The rain has halted temporarily having blessed the poor earthlings with generous pour of the century.
Balu was returning home from school. He played with the mud pits that had gathered here and there on the road.
He walked slowly on the corner of the road, trying to protect his faded white shirt and blue trousers from the vehicles using mechanical energy and fuel for the job he was doing a little while ago.
He was studying 5th standard in a nearby public school, which was badly in need of funding from the government. Today was a day, when his school had tried to do something different from the routine and had arranged an Eco-Friendly meet.
Balu and his classmates were made to stand in rows on the playground for the lecture they were going to receive. He was very interested in what the man in the white dhoti was going to say.
The Principal of his school was the first to speak and he spoke for half an hour, about what the dhoti-man was going to say and he also advised the students to listen keenly.
The dhoti-clad man took the mike and for a minute he scanned the crowd, and as if he had done this a thousand times before, he smiled and started his speech.
“Hello children! Good morning to one and all. It is a pleasant day, isn’t it?”
His voice was raspy and this made Balu snicker out loud.
Without hearing his snickering, the good old man continued.
“As you all know, it is Diwali*** this weekend. Do you children know why we are celebrating Diwali?”
A few hands rose up and the dhoti-clad man listened to their answers.
Balu was not the one who readily shares his thought with others. His mind belonged to him alone. We are celebrating Diwali because we need a day to burst all the crackers, isn’t it?
“Now, after hearing all your theories, I think I must go back and learn myself a little more.”
This followed a brassy laugh from the man.
Theories? Balu thought. Oh! He is speaking about theorems! Why should the dhoti-clad man gather us all and banter about theorems. There is already one old grumpy teacher with a big moustache who taught us theorems. He wondered how this dhoti-clad man will be different from his already dreadful teacher.
“Children, I am here to talk about my theory.” started the man.
Meanwhile, the clouds have turned a very grey nimbus. Balu looked up and thought that only if the man could finish his lecture before the rain starts, could he go home soon.
“Diwali is a festival of lights. You good children must have heard of Narakhasura, haven’t you?”
Blank faces stared back at him everywhere.
“It is okay. Since I am here, let me tell you a very interesting story”
The sullen faces perked up at the mention of a story.
“Narakhasura was a king who got a boon from Mother Earth that he cannot be killed by anyone but herself. Mother Earth will not kill her own child, so he thought that he was immortal. This went to his head and he became cruel to his own subjects. The people were unhappy under their king and they decided to appeal to Lord Krishna, the protector. Lord Krishna promised to take care of Narakhasura. Knowing that he could be killed only by Mother Earth, he sought the help of his wife, Sathyabhama. Sathyabhama was an incarnation of Mother-Earth.
They went to war. Those days they fought wars from chariots and Krishna wanted Sathyabhama to be his charioteer. They started fighting and an arrow from Narakhasura made him unconscious. Sathyabhama took over and with an arrow, killed Narakhasura. Thus the Narakhasura, the darkness was killed and the light was brought to the world. We celebrate that day as Diwali.
The light signifies that our world is pure and we light lamps in our homes on Diwali so that, we could be remembered of the darkness, the world once had and that we should lead a good life and render light to all those in darkness. Understood children?”
Silence was palpable at the ground. Some nodded yes.
The dhoti-clad man was not yet done.
“Do you all know what crackers are made of?”
Without waiting for an answer, he continued.
“They are made of very harmful chemicals and when you burst them, they burn and send out harmful gases into the air and pollute our already polluted atmosphere. It harms our earth. It makes the sole purpose of celebrating Diwali a waste, isn’t it kids?”
“So kids, starting from this Diwali make a promise to yourself that you will not fire crackers and that you will save our earth from darkness!”
He smiled and looked at the children beseechingly.
The older children of the school started clapping. Balu and his classmates followed suit.
By now, a drizzle has started and the children were eager to get inside.
But, Balu was munching upon his thoughts.
The man did not want him to fire crackers? If cracking on Diwali is hurtful to our earth, when can we fire crackers?
Balu wanted to ask his question to the man, but when he looked up at the podium, his principal was standing there and after a short speech from him, the National Anthem was sung and the students were free to leave for the Diwali holidays. The rain had started with full vigour and soon it was raining cats and dogs.
Balu had to wait an hour before he could walk back home. He was going through what the man had said over and over again. But he still couldn’t find the answer to his question.
He had reached his home. His home was a very modest one, verging on poverty. They had leaky roofs and had to sleep together in one part of room, because there was water elsewhere in rainy seasons.
Balu’s father Ram was a teacher with a meagre income and his mother Usha was a homemaker.
When Balu entered, his mother and father were seriously thinking about their financial situations and the upcoming Diwali.
Diwali had a penchant for making everyone nostalgic about it. Whatever religion, everyone comes together for celebrating it.
Having had that effect, Balu’s parents wanted to spend whatever they can for their only son. But they didn’t realise it that their son’s nostalgia disappeared on entering the house.
That evening, when he returned from playing, Balu’s mother took him in her lap and softly caressing his hair, asked him, “When can we go and get the crackers, Balu? It is already too late and Susila’s son has already started firing them.”
Usha wanted her son to be first in everything, which Balu has fulfilled except for firing the crackers.
