Vantage point

Monday, October 19, 2009

Diwali - The Festival of Lights....and Forts??

Diwali is almost over. Yet another Diwali in a foreign land, to be filed away marked by nothing but emails and calls from friends and relatives with wishes. No firecrackers, no lights, no sweets. In fact lots and lots of snow!

But being in a foreign land has little to do with the low key Diwali observation. Even the last few years when I was in India, I didn't really celebrate Diwali too lavishly. It was mainly a day spent with family, doing my best to minimize my involvement in the poojas and such, wincing at the cacophony of the fire crackers, and focusing my energies on the snacks. A far cry from childhood, when diwali was a really big deal. A festival of snacks, but also the elaborate lamps, lighting, fire crackers and my favorite part - the forts.

Only someone who grew up in Maharashtra can understand the natural connection between diwali and forts. Because it is one tradition I have seen observed only in my home state. A few days before diwali, kids start building "forts" in their backyards or apartment compounds. Specifically, Shivaji's forts. The "fort" is usually just a miniature hill made by piling rocks and bricks and covering them with wet mud. A few, very few forts actually have something fortlike on top - makeshift walls or ramparts made from cardboard. Most forts only have on top a figurine of Shivaji Maharaj sitting on a throne.

But that does not mean the fort was just a mound of mud and stones. A lot of effort and imagination went into making it "realistic". We'd sprinkle mustard seeds all over the fort, and within a couple of days, there would be greenery on it. The ground around the fort was also painstakingly made to resemble a village, with farms, wells, temples and so on.

And the figurines. Ah, the figurines. The Shivaji figurine at the top was a no-brainer. But we also got a lot of other figurines. Guards with handlebar moustaches guarding the Maharaj. A couple of sword-wielding maratha warriors slugging it out with bearded mughal invaders at one corner. Villagers, vegetable sellers, cows, dogs, priests, and so on also dotted the whole region. And for a few eyars after the Ajinkya Dev starrer 'Sarja' was a big hit, it was mandatory to have a Sarja figurine perched on a particularly tricky cliff, making his way up as his wife stood below hammering a dholak.

Every year, during the dussehra holiday, we would sit down for meetings to decide how the fort would be that particular year. How much money could each of us cajole out of our parents to make sure that our fort was hand down the best one in the neighborhood. We'd brainstorm about the basic design, architecture and the features. The most popular fort to emulate was always Pratapgad, which is visually awe-inspiring and also the site of arguably the coolest story featuring Shivaji - killing Afzal Khan. But we did fashion our own designs over the years too.

The fort required regular maintenance. Since it was after all made with mud dug up from the yard and mixed with water, in a couple of days, the fort would develop big crack. We then meticulously had to fill every crack with wet mud. The figurines were not exactly high quality, so an arm would fall off. We'd have to go buy new ones.

And every year at the end of diwali, we had just one goal. Try and blow up the fort with leftover diwali bombs. Never happened. At the most, a couple of rocks would roll off, but the overall structure stayed largely intact with remarkable tenacity. The dream of watching the whole fort blow up remained unfulfilled.