It's become a sort of annual ritual to join the crowd at Little India in the weekend before Deepavali. This year, Serangoon Road is palpably quieter and the traffic smoother, as there are far fewer walkers to spill over into the shoulders of the street compared to times when markets were moving. Perhaps the humble folk who add life to this district were shying away, as they no longer feel welcome on this island where their presence is deemed by some to deserve special care and attention of Dickensian proportions.
Celebrated on 27 October this year, Deepavali (also known as Diwali) literally means “a garland of lights”. The planners who designed the décor did well to highlight this aspect, but it's a wee harder to grasp the mind behind the life-size figures of pale women in saris that twirl lifelessly in cagey pillars beneath the multilingual banners. Contrary to what some believe, Deepavali is not the Hindu New Year, which falls sometime in April. The festival recalls rather the story of Lord Krishna’s triumph over the demon Narakasura. In a time lost to history, Narakasura ruled over an earthly kingdom, where he plundered the people's wealth and pillaged their women (16,100 altogether according to Wikipedia). He also banned the lighting of lamps, the better to save on oil prowl around maidens' homes at night.
Tales of Narakasura's dark deeds reached the ears of Krishna while the good lord was spending quality time with his wife Satyabhama. The disturbed deity decided to teach the demon a lesson. There seems to be some disagreement as to who actually killed the demon – Krishna or his spouse who was apparently highly displeased that the war took away quality time with her hubby – but after flattening mountains and skewering a host of orckish forces, the good guys cornered and decapitated Narakasura. Having lost his head, the demon found his senses and welcomed his own defeat (perhaps even demons tire of a harem of 16,100) by asking that his death serve as a reminder that it's sad to be bad. Relieved that years of bathing in the dark have come to an end, the people lit countless lamps of clay to thank Krishna and thus began the Festival of Lights.
There were no processions or purification ceremonies on Saturday evening, so the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple across Petain Road was relatively quiet save for the periodic poojas that rang from its sanctums. An occasional devotee approaches the seat of the deity, falling prostrate in prayer before circling the shrine clockwise to await the blessings of the priest. During the scheduled pujas, a musical duo announce the ritual with a droning cacophony of reedy swirls and mordents. Accompanied by a drummer on the thavil, a temple musician plays the Nadaswaram, a 12-hole oboe with the piercing tone of a deranged hornet. The aural scape is more pleasing than it sounds, and is tempered by the droning continuo of an othu, played back on loop from a speaker behind the oboeist. Two flanks of worshipers with clasped hands line the path of the priests who dispense consecrated offerings and the heady enlightenment of a cone on the scalp.
As long as one enters unshoed and bars not the way of devotees, the temple offers an easygoing sanctuary filled with acts of random devotion. Nuclear families and gatherings of young men mull on the grounds, chewing snacks while awaiting the next puja. A temple worker digs into a giant stainless steel pot to serve up rice and lentils to a hungry queue. Lay helpers busy themselves packing small bags of chickpeas that the priests later bless and bestow to the faithful. Within these walls of colour and chaos there is a space of calm and common purpose.
On a field by the Angulia Mosque facing Mustafa Centre, a makeshift bazaar marked the festival with shirts and shalwar kameez in deflated prices. A number of shoppers were in crisp white shirts and starched pants – sailors armed with foldable trolleys from the guided missile corvette, the INS Kulish. "Hey! No photographs!" cries a henna artist from her stall as well as a beer lady touting a special Danish brew. In fright, my duck scurried to safer parts to seek refuge from the dangers of a free market. For unlike more charming quarters downtown, this corner of the city offers real risks and the red lit thrills of life and death still lurk in lanes where tourists fear to tread.