When winter begins in India, the dawn becomes lightly touched with frost, the trees straighten up and a soft new light appears. The summer's harrowing heat and its thundering monsoon give way to Kartik, the golden season of October and November. It is a season of silky sunlight and blossoming trees, when the subcontinent bursts into flaming flower and the gods prepare the earth so they may descend to it in relative comfort. When the chrysanthemums erupt, it is the time of festival.
Diwali is the festival of light. Celebrated at the end of the dark fortnight of the Amavasya or the waning moon, it is usually held at the end of October or beginning of November. Diwali comes from the Sanskrit deepavali, meaning "row of lamps"; it is a time of remembrance, feasts, fireworks, forgiveness and a renewal of life. Life takes on a delicious newness; as the sun turns honey-gold, there is the shivering anticipation on the edges of every starlit evening of winter waiting to return.
Clay lamps are lined up along verandahs, on windowsills, along driveways, in gardens and courtyards. On the terraces, lamps and candles are placed as far back from the ledge as possible so they do not die from the breeze and plunge the house into inauspicious darkness. The prayer room is swept and swabbed until it gleams defiantly in the face of every disapproving mother-in-law. New clothes, dried fruit and nuts, boxes of pistachios, cashews and raisins are wrapped for relatives and friends. Plates of sweets are kept ready for guests, among them laddoo (balls of chickpea flour), payesh (thickened milk sweetened with jaggery sugar and rice), barfi (thickened, boiled-down milk) and jalebis (twirls of fried sugar).
At night the electric lights are switched off. Small quiet flames gleam under giant trees. Along wayside shrines, candles flicker amid bunches of marigolds. People bring offerings of flowers, rice grains and candles, and leave them on bridges, by the sides of lakes and in front of their homes. While people sleep, Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and Ganesh, god of well-being, might emerge from the candle-lit darkness.
My earliest memories of Diwali are of my mother creating rangolis - geometric and floral patterns made from coloured rice flour - at the entrance to the house. My job was to paint two little squiggles on either side of the stairs which led to the upper floor of our house. The squiggles were meant to be the little feet of Lakshmi, who trips into homes at night during Diwali to survey family fortunes and decide whether they need a boost. The little squiggles had to be painted all along the stairs and up into the prayer room in case the goddess lost her way.
In the evenings lit only by candles, generational hatreds seems to somehow dissolve in the softness of the light. When mother and daughter bend to light lamps together, the tradition passes almost tangibly from older to younger: take comfort from me, because even after I am gone, I will burn here in these candles. Around the lamps sits an arc of illuminated quiet, a shimmering oval of night, encircling parent and child in the presence of an unobtrusive yet powerful glow. Children bend to touch the feet of visiting grandparents. A father swings his son into the air, then presses the little boy's face close to his own. Free of the harsh, joyless light of electricity, we can wrap ourselves in humanity.
Diwali holidays are gloriously festive. Streets are strung with bright lights and paper lanterns, markets dress in shimmering golden streamers, and fairy lights wind around trees. These days, the trend is towards flashing fluorescent neon and revolving strobe lights on newly acquired rich homes. But candles and lamps are still everywhere, as are paper lanterns, brass lamp-stands and imitation silver candlesticks. The customary Lakshmi Puja or a prayer to goddess Lakshmi is held in almost all homes; temple bells ring out in every neighborhood.
A Diwali day begins with a bath using sandalwood and oil. In parts of south India, the bath must take place at the very wink of dawn because family and friends could start to arrive at the earliest hours. Then come the feasts, breakfast with grandparents, lunches with friends, and evening card games. In north India, Diwali is celebrated as a time when King Rama returns home after victories in war; the houses are decorated to welcome him and the streets are strewn with rose petals. Among the robust merchant princes of the state of Gujarat, Diwali is a time of extremely pious capitalism. After prayers, this is the time to begin renovations on shops, forgive old business acquaintances their past misdeeds and send them boxes of dry fruit. Maybe, if the stars are right, it is also the time to start a small company. In Bengal, Diwali means prayers to goddess Kali, the fearsome deity who slew an army of demons: at the famous Kalighat temple in Calcutta thousands queue up with lamps and marigolds.
