Leela stepped out in to the cool dusk evening and looked up at the sky. It was a couple of days to Vishu, but the sound of crackers could be heard around the neighborhood. Smoke rose in the distance, and the rat-tat-tat sound of fireworks added a repetitive symphony to the evening. The cicadas and nightjars were temporarily silenced but their faint buzzing and calling continued, unheard by human ears. The kitchen was a bit of a bustle, and she wondered if she needed to go in. She decided to stay out a little longer. Her mother would be already at work, prepping for dinner. And her sister would be helping too. Yes, she could stay out some more. Vishu was a beautiful time of the year. It arrived early April, just as the sun began to turn redder and warmer, but not quite in the “hot-sweaty” range yet. And the nights were breezy and cool. How many days before the searing heat descends, she wondered.
The fireworks continued unabated. But now they sounded harsher, louder. It wasn’t the light rat-tat-tat any more. They were bringing out the “bombs.” She often wondered what the fun and joy was in them. They had no light or drama, just an ugly sound that reverberated through the homes, ears, and hearts. They were ominous, mean-sounding, and cruel. And they got progressively louder. And they lacked the repetition, so one never knew when to cover the ears. Not that covering the ears made a difference. The sound burned its way through, leaving ear drums throbbing and hearts thudding. Each year, someone would invent (or manufacture) a louder contraption that created a sound more awful than the one people enjoyed the year before. And so on it went. This is a guy’s thing, she sighed. Yet another toy that we have to endure for their sake, ugh. She hated to see the house pet Silky on these nights. The little dog would cower under the bed, shivering and whimpering. She wouldn’t be comforted, no matter how hard anyone in the family tried. Even as the kids hugged her, she trembled in their grasp. Fear showed in her eyes and paws and mouth. Leela wondered if she should ask the vet for a light tranquilizer, so she could have Silky fall asleep for a few hours, a brief break from the rat-tat-tat and the nasty bombs.
But Silky wasn’t the only one frightened of loud sounds and fireworks. Leela’s 7-year-old daughter Mini was equally affected. Diwali ended up being the worst time of the year for her. In a small flat in Bombay, there aren’t enough places for a little girl to hide. The bedroom was compact and comfortable, but it had a window that faced the neighboring apartment building. And the teenage boys who lived there spent hundreds of rupees each Diwali on fireworks. So she couldn’t hide in the bedroom for long. The kitchen was a better spot but it was adjacent to the living room which had a large window overlooking the water tank and play ground. Folks congregated out there to burn their hard-earned money, throwing it up in flames. No, it was torture, and it had to be endured, year after year.
But Vishu was somewhat different. For one, the bombs weren’t as fancy or loud, and the sounds never felt as harsh as what one experienced during Diwali. Perhaps it was the surrounding tree cover that muffled the noise, trying to comfort little souls like Mini and Silky. Maybe people didn’t have as much money to spend on pyrotechnic displays. Maybe they were more sensible than their Bombay counterparts.
Leela stepped into the home and walked into the kitchen. Where are the kids, she asked her sister. They are out front, bursting crackers. Madhu got some “flowerpots” and sparklers this morning.
The kids were out in the front yard, using incense sticks to light the “flowerpots” and sparklers and string-style crackers. It was a merry sight, their faces suffused with joy and golden light. She looked around but she couldn’t find Mini. She stepped back into the sitting room, walked through the kitchen, out on to the patio… no Mini to be found. Finally, in the bedroom, she saw her huddled in a corner. Tears were running down Mini’s cheeks, and her little body shook. Her nose was starting to drip, and she sniffled continuously. It was a sad scene, almost pathetic.
Leela closed her eyes. Aargh, she thought inwardly. Why is this child so frightened? Why is she the only one so frightened? Why isn’t she like her sister, her cousins? Enough is enough.
She opened her eyes. Yanked Mini’s arm forward. Come out, everyone is outside. No, Amme, I am scared! There is nothing to be scared, it’s only fireworks. It is just sound. Come out. No, Amme, please!
Leela dragged her little daughter out of her hiding place, as Mini pulled back, frightened. Her sobs gained in intensity, her body wracked with tears and coughing. The crying only served to annoy Leela even further, and she continued to pull her daughter out, on to her feet.
Finally, Leela’s mother stepped out of the kitchen. Stop it, let her be. It’s alright.
So many years later, Mummy apologized to me for that night, tears forming in her eyes. She could hardly believe that she had been so insensitive to my fear, so blind to my pain. I had consigned that incident to a remote corner in my memory where it bothered me no more. I faintly remember the details of that night but it doesn’t plague me at all. Mummy, I think, carried guilt and regret for what she said and did. I assured her that I was fine, no damage done… I am free. And now I hope that she is too.