Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights celebrating the triumph of good over evil, might be considered a less than fortuitous date to pilot a survey instrument for business owners in Mumbai. The crowds doing last minute shopping to puja-fy their homes, the local student body from which I pluck research assistants gone home, as have business owners with employees to run the shop in their absence – all can plunder this trial, but the Indian calendar leaving little space between Hindu, Muslim, or Christian festivals and historical figures’ birthdays, this week is as a good as any.
So it is that on Choti Diwali, or little Diwali, what feels like Christmas Eve, my research assistant, a real life Velma Dinkley, picks up the puddle I am on a train platform under the 32 degrees of midday, and guides me through the overground maze onto the ladies’ compartment of a train headed to Borivali, a northwestern suburb of Mumbai. The compartment’s contents of embroidered and printed layers of crepe, silk, and cotton look especially vibrant, for which Velma, always quick to provide context to my wonderment, explains the tradition of purchasing and wearing new clothes on Diwali. As the only ladies in drab shirts and slacks, we stand out among the rainbow flash of the urban landscape, but all the more to blend into the paan and watch repair stalls on our list of visits.
On our way to our first business owner, Velma catches a whiff of nostalgia and we find ourselves stopping by street vendors to do our own last minute Diwali shopping. Velma picks at the baskets of sparkles and brightly colored powders to make rangolis on the doorstep, while reminiscing about “bursting crackers” as a child that turned into flaming smokey snakes. Despite their roller derby champion names like Ruby Whip and Sparkling Thunder, their light to noise ratio is apparently quite low and results in a neighborhood-sweeping Armageddon, softened only by the yellow and orange marigolds crowning doorways and awnings.
Diwali seems to be as good a reason to welcome us in as to shoo us out, independent of customer flow or progress made in today’s newspaper. Our best reception comes from a man sipping chai at the empty counter of his 2 by 2-meter store, carefully looking through us as we near his perimeter of interaction, before putting up an index in the air, and slowly saying “No time,” chai sipping and people watching uninterrupted. Others like the man selling knock off track suits a couple stalls down calls us in to ask what we are snooping for, promptly inviting us in for chai delivered spill-proof in ziplocs. The “heureux elus”, or lucky winners as my grandmother calls my survey respondents, who sit through the ten to forty minutes of questioning depending on our need for clarification and their need for an ear, are compensated with Velma’s homemade coconut laddoos.
My linguistic capacities in Hindi and Marathi being nil, Velma is free to direct the conversation and discuss Bihar’s Dowry Free India Movement, or the gender distribution of cattle on a Rajasthani farm, while I decipher interactions in the rambunctious silent film playing out before my eyes. Standing in the entrance of a frame repair workshop owned by an old man with an even older assistant, I watch as a corpulent lady appears, flower garlands in a bag, on the hunt for puja elements. She asks for images of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth honored on the night of Diwali so that she pays a visit to worshippers’ homes. The hunched assistant proceeds to fan out Lakshmis sitting in her lotus flower. The images having a landscape orientation however, the goddess bores a more portly stature than in the client’s imagination. Tapping the goddess’s stomach, the woman asks for portraits, after which the assistant produces a stack of images and flips through Hanuman, Ganesh, Lord Ram, Sai Baba, and the multitude of Hindu deities and gurus I have yet to catalogue. Lean Lakshmi is not of the party.
The sun setting on the noble citizenry of the pedestrian alley, the lady settles on landscape Lakshmi and saunters off with her marigolds and newspaper-wrapped frame under the arm. A “Happy Diwali” and a gifted image usher us out. On the way back to the train station, we stop again by sidewalk vendors seemingly birthed by the retail shops behind them over the course of the day, and I get my first taste of charred water chestnuts – a humble delight. Small earthen pots flickering with ghee light our way to the neon vada pav joint marking the entrance to the station and dishing out its slider-sized concoction of yellow bread and fried potato stuffing to commuters. I ask Velma about her Diwali plans. She tells me traditionally people stay home to drink and gamble with their friends. There is another tradition though, which her family opts for, entailing a full spring cleaning to welcome the new year before the relatives arrive. “So you’re celebrating New Year ?” I ask. “Well, one of them. This is my third in 2017.” Diwali, as good a time as any to amble the streets of Borivali.