This appeared in Mumbai Mirror....
When the lights come on….
Prathmesh is a tubby little chap, all of fourteen, who sells an array of the most colourful aakash kandeels that come in myriad shapes and sizes, from a string tied between street lights at a busy traffic intersection in crowded Thakurdwar. This is his improvised ‘shop’ during Diwali. He can barely cope with the demand as eager shoppers buy a dozen or more mini-kandeels for their homes. He digs into an overstuffed leather folder looking for change while two little assistants( aged eight and ten) deal with a long line of regulars who love his personally crafted kandeels. I am one of them. Prathmesh has been at it since he was in class 4! Today, he is in class 10. As I watch him juggling customers and cash without taking his eyes off the precious kandeels swaying in the breeze, I smile at an old memory. Prathmesh was knee high at the time. And not as plump. But he sure as hell knew how to work that small crowd clamouring for his beautiful lanterns in a street crammed with other lanterns. Prathmesh had obviously figured out years ago that his are better than his competitors’. As they indeed are. Two nights ago, I took my time picking the ones I wanted, and saw him negotiating crisply with a lady asking for the usual discount ( come on…. each pretty lantern costs twenty bucks…. these little boys have made them!). He grinned broadly when I asked whether he found it difficult to keep a track of the loose change. “Yeh mera business hai! I cannot make a mistake,” was his jaunty reply! What after the tenth grade exam, I asked. Without looking up from his wallet, he said, “ Science college. Engineering . Then… full time business.” Wow!
Thakurdwar has been my beat for decades. I love Girgaum during Diwali… during any festival, for that matter. My annual Diwali ritual has not changed. This is where I go to buy traditional ‘faral’ – crisp and crunchy chaklis, chivda ( two kinds),karanjis, chirotey, anarsey, besan ladoos, kadak boondi ladoos, tikhat shev. Faral is followed by toran and diyas shopping from one particular pavement seller, who also sells the best body scrub on earth – the Maharashtrian herbal utnay. Heaven knows what goes into that little packet, but it smells divine and your skin glows for at least a week after! Rangoli powders and chakmaki decorations to enhance rangoli designs are carefully selected next. Then comes the final stop - for strings and strings of fragrant mogras, parijat, jui, champaks, sontakka, jaswanti blossoms. Some are already made into venis that crown neatly coiled nape buns. Others, are woven into gajras that stay wound around the wrist or are carefully tucked into a hair knot, taking care not to crush the delicate petals. It is only Shaku, sitting on a cleared patch of a dirty pavement, just outside the famous Waman Hari Pethe showroom ( a landmark in the area) , who understands the delicate life of the tiny flowers she weaves into gajras and garlands without damaging a single one. Shaku and I have been friends for years. This time, she looked under the weather. Another regular asked her worriedly what was wrong. Shaku smiled, and shrugged off her fever, saying, “It is only high temperature…. cold and cough. It will go eventually. But Diwali won’t come again this year!” Yup. Business first!
Prathmesh and Shaku.Two stories that perfectly capture the spirit of Diwali. That reflect the zest and gutsiness of Mumbai.Two individuals, struggling on filthy footpaths of a busy city without cribbing, complaining or giving in to despair. Prathmesh is sure to make it. And make it big. His bright eyes tell their own story. Shaku is old and tired now. She has lost her teeth. But not her essential joie de vivre. She throws in two extra gajras into my bag… grins and wishes me a ‘ Happy Diwali’, urging me to enjoy my ritual Diwali bath with the utnay - “ since, of course,we only have one real ‘anghol’ during the year!”
Our Marvelous Mumbai is full of similar stories… stories that revolve around hope and hard work, and the gift to recognize the incredible potential of life in terms that go well beyond material wealth. Perhaps Prathmesh and Shaku understand the real meaning of the word ‘rich’ far better than some of our city’s billionaires.
Happy Diwali, readers. Let there be light. Not noise!