Originally Written In 2017
When I was little I lived in a place called Nagpur. Heat-frazzled and sleepy Nagpur. The evenings had a slow-drawl quality to them, as if they never intended to come to an end, and the effect was more pronounced when schools were out on account of festival season. In those days, we were the authority on self-invented past times. I think this was the case with everyone in those days, the mid-90s, where all we had for amusement were ourselves, our friends and the long, unblemished hours. Every evening, four or more kids would materialise on the street. Sometimes, there would be more, other times fewer. The least number of players at any time were two, but I can recall the most ardent enthusiasts setting out by themselves in pursuit of the daily thrill. My little band consisted of Sanskriti, my younger sister, Kunnu and Jaikishen, who were those distant relatives that were closest to my age on our home street. I tried setting out by myself once when none of my friends were available to come out, but somehow it didn’t have the same magic alone. Imagine it with me now, a group of four rag-tag kids, standing together by the road, all looking in different directions. ‘What are they looking for?’, you’d ask. Their surveillance is not very different from farmers looking at the sky squint-eyed in hope of sighting rain clouds. This group of kids is looking for the perfect spot to burst their red crackers! A spot where they would set down their crackers, use an incense stick to gingerly light them, and run back to their original spot. It was important that great care went into the choice of these two spots. Every self-respecting kid on the street knew this. After that it was a constant to and fro between the two posts, the idyll interrupted only by the BOOM of the cracker. This was our favourite way to let time pass in Diwali season. Anything noisier and flashier than this would make you tire yourself out more quickly, and anything duller than this would tire you of the sport itself.
We called them ‘Laal Bomb’(pronounced – Laal Bum) but I was told later that the more popular name is Bijli crackers. (Bijli means lightning) We spent countless evening hours engaged in patient and repetitive lighting of loose red crackers, and here I wish to detail how oddly ritualistic and solemn the cracker bursting routine of eight-year olds used to be.
A word on the crackers themselves. These were the smallest units of the firecracker ecosystem, much like a lego piece that eventually makes up bigger and more complex assemblies. The red cracker was essentially a red paper cylinder filled with gunpowder, and if curiosity led you to unpeel the paper, you would discover successive layers of paper, all coated with silver powder that would eventually coat your fingers as well. A flammable wick made its way into the explosive core of the cracker that helped the user light it up. Our approach towards our crackers was unique. We interacted with them with the same quiet patience that people exhibit when engaged in fishing, bird-watching or even devout prayer. There was a mindful quality to it that refreshed us in a way nothing else could. It was just the right amount of mental engagement that allowed our brain the time to repair and refresh and helped us feel good at the end. And I feel that my fascination with this memory from my childhood stems from the fact that by bursting these crackers so meditatively, we turned the entire experience of Diwali on its head. Usually, people prefer their firecrackers to go up in great noisy displays of pomp, flash and splendour; an intense but short-lived moment that generates wonder and joy in the audience. But, for us, it was never about the flaming moment. It was all about prolonging the entire process and enjoying the space and silence we could derive from it. As mentioned before, it was a sport of patience, like golf, or filming wild animals in their natural habitat. There is a lot of waiting involved, and after a point the waiting isn’t simply essential to the activity, it becomes the activity. I’m sure there are wildlife enthusiasts who feel cheated out of a good time, if they manage to quickly spot the animals they came to look at. They are counting upon the long stretches of time which later make for their meeting with a wild animal, as moving as encountering a force of nature itself. Today, our world is filled with people who go to great lengths to ward off boredom, but there used to exist once or still does a class of people who enjoy long, pronounced stretches of so-called ‘boredom’. Eventually, it was an experience that continues to teach me new things even after so many years. It taught me the value of silence even during noisy times. It taught me that danger exists everywhere, but you could take adequate measures to prepare for it. It taught me that there is joy to be derived out of cooperation with other people. All this I realise now, in a way I couldn’t have then. Thank God for silly childhood games.