The Happiest Diwali
Copyright 2008 by Shivaji K. Moitra
Ambarish was just stepping into his teens those days when he came to know the Professor. He lived those days with his parents and his sister in a ramshackle hut in one of those shanty towns dotting the sea-shore on the eastern fringe of the renowned temple-town of Puri. His father was a rickshaw-puller who earned just enough to keep the family hearth burning by ferrying pilgrims and tourists across the town. But he had been chronically ill from malnutrition and overwork and managed to work at most two or three days a week. So his mother had to augment the earnings of the household by working as a domestic cook at other people’s homes. Thus, they lived hand to mouth and their neighbours were no better off.
No wonder, Diwali---the great festival of lights and fireworks which celebrates the victory of good over evil meant very little to them. The lights and the glowing and sparkling fireworks did not excite Ambarish as they did the kids who were fortunate enough to be born to well-to-do parents. He used to watch the rockets swishing across the night sky and the brilliant bursts of colours with the indifference of a sage. The festivals didn’t mean anything to him when going to bed after a dinner seemed to be the greatest luxury. But all that changed when the Professor arrived from nowhere.
He was a queer middle-aged man who the poor kids later learnt was a Professor at the local college. But he was a kind man who came to the shanties at each festival time to distribute sweets and large quantities of fireworks among the poor kids. He stayed with them for hours sharing the joys of the festival with them, laughing and dancing and making faces at the destitute boys and girls. They loved to call him ‘Professor’.
Ambarish greatly venerated the selfless man and held him in high esteem because his mother always asked him to respect the wise and the kind because she told him that no man could ever achieve greatness without being blessed by the two rare virtues.
Year after year he came to hop around the shanties distributing his materials of love and mirth at each major festival. The poor kids eagerly awaited his arrival on the eve of Dushera and Diwali. Ambarish meanwhile struggled with both his poverty and his studies and by virtue of his God-gifted memory and merit gradually rose up the ladder of his academic achievements on the strength of scholarships. One day he got a job and moved out of the bleak surroundings. He took along his parents and his sister and travelled far and wide. Then he was lost in the sea of time and space and his childhood memories had grown faint. His father had died and his mother had grown old and feeble.
One morning his mother called him aside and whispered, “Beta, I want to see the place where we once lived in the shanty town. A strange urge to behold our past and Lord Jaggannath (the presiding deity of Puri) has arisen in me. Can you take me to Puri once again before I die?” Ambarish looked wistfully into his mother’s eyes. He had no reason or intention to refuse her request.
Forty years is a long time for a man. He came back to Puri but it was a changed place. In four decades, the streets and alleys had changed and so were their names. The layout of the town had changed altogether with all the greenery and vacant spots replaced with brick and mortar. Nothing seemed familiar. The population since had increased ten fold or more and strange people crowded the marketplaces and on the hard and bare asphalt roads.
Like a listless traveller he roamed the streets and loitered along the coast lost in the sweet and sour thoughts of his childhood. Diwali was a couple of days away and he suddenly got an idea. He wanted to search out Professor and meet him if he still was alive. He moved along the known landmarks and reached the facade of a house that appeared similar to the house where Professor lived.
The alley was dark and narrow and the crumbling house seemed forlorn in the fading light of the evening. Small trees of Pipal and Banyan had grown on the roof and the walls had not seen a coat of paint in decades. He stood wondering till a person emerged from one of the rickety doors. He asked the man about the Professor. After a minute of surprise the man said that Professor had moved to an old-care centre along with his wife after his sons had abandoned them in old age. With a heavy heart and misty eyes he moved up and sought out the centre. There was Professor sitting amid a dozen other senile people in the gloom and silence of dusk. He stood up on his wobbly legs and looked at Ambarish’s face through his thick glasses for a long long time and then smiled in joy.
Two days later, Ambarish returned to the centre
at dusk with a load of fireworks. He called all the forsaken and
forlorn people out into the courtyard and set the earth and sky
ablaze. Professor danced like an old spring doll whose rusty moving
parts had long since jammed. He was very happy indeed. And Ambarish
mused he too never had such a happy Diwali ever before. With misty
eyes he looked at the starry sky above, folded his hands and thanked
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