"Somberi wake up..Its almost daybreak.. the whole world is up and celebrating...Everyone's taken a bath - Even Ranga Mama has worn his new veshti and is bursting crackers outside...Don't you want to join in?"
Diwali meant nothing to me except for that "one special event" and the chances of it happening this year seemed remote. Under any other cicurmstances, I would not have missed a chance to point this out to Amma..But today was different.. I was tired, so was she and I could sense that she was in no mood to argue.. So i tried a different line
"Ammaa, please ma...I reached Trichy at 11 pm yesterday. Since then I've barely had the time to do my shopping with Rajkumar..In fact I came back at 3 in the morning..I am feeling so woozy..Half an hour more please..."
"..But its Diwali da..You cant be in bed beyond 6 am...Besides Thatha wants to watch TV and Rajeev and Ranjan are waiting for you to take them out" piped in Mani Chithappa.
Damn..The problems of staying in a 2 BHK !! Whenever there were guests, they invariably ended up in my bedroom as a result of which I got displaced to the hall. This time had been no different. My grandparents, a few of my uncles and aunts with their horrid children had abruptly announced their intention of spending this year's Diwali with us a week back..Amma, being the gracious hostess, had welcomed them with open arms. And now they were here.. In MY house..Giving ME orders..
"Mahesh, GET UP. At this rate you will be ready only for next year's Diwali"
I dearly wanted to snuggle back into my sheet but it was impossible to miss the tone in Shiva Mama's voice. I, for one, knew when he meant business. He hadn't changed a wee bit since my childhood. Amma really needed to learn to say NO.
Groggy still from my late night exploits, I sauntered slowly towards the bathroom. Toothpaste was strewn all over the wash basin - clearly the handiwork of my brattish cousins. Someone needed to teach these kids how to conduct themselves. Hadn't they heard stories of how well behaved I had been in my childhood ? Having brushed my teeth, I dropped in at the kitchen to pick up my customary coffee. There was none. Instead I heard Amma calling out for me from the Pooja Room.
"Bring the new dress here da..And then let me apply some oil. After that you can have your bath."
"But Amma, what about my coffee?"
"Nothing till Ganga Snanum is over"
Plainly irritated, I grabbed the clothes i had bought a few hours back and dumped them on the floor in the Pooja Room. Amma opened the bags and looked at my selection.
"You should not have bought black. Latha Mami is sure to say something"
"But ma, you refused to let me buy black for my Birthday.. and also for Geetha Akka's wedding.. or even Thatha's Sadhabhishegum"
"Black is so inauspicious. Anyway, come sit here" she said and went on to apply what I thought was atleast a bottle of oil on my beautiful tresses. Eeeks. The whole room smelled of oil. I knew what was coming next. I ran towards the bathroom hoping to lock myself in before she could beat me to it. But experience had made her anticipate my move - Latha Mami was there waiting. I knew there was no way I could escape this embarassment.
"Just because you are now 22 doesn't mean I am not gonna bathe you today. After all, for me you are still a kid. Don't worry - I shan't upset your fancy hair style" teased Latha Mami. To compound the misery Mala Chithi insisted on drawing Rajeev's attention to my obedience. There I was - being made an example for all the wrong reasons.
Ten minutes later, after Mami had scrubbed me from head to foot atleast thrice and convinced herself that I was spick and span, I was dragged across to the Pooja Room again and presented before Amma. Nodding her approval, Amma forced my mouth open and thrust something in. Gawd. It was that dreadful Deepavali Lehyam. Jaangiris I loved, Padushas I devoured but this Inji stuff that made its customary appearance every Deepavali was one thing I hated. Grumbling aloud, I picked up my dress and slipped into my bedroom. The TV was blaring from the hall and I could clearly hear Sri Jayendra Saraswathi's voice explaining the "mahatv" of Deepavali.. These speeches, did they even change every year? As I slipped into my black cargos with six pockets, Ranjan burst into the room, shoved me aside, picked up more firecrackers from my wardrobe and rushed to join Ranga Mama in the balcony. Rajeev who had tagged alongwith his brother threw one hasty glance at my orange shirt and ran back to his mom to report the news. It was only 6:15 and I realised a long day awaited me. After seeing Rajeev's reaction, I was scared to go out and present myself. I was under no illusions that what awaited me was yet another lecture on my choice of clothes. Grabbing my cell phone, I dialled Rajkumar's number and casually walked out of my bedroom towards the front gate. His cell phone was switched off but I dared not disconnect for fear of my aunts.
"Mahesh, where did you buy all these crackers ? Most of them seem to be cheap sub standard stuff.. You know in 1976 when I was in Ooty..." He droned on and I chose to ignore the rest of his long bhashan. After all, everyone in the family knew of Ranga Mama's trips down memory lane. His stories never seemed to end in the same context as where they started.
"The kids have been dying to go out since morning. Mahesh, will you please take them out? And yes, will you also go and give these sweets to Kichu Uncle down the street. Wish him Happy Deepavali from all of us" cried out Amma from the kitchen.
