They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. In some cases, however, a picture is worth even more. Like the Grand Canyon—you can write about or talk about it all you want, but it’s not going to give you a visceral sense of its immense, breathtaking beauty. All this is to say—I’m sorry, because this blog post attempts to give the equivalent of a written description of the Grand Canyon. But I lost my camera the day before Diwali, so words will have to suffice.
It was Diwali evening, and Madurai was exploding. As I put on clean clothes for a fancy Diwali dinner, the sights and sounds of fireworks burst all around me. Colored flashes streamed through my window, and pops, bangs, and BOOMS echoed off the tiled floor. It reminded me, of course, of the Fourth of July, but it was so much more. Instead of a controlled progression with preset delays, the flashes kept coming, one right after another, and the loud explosions came at the house from every direction in staccato bursts of eight, nine, even ten in a row. The good people of Madurai were celebrating, and they were celebrating in that most ancient of ways—by blowing things up. And, unlike all the patriotic Americans whose pride is stifled every Fourth of July by a big-brother government that doesn’t trust small children with gunpowder, my Indian neighbors didn’t have any annoying “safety” regulations to dampen their Diwali spirit. Thus, the 10-year-old next door could light off giant, monstrous fireworks that, in the U.S., would be banned six ways from Sunday. My inner child was jealous. My inner adult, however, was worried, because there looked to be a non-insignificant chance that this kid was going to blow his hand off.
My roommate and I were meeting his family’s friends for dinner across town, so we flagged down an auto rickshaw. We slowly made our way out of Bibikulum and towards the center of town. It was slow going, because, quite simply, the roads had descended into absolute chaos. On each side, throngs of people lined the road, with some actually standing on the road itself such that the auto had to swerve. There were children running with sparklers. Countless groups of people—some small, some quite large—gathered around fountains of colored sparks, each shooting 15 feet in the air. And, amidst all the crowds and confusion, others lit up rockets that shot up several hundred feet into the air. My American brain, clearly out of place, couldn’t help but wonder—is that really safe? My American forearm, at the side of the auto, couldn’t help but answer no, as it got repeatedly singed by sparks.
As we passed each side street, I could see more people, more sparks. There were groups of people filling even the alleys. Every thirty feet, in every direction, on every street, loud and luminous detonations. It was like traveling through some wonderful warzone where people were shooting life instead of death.
The smoke from these many thousands of explosions had joined together to form a thick fog enveloping the city, making it hard to see clearly. In some areas, visibility was quite poor, and instead of seeing sharp points of light with each explosion, we could make out only diffuse flashes. Like lightning behind a cloud. The smell was equally striking—a smoky sulfur, occasionally overpowered by the disgustingly sweet smell of rotting garbage. Total sensory overload.
Finally, we reached the bridge over the Vaigai River, which affords a 360-degree view of the Madurai skyline. I had seen the Boston fireworks from a distance several times, so the beauty of a city skyline illuminated by colored flashes was nothing new. But instead of a lone fireworks display in the distance, the whole skyline danced with color. Because, instead of one municipality putting on a show, all of Madurai’s one million residents were setting off their own pyrotechnics. And these were big fireworks, the kind that only cities can buy in the U.S. At any given moment, there could be ten explosions, spread across the skyline’s panoramic view, and in the next moment, another ten in new locations. It was hard to decide where to look, because no matter we cast our gaze, we would miss colorful displays in the opposite direction. As we crossed the river, we just watched, with childlike excitement, at the wonder happening around us.