Chandan put his hands on his ears trying to shut off the sounds. It was Diwali night. The entire city was lit up. Fire crackers were exploding everywhere. Chandan was lying on a dirty wooden bench in one corner of a dhaba in which he worked, trying to shut off the world and sleep.
Diwali - the festival of lights - it brought joy and happiness for everyone. Everyone - except him.
He remembered that day three years ago....
"Chandan, you lazy bones. Get up. Have you forgotten? Today is Diwali. You have to go with Babuji to the market and get all the stuff we need for the Puja and most important of all your precious firecrackers -" Chandan's mother Sujata said yanking off the quilt.
At the mention of crackers Chandan jumped off the bed and hugged his mother. He had already made a long list - rockets, Laxmi bombs, Vishnu Bombs, Hydrogen bombs, 'ladis' and those special ones which made the loudest noise - Knock-Out bombs. Ofcourse he was sure to have a fight with his younger sister Anjali. She hated bombs. They scared her. She only liked sparklers, pencils, wires, Vishnu chakkars, flower pots - all that sissy stuff. And Babuji would always support her. Invariably they would end up with Anjali getting a better deal. Anyway Chandan was determined to put up a spirited fight for his case.
By the time they returned from the market it was two in the afternoon and Chandan was famished. Ma had made his favourite halwa and kheer. He gobbled up two helpings of each much to the delight of Ma.
In the evening, at around six, as they were about to sit for Laxmi Puja they got a message. Ratan Shah, the owner of the cloth store where Babuji worked had suffered a stroke.
"I'll just go see him and come," Babuji told Chandan's mother.
"I'll go with you. Let's take Anjali along too. She will keep Sudha company. Poor child must be going through hell."
Sudha was Ratan Shah's youngest daughter. She and Anjali were classmates.
"Okay then, Chandan you stay here. We'll try to come back as quickly as possible."
Those were his Babuji's last words. While returning from the hospital Babuji's moped collided head on with a truck. All three were killed on the spot.
On that fateful evening of the Festival of Lights, Chandan's little world had gone completely dark.
* * *
Two weeks later Chandan's Uncle Birju Chacha had come, bag and baggage, wife and four kids in tow, and plonked himself in Chandan's house.
"As soon as I came to know of the terrible tragedy I decided I'll leave everything I have in the village and come to the city
to take care of Chandan. After all, poor orphan, he has no one else to call his own," Birju Chacha went around telling everyone who cared to listen.
Chandan could stand neither Birju Chacha nor his wife and their brood. Chacha had always been the black sheep of the family. He was a good for nothing rogue and an incorrigible parasite. But Chandan had no choice. Birju Chacha and his family simply took over the entire house. Within six months Chandan's status was that of a servant. The entire family delighted in torturing him. Whatever savings his father had as well as his mother's jewelry were all siphoned off by his Chacha and Chachi. While his cousins lorded over him, Chandan had to do most of the work on the house as well as run errands for everyone. Unable to bear the torture Chandan ran away and boarding the first train he left Ahmedabad and came to Baroda. Here after roaming the streets for three months he managed to get a job in Bakshi's dhaba.
He would slog the whole day, serving water, food and cleaning tables. At night he was allowed to sleep in the dhaba. The dhaba had now become his work place as well as his home.
* * *
After that fateful Diwali Chandan had had to bear the ordeal of two more Diwalis. This was the third. While the world celebrated the Festival of Lights, Chandan mourned for his family and his little world of happiness which had been so cruelly destroyed.
Chandan got up with a start. Did he actually hear someone crying out in pain or was he imagining things?
"Aah!" he heard the sound again. He scrambled up and went out. An old man was lying sprawled on the ground. He must have been around seventy. He had white unkempt hair and an equally white straggly beard. He was wearing a white kurta and pajama. Chandan helped him up and made him sit on a wooden bench.
"Tha..thanks beta," the old man said. He had a soft, gentle voice. Right opposite the dhaba was Vimal cinema hall which was brightly lit up.As the lights fell on the old man's face Chandan noticed that he was blind.
"Baba what are you doing all alone at this time of the night?"
"Beta, I am alone."
"Why? What about your wife, children?"
"I have no one. My two sons kicked me out of the house after my wife's death two years ago."
"Where do you stay?"
"You know the Jain temple near the main market?"
"There is an ashram in its premises. I stay there with many others like me who have nowhere to go."
"But what are you doing at this hour so far away from your ashram?"
"Beta, today is Diwali - the festival of joy and happiness, of brightness and radiance. How can I sit cooped up inside a room? I have come out to enjoy."
"But Baba, you can't even see. What can you enjoy?" Chandan blurted out realising too late that he had probably been too brutal.
"Beta, who says I can't enjoy? I can't see with my eyes, but I can hear, I can smell, I can breathe and above all I can feel the festive spirit which is all pervasive. The sound of the bursting crackers, the smell of the mouth watering sweets, screaming, shouting and merrymaking of the children, the brilliance of the millions of tiny lamps reflecting the light of love, of knowledge, of happiness.....You want me to miss all this? Diwali is the festival of festivals. It tells us about sharing love and spreading joy and happiness. That is why I go out in the streets. See my pockets are bulging with small packets. These contain sweets. The entire year I try to save every pie. And on Diwali, using whatever savings I have, I buy sweets.I go around in the streets and distribute these sweets to people who are less fortunate than I am."
Chandan stared at the old man in amazement. For three years he had been wallowing in self pity, cursing Diwali, cursing God and cursing fate. He was young, healthy and he had his entire life ahead of him. He had so much to look forward to. Yet he had made his present wretched and miserable by weeping over the past.
In stark contrast to him was this old and feeble man. He was blind, frail and almost at the end of his long and tortured life. He had nothing going for him. Yet he was out there doing his little but to spread happiness and joy.
The old man got up.
"Achha beta, thanks for your help. Take this," he thrust a sweet packet in Chandan's hands. "May Goddess Lakshmi's blessings always be with you."
The old man hobbled off on his mission. His words kept echoing in Chandan's mind....
Since that lonely Diwali night whenever Chandan felt down and out he would think of the old man. His kind face would flash in front of Chandan's eyes, his gentle voice would ring in his ears and Chandan would be filled with fresh hope and a new to resolve to take on the world.