For two nights families gather to set off fireworks and chat about the passing years. Sparklers, torches and rockets explode in tumultuous abandon, shedding blue-green parachutes, streaking silvery comets and purple flames. Firecrackers burst every few seconds like gunshots across enemy lines, drowning conversation. Parties last late into the night: toasts are raised and feasts begin, accompanied by the heavy artillery of the fireworks.
But the noise of Diwali does not detract from its serenity. The flashing silks, the decorated boxes of fruits and sweets and skies streaked silver and gold are the outward signs of the rebirth that is happening within. Diwalis mark our passage through life: as we grow older, our festival duties change. As a little girl I used to paint the goddess's feet; as an unmarried professional I helped younger cousins with fireworks; now that I have children and a home, I supervise the food and the rangoli just as my mother did, and watch my own daughter paint little feet squiggles up to the prayer room. In years to come, others will take our places at the festival, and we will move on, replenished and ennobled in the gentle light of candles, to become as the gods made us.
A few years ago I spent Diwali at the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Benares, on the banks of the Ganges. In Hindu scripture, human life begins in water, and to water it must return. At the Kashi temple, Diwali evening prayers bring glittering life to the great river. The high priests dance and twirl with their lamps held high above their heads, calling out with full throats as thousands of lights are floated off in the river. Frankincense and sandalwood create billows of smoke that float up into the sky. The river froths and splashes. The pilgrims, their senses heightened, raise their hands, chanting with such full-throated appeal that the flesh stands on end and eyes spring with tears. The spirit grows larger until the voice bursts, calling out with the priests and pilgrims, calling upwards and outwards across the river where, as mythology has it, life itself began.
After the ceremony, pilgrims go down to the ghats - the steps which lead down to the water - to sit by the river and watch the flames dwindle away. The stars seem to fall into the water. Ghostly processions of devotees come walking down the river bank holding lamps and torches. Far away, fiery streamers float into the clouds. Now comes a giant stillness, a sombreness of purpose, deliberate slow footsteps because those who have come to sit on the ghats have come, not only to celebrate Diwali but also to gaze on the river which will one day carry away their bodies to the ocean. Among Hindus, to be cremated on the "burning ghats" of Benares and then to have the ashes sprinkled on the holy river is to be counted among the twice-blessed.
That Diwali I sat on the ghats of a Benares glittering like a giant necklace. The banks were busy. Pilgrims were floating lamps in the water, others stood in the river looking up at the sky, others sat like me on the steps, chatting with the sadhus - the holy men - in low voices; others walked softly with their children, holding hands. The temples were alive with joyful uproar- the bells rang out from swaying garlands of marigolds, hibiscus, roses and jasmine - but on the ghats the voices of the sadhus were deep and calming.
"You are all in a hurry", one of them chastised us gently. "In a hurry to do many important things. But sometimes you should sit with me here and watch the river become a bridge between life and death."
I crept closer. In the moonlight the sadhu's profile against the river was proud and arrogant. His head was piled with matted hair and he was almost completely naked except for a loincloth. He saw me looking at him and grinned. "Don't be scared," he said mockingly. "I'm a scientist. I hold a degree in chemistry. I should have taken the civil service exam. Instead, look! I took off my clothes."
He told us his name and where he lived. In summer, he said, he went to the mountains to meditate but in summer he usually lived in outhouses of temples or in camps in Benares or Hardwar. "In my family's eyes, I'm a failure. But failure is good. People should learn to fail, because failure and success exist right next to each other and you can't have one without the other."
I've never been able to think about Diwali without thinking of my Benares sadhu. He is lost to me now, meditating in a Himalayan cave or stepping through the desert in search of a temple to live in. But for me, Diwali has become inseparable from everything he told us that evening: that at the heart of celebration should lie detachment; that at the heart of grief, there is a vision of the Unknowable; that festivals exist to illuminate our homes with divine grace, and that without them we would be incapable of giving or receiving affection, or of growing as life asks us to.
Diwali - riotously decorated with silks and streamers, noisy, filled with the tumult of family and friends - conceals within itself such messages. Once a year, when a child bends to decorate a staircase, or a father and son light clay lamps together, or a frenetic journalist basks in a sadhu's wisdom on the banks of the Ganges, Diwali is time to stop, to gaze at a candle, and to allow ourselves to rest in life itself.