Even today, Diwali brings back memories of two specific Diwalis from years past. One, when I was seven years old, the other, when I was seventeen. Many Diwalis have come and gone since then, but these are memories linked to a friend, our friendship, our childhood, and an innocence of an age.
To us, Diwali meant that our neighbours would bring us sweets, and my mother would reciprocate by making Rava Laddus and Mysore Pak. My father would get a selection of fireworks that we eagerly hoarded until the night of Diwali, squabbling amicably over each one’s share of the loot.
Diwali at Asha’s place was completely different. Asha. My friend, from the time I walked into her classroom as a gawky seven-year-old. We stared at each other across the classroom, two pig-tailed horrors her brother called us, grinned companionably at each other, and a bond was formed that lasted through the trials and tribulations of school-life.
For the longest time, she and her family were a source of wonder to me. My brother and sister were five years older, and even though they were kind to me, were busy with their own lives. Asha, on the other hand, was the completely-spoilt younger sister of three brothers, 15, 12 and 5 years older, who doted on her. She was the apple of her father’s eye, and her mother obviously had a tough time leavening the outpouring of love with the boundaries of discipline.
When she first invited me to her house, a few short months after I had joined school, I wondered whether she was playing a joke. She lived in a house, which could only be described as HUGE. I had never known anyone who had lived that way – three maidservants, a nanny, a cook, two drivers, and an old family retainer, Hari Kaka, who had come to Bangalore as an 11-year-old boy as part of her mother’s marriage retinue! In later years, Asha would joke that their house had more servants than family members.
And yet, they all were, in a sense, her family. Aunty and uncle never allowed their children to be rude to the household help or even to call them by name. They were Hari Kaka and Ammi, and Raghav Bhaiyya and Meena didi – we, Asha’s friends, followed suit, gaining in one fell swoop, a whole new bunch of loving relatives who fed us, ferried us from place to place and looked after our well-being.
It was to be my first Diwali in Bangalore, and Asha had coaxed my mother into letting me stay at their place. Even my quiet reserved mother was not immune to a pig-tailed urchin’s charms. And so, I went – nervous and excited all at once. I had never stayed away from home until then, but Asha’s family welcomed me unconditionally into their fold. I could have been another daughter. Indeed, I was.
The night was beautiful. Strands of twinkling fairy lights lit up the compound walls, and the roof of her house, traditional diyas welcomed Goddess Lakshmi at every door and window. Her house was filled with the smells of sugar syrup and thickening milk, incense and scented oil; platters of sweets stood temptingly on the kitchen table, and the kitchen itself was a beehive of activity as the Sharmaji, the cook, supervised dinner. I had never seen so many sweets outside a halwai’s store!
We took turns sneaking into the kitchen, stealing sweets and farsan every time Sharmaji’s back was turned; Avinash, the brother closest to Asha in age, directed operations. We were too young and too silly to realise that he was just using us.
Soon it was time for Lakshmi Puja and to my surprise and joy, I found a Salwar Kameez on my bed – aunty had made sure that I had a new dress for the occasion too. Asha and I sat impatiently through the Puja, and then ran off to enjoy what was more important to two little girls – the fireworks and the food.
A new tradition had been born – from that first year on, until I left Bangalore after my tenth standard, Diwali was spent at Asha’s place. Every year, Aunty would get me a new dress; every year, Sharmaji would make Kala Jamuns just for me – Asha hated them. Every year, on Bhai Dooj, I would perform the same rituals for Avinash as Asha did – he was as protective of me as he was of his little sister.
Leaving Bangalore after my tenth standard was bad enough – leaving Asha was heartbreaking. We had been together for seven long years, navigating the quicksands of growing up together, giggling over our little crushes, bunking school to watch Amitabh Bachchan at a film shoot, getting caught for reading love letters when we should have been studying, looking out for each other, just being friends. In an era before emails and instant messaging, we managed to keep our friendship going through long weekly letters, no incident too small to share, no trouble so big that we couldn’t help each other out.
