October Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Society | Published 15 years ago

A familiar green aluminium can, once known as Murree’s finest export, stares at me. I stare back. Its owner, a portly old man, clutches at it for dear life, taking in the sounds of Diwali from his verandah. I take a step forward, and then realise he may not be in a hospitable mood. After all, I’m just there to do my job — to cover the Diwali celebrations in Karachi as a reporter. He, along with dozens of other parents, has to explain to his children why KESC had to proceed with a two-hour electricity shutdown, despite it being a Festival of Lights.

On October 17, the Hindu community in Karachi celebrated Diwali, with one of the biggest celebrations taking place in the Hindu colony located in the Shri Swami Narayan Temple’s compound on M.A. Jinnah Road. Home to one of the oldest temples in a city (dating back 155 years or so), and a sizeable Hindu community that’s been living there since before Partition, the compound, despite the loadshedding, echoed with firecrackers.

These were no ordinary firecrackers, mind you. One firecracker lit up, spun like a top in different colours and then exploded, spitting out acrid smoke and flying fragments. The fainthearted among the media contingent scrambled down the lane, simultaneously pleading with errant children to behave like angels and wave litphuljaris in circles, so they could get a front-page-worthy shot.

Others stared longingly at green aluminium cans.

One household, despairing of KESC ever being as merciful to them as they were to the city’s residents during the Eid break, began placing diyas on the ledge over their doorway. “It’s been two hours,” a man said mournfully to me, “Do something.”

I wondered if everyone thought reporters had 24/7 access to KESC’s head honcho, Naveed Ismail.

“Video walay!”

My cameraman and I turned around as a kind Samaritan struck a match. The firecracker known as the anaar lit up, and as it exploded in golden hues, it managed to embody the magical spirit of Diwali. Ten minutes later, the electricity came back.

And what a sight it revealed. Fairy lights had been strung up over the temple’s facade and every house; tin-foil decorations hung from rooftops and the elderly kept a hawk’s eye on the proceedings from their balconies. Rosy-cheeked eight-year-old Priyanka triumphantly turned to me to explain, on auto-cue, what Diwali meant to her: “new clothes and patakhas.” Life as an eight-year-old on a Saturday night that’s full of fireworks and sweets is glorious.

Diwali is celebrated every year by followers of Hinduism to mark the return of the Lord Rama from his 14-year exile and his victory over Ravana. People of all ages from the Hindu faith dress to the nines, exchange sweets and congratulatory messages, and wine shops do roaring business.

On my first trip to the temple a few years ago, a resident of the Hindu colony had escorted me to a house’s rooftop, and pointed at the barren land adjacent to the temple. “This place was used as a refugee camp after the Partition.” Sixty-two years later, children ran amok, as cameramen and photographers jostled each other for a shot of an adorable three-year-old, gharara-clad girl celebrating Diwali.

I peeked into a house, where two old men sang bhajans at the top of their voices, with one gentleman ringing cymbals together to provide background music. “Diwali mubarak,” I say to him with folded hands. “Mithai?” he says in return.

In the colony’s market, old women sat on their haunches as they hawked sacks of firecrackers, diyas andphuljaris, enjoying a brisk trade as customers eagerly replenished their dwindling supply. Rangoli, in flower patterns made from coloured powder, adorned the lanes and verandas of the houses as young girls painstakingly added final touches to their works of art. A goat curled up in a corner, and despite the deafening noise around him, slept the sleep of the dead or the Xanax-addict. “Best not to tell him that Eid-ul-Azha is just around the corner,” I thought to myself.

Jittery about the threat of terrorist attacks, police personnel guarded the compound and the temple’s private security guards did the rounds of the temple, and forbade outsiders from parking their cars inside the compound. The security clampdown barely dented the air of festivity. Dozens of people poured into the temple, chanting their prayers with the pandit. Inhabitants of the area eagerly opined that they had the freedom to practise their religion and celebrate their festivals. “You should show our festivals on TV more so we can tell our relatives we’re fine here,” a finger-wagging Ashok told me when I asked him about life as a Hindu in Pakistan.

Children, uncaring about their newly purchased ill-fitting trousers, eagerly demonstrated their firecracker lighting skills in the street. The crackers that weren’t lit properly or turned out to be duds were met with boos. The successful ones, like the anaars, were celebrated with bhangras and shouts of “Let’s do it again!” Twenty minutes into this exuberant demonstration though, I found myself forgetting what the spirit of Diwali was. For those assuming I’m a cynic, I should remind you that at this point I’d been hit by firecrackers twice, had done 10 takes of my video link for the celebrations and had been caught, à la Chand Nawab, utterly startled mid-sentence as a firecracker went off dangerously close to my feet. But just as the horror of being the next YouTube sensation was settling in, I met Lakshmi, who graciously invited us to her house to take cover.

As she prayed at her mini-temple and touched her husband’s feet for his blessings, I snuck a glance around the house. Stuffed toys decorated the mantelpiece and a garlanded picture of relatives long gone but conveniently Photoshopped to fit in one image graced the wall. Lakshmi brandished a box of barfi, and life, for the perpetually hungry reporter, was good again.

Click on any photo to begin the slide show of Karachi’s 2009 Diwali celebrations:

All photos by Huma Imtiaz