As Deepavali drew near, Rakesh’s parents noticed that their son seemed strangely subdued.
‘How come you’re not going wild shopping for firecrackers this year?’ asked his father. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve become as concerned about the ecosystem as your mother and me.’ Rakesh smiled wanly at the joke, and left the room pretending that he had something to do. Shutting the front door quietly behind him, he made his way to the nearby park. There, seated on a bench, he was wafted back in memory. Recalling the events of a year ago, he blushed in shame. It was good of his parents to pretend that they had forgotten, thought Rakesh, as he travelled back in time.
Deepavali had been marked by its customary gaiety. Rakesh’s house, like dwellings all over the country, was bathed in the beauty of glowing lamps. Much as Rakesh admired this adornment, he did not consider it important. For him, the Festival of Lights was the Festival of Sound. It was the sounds rather than the sights of Deepavali that appealed to him most, with sweets a close second.
Unfortunately for Rakesh, while his mother turned out delectable delicacies, which he ate to his heart’s content, she did not share his fondness for crackers; indeed, she disliked them intensely. She was forced to put up with them from others in the neighbourhood, but saw no reason why she should endure them in her own backyard. Her husband, who was just as environment-conscious as she was, agreed with her that crackers were best avoided. Much as they wished, they could not ban them altogether, but Rakesh was only allowed to burst them at a discreet distance. His parents, for their part, were content to light a few sparklers and send a rocket or two soaring skywards.
Rakesh scorned such feeble amusement, and joined — as he did every Deepavali — a group of his classmates and their families who had no objection to ear-splitting enjoyment. Better still, they did not talk endlessly (as his parents did) about the perils of pollution. Warmly welcomed by the gathering, Rakesh had a wonderful evening, sharing the wide variety of ‘bombs’ he had saved weeks of pocket-money to buy.
The celebrations were almost at an end when an incident occurred that Rakesh still shudders to remember. A stray dog was passing by, looking in vain for refuge from the deafening din everywhere. Acting on an impulse that he would regret minutes later and which was likely to haunt him the rest of his life, Rakesh grabbed the dog. It struggled in his grasp, but before it knew what was happening, much less could defend itself, Rakesh had tied a long string of little red crackers to its tail. Holding the dog down firmly, he set fire to the lot and released the animal. The next second, the poor beast was careering madly around, with crackers exploding, one after the other, at regular intervals. Everyone screeched with excitement at what was happening, and praised Rakesh for providing extra entertainment. Surprisingly, although he had been brought up since childhood to respect all creatures on the planet, it did not strike the boy that he was doing anything wrong. Emboldened by the cheers of his friends, Rakesh squealed with joy. The next moment, however, his delight turned to dismay. The terrified dog, unable to shake off the crackers, but desperate to escape the howling humans who had caused his misery, rushed towards the one silent spot in the area. To Rakesh’s horror, he saw the dog dashing down the road, in the direction of his home.
His cracker-companions coolly left him to deal with the problem, and Rakesh raced after the dog. Propelled by panic, it was too fast for him, and, breathless from the chase, Rakesh could not catch it. The half-crazed animal tore up the garden path and charged into the sitting-room, where Rakesh’s parents were comfortably seated watching TV. They jumped to their feet at the dog’s entrance and gasped in horror as it ran about wildly, crackers bursting loudly all the while.
With great difficulty, Rakesh managed to get the dog out, but the damage was done. Curios and crockery lay smashed and scattered, and gone forever was a valuable vase: an heirloom especially treasured by Rakesh’s mother. She sank trembling onto the sofa, upset not so much by the destruction as by her son’s cruelty to a living creature.
That Deepavali night, Rakesh was summoned to the study. The look on his father’s face told him that the crackers he had burst a few hours earlier were nothing compared with what lay ahead. The real fireworks were yet to begin!
(Published 11 November 2023, 00:42 IST)