The next two years would see us grow, not apart but away from each other, developing new friendships, but the weekly diaries continued, thick envelopes filled with pages and pages of ‘news’ – only she never told me the most important. For a while after I knew, I could not forgive her, but seeing her took the hurt away, seeing in her actions only that generosity of spirit, that unwillingness to hurt anyone that marked her from childhood on.
Diwali was never the same anymore without Asha, neither was turning sixteen. We had often talked about ‘sixteen’- somehow that was the magic age, and without her, the magic was just not there. I missed her, and her unassuming friendship, I didn’t know how much. On Dhan Teras later that year, I received a call from Avinash. A shocking, mind-numbing, earth-shattering call. I could barely respond.
I spoke to my parents, and my father arranged for a ticket to Bangalore the very next day. Avinash picked me up at the bus station, and shook his head at the mute question in my eyes.
The house stood dark and forbidding, all the more incongruous because the neighbouring houses glimmered and shone, turning night into day. It was the same inside – not one diya shimmered, not one lamp flickered – the house was in mourning. I knew, but until then, I do not think I had quite accepted the fact – Asha had been diagnosed with leukaemia the year I left. Now as I look back upon that journey, I wonder why I never cried. But I didn’t.
She had fought gamely, her family had done all they could by way of treatment, but it was a lost battle. Aunty had aged twenty years in the two I had been away; uncle looked like he didn’t care whether he lived or died. Only Asha was the same. Cheerful, grinning. “Don’t come in if you are going to cry at me.” I grinned. What else could I do?
Sharmaji was still around, and he came in bearing Kala Jamuns – just for me. Asha and I talked – or rather, I talked, she listened; she tired easily these days. Avinash came in to call me for dinner – Asha wanted to come too. Uncle and aunty gave in. This was the first time Asha was coming out of her room in many days. Her good mood lasted until we reached the living room - she looked around at the darkness, and broke down. She wept like I have never seen her weep before.
We stood around helplessly, not knowing why she was crying, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do. Aunty held her, her eyes welling up. She sobbed her misery out against her mother’s breast – she was upset the house wasn’t lit for Diwali. In retrospect, I think she felt her mortality more keenly then than ever before, though she never mentioned death in the context of her illness. We ran around, family and help, lighting every diya we could find, Meena didi drew the rangoli, the men went out to string the electric lights and Asha, she sat ensconced on the sofa surrounded by cushions, tears magically dissolving into smiles, as she ordered all of us around. Within minutes, the house had moved from darkness to light, and laughter filled a house that had for too long been burdened by the shadow of death. For a few short hours as we completed the Puja, ate dinner, laughed and joked as we lit crackers, we contrived to forget that she had very little time left. We would soon remember.
The next morning was Bhai Dooj. I woke up to find that even in the middle of her grief, aunty had still remembered my dress. I went to help Asha dress. She held my hands close, her voice soft as she thanked me for coming. I hugged her, wishing as I did that ‘मेरी उम्र भी तुझे लग जाए’ was not an empty benediction. As we completed the rituals, it was as though we had turned the clock back. I wished with all my heart that we could. As always, Avinash asked us what we wanted as a gift and I saw Avi turn away from his sister – it was to be a Diwali of many firsts – trying to control his emotions as she whispered “I want to live.”
I was leaving by the evening train; I had my term exams coming up. As I hugged Asha goodbye, promising to come back during Christmas vacations, she said, “Anu, light a lamp for me every Diwali.” I promised. That was the last time I saw her. When I reached my hometown in the morning, I was greeted with the news that Asha had died that same night.
For a long time, I never celebrated Diwali, never lit a lamp for my friend. I couldn’t. For me, Diwali meant Asha; her warmth, her friendship, her affection. Without her, Diwali was meaningless. Years passed, and while time did not quite heal, it lessened the sorrow; but the memories remained – giggling over silly jokes, sharing books, bunking school to watch movies, and Diwali. Always Diwali.
And when the time came, I lit a lamp for the best friend a girl could have ever had – someone who taught me how to live, and laugh, and love. Unconditionally.
© Anuradha Warrier