Chaperone two juveniles as they went about strutting their new clothes to everyone in our street. A glorified escort. My worst fears were coming true. I surveyed the surroundings - Thatha was now watching Mangala Isai in Raj TV, Ranga Mama was complaining about how Veshtis had been of superior quality in Coimbatore in the 1970s, Mani Chithappa was hovering around the kitchen hoping to persuade Mala Chithi to sneak him a few laddoos, Latha Mami was meditating and Shiva Mama was preoccupied reading the newspaper. I calculated my options. It made more sense to run away from this madding crowd. I picked up the box of sweets from the dining table, mumbled a quick bye and ran out. My two cousins followed pestering me all along with stupid questions about the latest jumbo airplane cracker that my neighbour had just set alight. Reaching Kichu Uncle's house, I rang the bell. No one responded. I tried again. I heard some shuffling behind the door and then it opened.
An old man with an unkempt beard smiled and said "Come in Mahesh...Oh, your cousins are here"
Kichu Uncle had been living there for the last 20 years and was the only oldie I genuinely admired in our street. During my school days, when we boys would play cricket in the evenings during the summer holidays, Kichu Uncle would sit near his gate and act as the All Powerful Third Umpire. He would settle all disputes whenever the two teams fought over the regular Umpires' decisions. He would also constantly advice us on how to play the game better. I recalled how he took a particular fancy to me since my hook shot reminded him so much of his own.. I even suspected he deliberately favored me on quite a few of the 50-50 decisions those days. Two years ago he'd lost his wife and ever since Lakshmi Aunty's demise, he'd become a recluse. I handed him the sweet box and did the usual namaskaram. He pushed a 100 Rs note into my hand and winked. My cousins followed suit. They got nothing. I felt high. The cell phone in my pocket rang. Excusing myself, I walked towards the corner of the room and picked the call. It was from Rajkumar.
"Happy Diwali machaan..What are you doing?"
"What happened? Woke up on the wrong side of bed."
"Lousy start to the day da..Told you nuh... Uncles, aunts and cousins are visiting. My house is a circus. I can't wait till 9 pm."
"You returning back today itself?"
"Yeah.. thankfully..Neway why did you call?"
"Come home now.. In 10 minutes..We are going out"
"Its 6:35 da..Amma will be mad at me if I am not home playing host"
"Tell Aunty its me ok.. Bye"
Rajeev and Ranjan had overheard the entire conversation and I could see it in their eyes that they wanted to join me. Thanking Kichu Uncle again for his kindness, I ran back home dashing straight to the kitchen.
"Amma, I am going out."
"Dei, there are so many people here. You cannot leave all of us and make your own plans. Have some sweets - here's some coffee. Sit down and watch TV with Thatha."
"But Amma, Raj wants to see me immedietly. Besides I promised his mom I would drop in at their place on Deepavali"
"Mahesh, you have to learn to be more responsible. We are all going to Uchchi Pillayar at 9 am" ordered Shiva Mama.
"This present generation has no respect for elders. When we were kids, we never used to speak a word against our parents. In 1974...." That was Ranga Mama.
"Mom, Anna is going out to play a cricket match. I heard him say that on the phone" lied that 9 year old pest Rajeev.
By now I had decided to leave. Checking myself one last time in the mirror and pleased with the result, I rushed to the shed and kicked my old Bullet into action. Dashing off to Rajkumar's house, I found him waiting downstairs - he was obviously in a rush. Surprised that we were actually going out so early, I waited for an explanation. He offered none. I got down, surrendered reins of the bike to him and sat behind. The usual. I was getting curioser but preferred to wait and watch. We reached our destination in ten minyes and weren't the least bit surprised to see serpentine lines of people shouting and hooting. Lathi wielding policemen were seen everywhere and the entire area was cordoned off by the omnipresent security. There was hardly any space to manouvre our bike to get anywhere near the parking space. I had known even yesterday that we stood no chance but to see it first hand was even more depressing.
One look at the crowd around us and I realised that the fortunate few were heavily outnumbered by the unfortunate many. Straining to see above the mass of heads, I sensed there was not a chance in a million that we would make it in. Amazingly Rajkumar seemed totaly unfazed. I could take it no longer.
"Maams, why are we even waiting here at 7 am? This is crazy da"
Waving two small blue paper strips at me, he remarked "Can't you keep your cool for another 10 minutes?"
"Don't tell me you have them?"
"You know me better than that."
"How did you get them?"
"Does it really matter? You've come all the way from Mumbai and you thought I'd let you go without our pilgrimage?"
For a moment I was speechless. The truth was yet to sink in. I grabbed the tickets and checked for myself. It was true. I was going to be inside the hall after all. The Rasigar Show. Every fan's dream come true. This had to be one of the greatest Diwalis I had ever had.
Rajkumar was smiling..and singing too...
BABA.. KICHCHU KICHCHU THA....