The kiln was burning avidly to produce huge quantities of diyas. Amidst the smoke, it was difficult treading along the narrow lanes, which are mostly drains, on which people people walk. Ashok was familiar with the lanes and by-lanes of his slum, thus the smoke did not perturb his vision much. He walked towards his house in a dingy corner of Kumbharwada. As he walked past the crummy neighbourhood filled with houses and the walls smeared with betel juice, he caught the glimpse of women, old and young, dipping diyas in red paints and others, gearing up for preparing their stalls on ’90 Feet Road’. He found perspiring men having heated telephonic arguments regarding diya orders and broken pieces of earthenware scattered on the lanes. It was the busiest time of the year in Dharavi - it was three days before Diwali.
Ashok noticed the damp walls of the houses of the slum. Monsoons are fierce and ruthless in Dharavi as it gets flooded with the rise in the water level of the Mithi river and the Sea. Amongst the 300,000 in Dharavi, Ashok was renowned for being the most laborious kid, working in at least 9-6 shifts at the plastic unit and earning 12 rupees. It has been 8 months since he started working here. Previously he did attend the Sri Sri Ravishankar Vidyamandir, but the dire condition of his family economy prompted him to leave school, start working as a child labourer and earn wages to support his mother. His shelter was a grimy one-roomed concrete house on the eastern corner of Kumbharwada - the settlement of potters in Dharavi. He lived with his mother Bhanu, who was a potter herself. His father died early leaving the murky and filthy shelter to Ashok and his mother. Bhanu’s chores commences early in the morning - assembling mud, blending it and giving shape to the dough, twisting and turning it sometimes to idols, sometimes to clay dolls, pots or decorative items and sometimes as gifts for Ashok. Ashok was well informed of the fact that this time of the year keeps his Aai busy. Bhanu works hard before Diwali to make the finest diyas for the Sethji who sells them to the posh masses of Juhu and Bandra. She aspires of getting a little money from Sethji though a lump sum amount plunges into his pockets. With that very little, every Diwali Bhanu can suffice few good incense sticks, garlands and sweets and Batata Vada or Misal Pav for Ashok. Ashok inferred that this year too, the Sethji acted as a bastard and took half of his Aai’s profits. He saw the rays of their old bulb sliding lousily on the half broken wooden door and found his Aai lying on the floor, resting peacefully after a daylong hard work. Ashok did not disturb his Aai. He stealthily took out his aluminium bowl from the wooden racks and started having his dinner, which consisted of two dry pavs and a curry made of onions.
Perhaps his munching sound woke his Aai up, who informed his son in a dry voice that soon she would be giving up her profession as a potter as the Seth says that her work isn’t that perfect anymore and she fails his customers. Ashok, feeling threatened provided their economic condition, replied, “Kyun aai?” to which Bhanu blamed their old, dull bulb in the dingy Dharavi that restricts the Sun’s rays all through the day. Lying down beside his Aai, Ashok realised one thing - in these 6 years of his father’s demise, he never actually has seen his house being lighted up by diyas. His mother gave up all her little income to provide Ashok with a good education overlooking her own needs and the condition of their house, which contained a very old and dusty bulb and a table fan that lies broken, along with few dishes, a stove, few utensils, a broken cupboard for clothes filled with hordes of mice and above the cupboard, the image of Ganapati lies rugged and crooked. The festival of lights are a complete illusion to Ashok as his house remains burdened with the yoke of everlasting darkness that never fades away and Ram never succeeds in slaying this eclipse. The evil grows larger than life and more vigorous amidst the slanting rays of the old bulb - it highlights the darkness making the surrounding hollow and obscure. As Ashok viewed the infinite space from his open window, the twinkling of the stars and the serene breeze of the fall made him realise that another year would soon cease to exist and a new chapter would commence. Although the pages in the lives of the people of Dharavi would remain unturned.
Ashok greeted his Irfan bhaiyya the next day as he walked past the ‘Mahadevi Leather Plus Store’, where his neighbour Irfan, a salesperson, was busy selling leather handbags. He crossed the Devi Mata temple and entered the Sion-Mahim Road. The sultry, hot and humid weather of Bombay turned his hair and skin to salt and pepper. He boarded a train towards Dadar, where the Diwali decorations in sabzi mandi and sari mandi took his breath away. Things were costly, but he wanted to make this Diwali special for his Aai. He came across stalls selling bindis and earrings, but he already presented these to his Aai last year. Ashok could smell freshly-buttered pavs and the bhaji which increased his appetite. Amidst the heat and polka dodging of the crowd, he came closer to the Pav-bhaji stall to have a closer look at the bhaji garnished with tomatoes and coriander leaves. He carefully noticed the people having Pav bhaji. The expressions and their style of scrunching the food amused him. As he was relishing this delicious sight, the shop behind the pav bhaji stall captivated his attention. He knew exactly what to buy for his mother. He had saved 25 rupees for this Diwali by giving up his attraction towards sweets and Pani Puri.
The dusk drew close and Ashok watched the sky turn crimson as the parting of the day signalled the beginning of the eve before Diwali. Sitting on a sand hillock at Juhu Chowpatty, Ashok kept staring at the changing hues of the sky, the setting sun and the lively waves of the sea. Families, tourists, children running along the beach, kids whining for golas and cotton candies. Gradually, the stalls put on their Diwali lights. The sound of the azaan absorbed by the autumnal breeze came flowing from the Haji Ali Mosque. He stared in wonder at the minars of the mosque off the coast of Worli. With the growth of the evening, the place became lively bustling with the festive crowd. Ashok kept staring at the sea. He thought of how, centuries ago, these water bodies were formed and how petite they are in this vast universe. He thought of his Dharavi, of kilns burning constantly, of woman giving the finishing touch to the diyas, of his Venu Tai, Irfan bhai, Kamlesh, Durga, his neighbours and his Aai. He pictured his Aai entering their house, tired and drowsy for few hours of rest and comfort in the sullied house of a slum.
His slum was already bustling with noisy kids, women cooking dinner and men playing cards. He arrived at his place. His Aai had taken a bath and she looked fresh after a long time. Perhaps she always did, perhaps Ashok failed to notice his Aai as the rays of the old dusty bulb made her look rugged. The bright light from Ashok’s newly fitted bulb illuminated every corner of the room. The 4 diyas near the doorsteps beamed gleefully. Ashok was overjoyed, he successfully lighted up his house this Diwali. He knew that the darkness was slayed. Ashok saw the glow on his Aai’s face - she was happy. His Aai welcomed him with a warm smile- Diwali had finally arrived in Dharavi.
Photography By: Kanika Narang