Balu was filled with images from the dhoti-clad man’s lecture and also the worrying look on his parents face and their discussion when he entered.
He replied, “No, amma*. I don’t want crackers. Susila aunt’s son doesn’t know that he is angering the mother earth on Diwali!”
With that he went on to narrate to his mother about what the dhoti-clad man had taught them about Diwali and how they should stop polluting the earth.
His mother was so proud of him. Being an illiterate, she wanted his son to succeed in his life and after having heard him talk about atmosphere and pollution, she beamed in pride. She failed to note the sad tone her son was emanating from him.
His father, Ram was happy for a different reason. On hearing his son’s decision, he was delighted that he could use the money he had allotted for crackers for something in the future.
Diwali day started with a bang. Crackers were being blasted everywhere. People were in new clothes, visiting temples and praying, sharing sweets with friends and relatives. Happiness was everywhere.
Inside, Balu’s house, his mother was happily making murukku**. Balu was sitting on a chair comfortably, holding a plate full of murukku and trying to stuff in his mouth as much as possible. He absolutely loved the murukku his mother made and now, more than that, he loved the Diwali special programmes and movies that the TV channels were telecasting that day. He absolutely loved the drama free TV and he wished that everyday were a Diwali day, so that he could sit and watch TV all day eating murukku.
By evening he was fed up with TV and when his mother asked him to join her for the temple, he was ready. Though he was not wearing new clothes, his mother had made him wear the best trousers and shirt he had, and together they went to the temple. Though it was nearing dusk, many people were waiting to pray. They both joined the line and when they had finally completed their prayers, the dusk had fallen.
Balu’s mother held his hands in one of her hands and in the other she was carrying the coconut and the flowers from the temple. Balu was looking around happily, letting his mother lead the way.
Suddenly, at a screeching sound of a rocket cracker they looked up at the sky. The rocket whooshed up and went off in a blast. This was followed by a cracker that went to the sky and blasted giving beautiful multi-coloured sparks everywhere. Usha stopped moving and was looking up with a child’s delight. She left Balu’s hands and was enjoying the show. Multitude of similar crackers followed and soon the sky was filled with gold, green and red. These crackers symbolized the beginning of the night, when the sky would be dark and the lights are better to look at.
After sometime, the continuous firing stopped and Usha looked at her son. Balu had a gkee plastered to his face. Usha thought it to be due to the fire crackers. She failed to notice that Balu was keeping one hand firmly over his right trouser pocket.
He didn’t remove it even once until he reached his home.
Once on reaching home, he started watching TV again and the weariness of the day sought him at last and he soon fell asleep in his chair.
He awoke suddenly and he realized that he was on his bed next to his mom. His mother and father were sleeping soundly. He wanted to use the restroom.
He got up from the bed and walked softly not to disturb his sleeping parents. After coming out from the restroom, he looked up at the clock and realized that it was just nearing 10.30 and not midnight as he had thought previously. He went near the window and saw the world outside.
It was still active. Some were still bursting crackers as if they had no better day to do it and others had retired to catch upon the TV programmes or had slept.
As if he had remembered something, Balu jerked himself up from his half-sleep state. He patted his pockets and found that it was still there. He tried to open the door of his house, but he was too short for the upper door lock. He pushed a chair against the door and after many failed attempts, opened the door. He ran out of the door like a mad man in a fury.
The movements must have woken Usha or her motherly instinct must have done it. She woke to find her son missing from her side. She was alert immediately and went to look in the other room. But instead of her son, she found the open door. Panic increasing inside her, she moved towards the door. That is when she saw her son standing outside. On seeing what he was doing, she didn’t want to progress further beyond the door.
Balu was looking at the one unused cracker on the palm of his hand. He had pocketed it, when Usha was immersed in the cracker show near the temple.
He blowed out the dust from the crackers and rubbed it against the hand sleeve of his shirt. The dust cleared and the red colour of the cracker was seen with its still intact white thread. Balu’s face showed absolute joy. He had a cracker in his hand.
Having realized that he hadn’t taken anything with him to light it, he looked around. His eyes spotted a mud lamp still emitting light. He went nearby the lamp and held his open palm close to it. He looked at the cracker as it was the only thing that mattered to him at that moment.
He took the cracker by pincer grasp and slowly brought the white thread of the cracker near the lamp. The white thread in the cracker got in touch with the light. It slowly cringed, turned black and started moving rapidly towards the chemical contained in the red colour body of the cracker.
Balu threw it upwards into the sky.
It was a moment which slowed itself for Balu.
The fire cracker went up higher and in the meantime, the fire had reached the red part and when it showed itself to him against the dark starless night sky, it blasted. Then having done its job, it fell down faster than it went up.
Balu jumped up, clapping his hands. It was everything for him.
A single drop of tear flowed from her eyes and Usha felt more proud than ever.
Balu was still looking up into the sky as if searching for his fire cracker. He didn’t see his mother standing at the door nor did he know about his mother’s resolve to get him the crackers next year and to resolve their finances.
All that mattered to that lone little soul starring into the sky on an eerie night was that he had blasted a cracker. One little fire cracker.
*Amma- Mother in Tamil language
**Murukku- A South-Indian snack
***Diwali – A Festival in India