My memories are Diwali in Delhi are as colourful as the celebration. As a student of Delhi University, I celebrated this festival with gusto and on one memorable year with 1,000 bottles of Pepsi, a roulette wheel and the Delhi Police.
The catalyst for this adventure was an amazing man called Chintu Chawla, proud resident of Rajouri Garden and entrepreneur extraordinaire. Like many Sikhs, he made the best of friends and the worst of enemies. Despite his outwardly aggressive Delhi persona that involved charismatic tirades of Punjabi abuse that would have made Laloo Prashad blush, he was big-hearted to a fault and wept every time we had a chicken slaughtered. Despite his habit of loudly threatening drivers that cut him off with dire sexual consequences to their next of kin, I sentimentally remember him threatening to kill me if I swore within a kilometre of Bangla Sahib, the great Sikh temple of Delhi.
I had been fortunate enough to be befriended by Chintu in Sri Venkateswara College when I was still struggling to spell it. I soon found out, before the days of Twitter or even mobiles, that he was a human social media hub and knew everything that that was going on in West Delhi. To a supernatural extent. “Nirula’s at D-28 were raided last night by the ITO. They had 3 crores under their mattress!”; “My cousin’s bhabhi’s grandfather owns three illegal rifles and last week shot a monkey!”
Chintu not only knew everything that happened, he desperately wanted to be there when it did. That meant long laughter-filled nights jumping off and on the Mudrika (Ring Road bus) or if we were lucky, in his family’s temperamental Maruti 800, chasing down the latest Old Monk and water get-together or in this case, the latest high stakes Diwali “Flash” game.
Twenty years later I can very clearly remember Diwali flash parties at the Chawlas. Even then the joint family was an institution under attack, but the Chawlas had gallantly swum against a strong tide of change, and a matrix of relatives lived in a huge house in D Block. Diwali would see the lounge filled with enormous Sikhs, constructed with stiff Patialas and paddling pool sized servings of butter chicken, jealously nursing their two dealt playing cards. They looked like a range of the Himalayas with two dwarfed checker-patterned billboards on the side of each mountain.
Punjabis are a jovial lot but when money is involved, there can be an sudden air of intense seriousness and uncharacteristic silence. The tradition of gambling during Diwali was no exception. It was a very serious business indeed, with little eye contact between poker faces, just a flurry of suspicious side glances and nonchalant throws of money into the pot.
This mesmerising meditation would be broken by truly violent eruptions of cheating accusations and heart-stopping drama. Not for the faint hearted! On my first few visits to the Chawlas I thought they were suffering an almighty ongoing row and confided this to Chintu who doubled over laughing and said, “ Nei yaar, that’s how Punjabis talk only!”
Chintu may have had a protective instinct for condemned chickens, but I soon found this didn’t extend to his fellow man. Diwali night in the streets of Rajouri garden is to relive the Lebanese civil war, on a bad night.
It is beyond description. India has not heard of occupational health and safety, and her fireworks are not the effeminate crackers of my youth. They really should be stored in ammo dumps under armed guard.These annually claim thousands of fingers and under our command, made enormous holes in aluminium billboards advertising VIP underpants.
Skyrockets were designed to be fired vertically, but West Delhites find a well-intended horizontal launch very satisfactory, and in the direction of a neighbour’s face, infinitely more satisfying! Multiply that by a thousand neighbours, slash combatants, and you have some idea of the ferocity the celebration evokes. The exhausting swing of my emotions from an instinct of self-preservation, fighting a strong impulse to dive head first in to the ditch, and the wonderfully liberating experience of firing kilos of gunpowder at young families.
In hindsight, I can see why Chintu is such a good survivor. Though we nearly didn’t survive the following year’s Diwali.
Chintu, naturally entrepreneurial, had heard on his amazing radar that people were making a small fortune in the Diwali fairs selling the new multinational soft drinks. Thick as thieves, we pooled resources and in no time we were riding in a truck, the proud guardians of 1,000 bottles of Pepsi.
Setting up our stall in Green Park mela, it didn’t take long to realise we were in deep trouble. We had been duped into believing we would have the monopoly, and our prices plummeted from a level that would have seen the proceeds purchase a year’s supply of Old Monk from the Army Canteen to a level that would have seen a year’s supply of ruthless ridicule.
We hadn’t even dented the skyscrapers of Pepsi crates which formed a towering backdrop to our depressingly quiet stall, in a furiously busy fair. That night we barely slept as we nervously pondered how we were to sell more bottles, and I had never slept on Pepsi crates before (because we couldn’t risk any bottles being stolen). It was a tricky manoeuvre as we hadn’t sold more than six crates and we were dangerously high off the ground.
The next day, despite his deep reservations, Chintu listened to me and we made a clowns face with holes for eyes and a mouth to charge punters to take a chance at throwing a ball through and claiming a Pepsi as a prize.
This was reminiscent of my later business decisions. I clearly should have seen that establishing a game, where our fiscal survival was dependant on Indians not having any cricket skills, was not sound. We got rid of quite a lot of Pepsi, but it was next to free. Cricket guns with seriously strong throwing arms consistently found their mark and in no time the hardboard clown, to their great delight, was firewood.
Then Chintu looked dangerously preoccupied, genius was in motion. As genius is a slip away from madness, we found ourselves at a toy shop buying a miniature roulette table.
Incredibly, we moved the supplies to Lajpat Nagar where we slept again on the crates and I have a very clear memory of wrapping myself up against the swarm of mosquitoes in a cloth street sign for woman’s unmentionables in Central Market, and drifting off to the calls of the night watchman as he made his rounds.
The roulette table was the hit of the fair and we didn’t know where to put the bundles of cash that were being thrown at us. Chintu had had the courage to give the wrong odds without our customers knowing any better. We could see ourselves hosting a party to end all parties in no time at all.
Then as I greedily looked down at the glorious piles of crumpled notes ready to sweep yet another avalanche into our money box, I only just missed having all my fingers broken.
A lathi (truncheon) was brought down with such force on our table that the roulette wheel flew into the air, closely followed by Rs 100 notes and the grasping hands of their owners. A Jaat constable who looked like a well-made public building screamed a string of abuses that even Chintu, though now open-mouthed and decidedly paler, couldn’t help feel some admiration for it’s colourful delivery.
Chintu trembled, “Bhaisahib, please come to the side and we can work this out!” The cop erupted, “Do you think I am dishonest cop?” We all shook our heads furiously, indicating ‘no’.
“If I take money, I take it front of the people!”
Twenty years on Chintu lives in Torronto with his beautiful young family. It’s a joy to phone my brother and remember those cherished days. It’s with sadness I won’t be able to wish him Happy Diwali with a big Punjabi hug.
You can take the boy out of West Delhi but you can’t take West Delhi out of the boy. For that I am very grateful because for some he was the worst of enemies but for me he always made the very best of friends.