“To one who has been long in City Pent…”
Obviously, I’m stealing from Keats. Obviously, it’s a bad steal.
Tonight is Diwali night. For those who don’t know what Diwali is, its Westernized, twenty-first-century synonym is Festival of Lights. Tonight, all over India, regardless of religion, class or caste, men, women and children light up their houses with clay lamps, candles, electric lights, and perhaps these days, electronic illuminations. Fireworks light up a new-moon sky throughout the night. Music and dance floats down every city street and village nooks. Sweets are almost force-fed into even the Lord and Lady Glum of each and every household.
Even though Diwali is really built around the religious observance of worshiping Goddess Kali who vanquishes the demon in a terrible, clothe-less, armed dance in the dark, desolate and scary burning Hindu pyre field, along with her female demons, witches and sorceresses — in a fiercely feminist exhibition of wrath, the rather strange and cultural manifest has drawn in Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsees, Buddhists, intellectuals and atheists…and surprisingly, the social outcastes and so-called untouchables…even though I have every reason to believe in many parts of India, the poor and the hapless do not have means to be a part of any lavish festivities.
But at least, there is an attempt in modern-day India to be a little more inclusive than ever before when it comes to be merry; I have other reasons to believe that uppity young-generation Indians do not choose friends and companions based on castes (unless it’s one of those God-forsaken, primitive places where they still practice suttee)…even though the class and religion barriers are still in vogue. It’s just like here in the U.S. where the younger, liberal Americans would not mind dating or marrying boys and girls from a new immigrant family — as long as they belong to their privileged class. I have not seen much social blending across economic classes here just the same way I have not seen a lot of inter-religious weddings in India, or for that matter, marriage between a “high caste” and a “low caste.” There are probably a handful of exceptions.
But this is not a lecture on social science or cultural anthropology. It’s an ongoing journey into some never-ending personal feelings — hoping that somewhere my journey would resonate and find common grounds with like-minded others. Tonight, on this Deepavali night — night of many lamps — sitting here in this remote corner of a Brooklyn neighborhood, melancholy has a field day. And overwhelming isolation takes over. Lighting up the fourteen, long-saved clay lamps once a year, in front of the house, remembering my mother doing the same on the window-sill of our North Calcutta mezzanine apartment, shedding a tear in her memory, and at the same time hoping that here across the seven seas some passing-by neighbors would notice the flickers and then make an appreciative gesture — these emotions rock back and forth.
Pity Tent — I named it, just for tonight. Pity Tent — because it’s living like refugees in a makeshift tent; you are allowed to use your imagination to know what kind of tent and refugees I’m talking about (hint: it doesn’t have to be physical). It’s turning cold. It’s turning windy. The clay lamps would not last long in this increasingly uncomfortable, late-fall-evening wind. Cold weather would not allow us to stand outside on the porch to enjoy it for too long either. We took some quick snaps. There was not much time to notice who passed by and noticed those short-lived flickers, and made an appreciative gesture. Maybe, they did. Maybe, they didn’t.
“Who is more happy, when, with heart’s content,
Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?”
That was Keats a hundred years ago. This is me, now in 2011. He longed for a gentle tale of love and languishment. He wanted to know who is more happy and who is fatigued. Yeah? Perhaps…with a little poetic stretch?
“E’en like the passage of an angel’s tear
That falls through the clear ether silently.”
On this night when Festival of Lights permeates a billion hearts on the other side of the globe, I am yearning for an angel’s tear. I’m waiting to see an almost invisible rainbow of lights across the eastern sky — as sure indication that the fireworks have started now…there. There begins the community Kali Puja on our Calcutta street. The country drums are now blaring…Hindu women are blowing the holy conch shells…it’s auspicious time to garland Mother Kali with the one-hundred-and-eight-flower blood-red Hibiscus garland.
Ever lived on two sides of the globe…exactly at the same time? I have. In fact, I have been living like that for a long time now. Here…there…and everywhere.
Some days are not Pity Tent days. Some nights are. Tonight is one of those nights. For me, for us — who know what we miss and how much. To one…who has been there…this soliloquy is especially for you.
Tonight, I’ll dream of my mother lighting those little clay lamps on the window sill of our North Calcutta mezzanine apartment. Tonight, I’ll dream of the firecrackers, sparkling sticks, burning snakes and red-n-green matchsticks my friends and I lit up on our unpaved, earth-smelling alleys. Tonight, I’ll be happy imagining how happy those people are…
I am a first-generation immigrant American now. I am tough. I must be. I am stoic. I must be. I am not a wimp. I shall not be too emotional.
Brooklyn, New York