll never be sure how much, but if the incident is still stuck in my mind I suppose it must have had some effect.