News

Diwali

Hello from the Isle of Wight.

Recent publicity about Diwali has reminded me of my own experience of the Hindu festival of light. In October 1989 my wife and I took a two-and-a-half-week holiday in India. It was quite a culture shock – not the kind of holiday to choose if you are looking for rest and relaxation. But it did give us a fantastic set of experiences. The last day of the holiday was spent in a hotel by Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai and that evening we were taken by taxi to the international airport about ten miles north of Mumbai to catch an overnight flight back to Heathrow. It coincided with Diwali.

The road to the airport is a three-lane dual carriageway with a hard shoulder along each side. You would have thought the journey would only take a few minutes, and we didn´t quite understand why we were picked up nearly four hours before the flight took off. However when we got on the road we understood the reason. The hard shoulder along both sides of the motorway had been colonised by homeless Indians who had built themselves little sheds constructed from cardboard boxes, plastic, foil and any other materials they could get hold of. Here they apparently lived, slept, cooked their meals and relaxed – right beside the passing traffic.

It was already dark when we embarked on this ten-mile journey which took us about two hours. This was because all three lanes of traffic were creeping along, hooting and revving their engines. As far as we could see, the slow progress was caused by vehicles stopping by the roadside for the occupants to have chats with friends or relatives in the roadside dwellings. In fact it wasn´t uncommon for drivers to cut straight across the three lanes to visit the shanties, amid much shouting and gesticulating. Apparently the people living there were completely at home entertaining friends on the edge of one of the busiest roads in India.

But the most spectacular thing to us was that these mean dwellings had been decorated for Diwali with festoons of neon and fairy lights. They were all brightly lit

up, I suspect by small generators behind the cardboard houses, probably several places sharing each generator. It was amazing that people who were so poor should still find a way to afford to celebrate this special festival in the Indian calendar.

The other thing about Indians is their love of fireworks – not simple sparklers or roman candles – but big thunder-flashes. These were being set off all over the place. On several occasions one would roll under the taxi before it exploded, causing the vehicle to rock crazily on its springs. Indian taxis in those days were not known for their comfort, and such things as air conditioning were unknown. Because the night temperature was up in the eighties, it was necessary to have the windows open. I must say I was nervous about the possibility that one of these super-bangers might be chucked into the taxi to liven things up.

I admit it was a relief, after our two-hour ten-mile journey, to finally arrive in the air-conditioned peace of the modern departure lounge. It´s an experience I am pleased not to have missed on the one occasion, but it´s not one I would choose to repeat.

Best wishes to all my readers – Michael Hillier.