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Murugan paused to look around. He saw hundreds of workers diligently work at packing explosive into rolls of newspaper; they tended to keep the film sections. It was a dirty place. There was paper, grey fire powder and a lot of unchecked emotion strewn around. There was a large room to one side, and it was locked. Inside, Murugan knew, were a hundred or so children, including two of his own, cutting pieces of cardboard with pictures of Miley Cyrus and Priety Zinta on them. This wasn’t child labour, they’d been told, they were simply helping their fathers. One brave boy had asked why they were being locked in if this was the case; he was promptly dispatched homeward.
Murugan was working at one of the sixteen major firecracker factories in Sivakasi. He was a farmer, but took a week off in the festive season to make firecrackers for the rich people in the cities to enjoy, because it paid well. Two thousand rupees and a couple hundred mostly faulty ‘bijili’ crackers. He’d been doing this for twelve years now, and knew that a lot had changed in that time. Now the rich people in the cities were willing to shell out their metal for more and better crackers. The very rich, of course, no longer bought firecrackers because it was suddenly posh not to. Instead, they lit lamps and drank Coke.
Murugan saw a new worker fumble with the paper, and was irritated. They never got it right. It was an art, he thought to himself, to stuff the fire powder in just the right quantities, evenly distributed so that the crackers wouldn’t fizzle out in the blink of an eye. Those sorts of crackers were failures, and Murugan thought, and were never made by his hands. He looked at his hands. His palms were rough and his fingers short but deft, hardened by what, to him, seemed like centuries of toil. He was a hard, sincere worker. The factory owners looked for people like him, and their cunning, deceitful eyes knew how to recognise one. They recognised him. They cheated him.
Today was Diwali, and yet the workers had been summoned to work because the fireworks lasted for weeks after, as several auspicious days remained in the holy month of Kartika. It was late now. Murugan knew his wife was waiting for him to begin their simple celebrations, an indulgence that they had time for only once a year. He wrapped up the day’s work and put his materials away. He rose in one fluid motion, securing his lungi even as he did so. It was an action perfected by endless practice. He remembered aping his father as he, a small boy of seven, watched, awestruck, as his father performed this surely magical feat. Murugan smiled to himself.
Caesar was an Alsatian, but he may well have been the emperor himself if his owners were to be believed. Caesar was very much part of the family—he too had hair fall, a propensity to jump on people and an addiction to Balika Vadhu. Tonight, however, he was largely ignored, the family’s attention being mostly devoted to a large bag and its strange smelling contents. Late in the evening, the family left the flat with the bag, palpably excited, and naturally Caesar bounced along. But no, in an unprecedented snub, he was made to stay at home with Dadaji. To his credit, though, Caesar did manage to elicit affectionate scratches from the two children. And so it came to be that Caesar was busy sulking under the bed when the world exploded.
Caesar’s ears pricked up in spite of themselves. There had been loud noises this past week, but this was a whole new dimension altogether. He dared to venture into the balcony and was immediately attacked by an assortment of bright lights, loud sounds and strong smells that seemed determined to hurt him. Yowling, he retreated far into a corner under his bed.
He barked, yelped, whined and moped as the worst night in his year-long life unfolded ahead of him. He suffered, and very vocally too. His sensitive ears were tortured pitilessly and his powerful nose was all but destroyed. The sounds he heard were unimaginably loud, and no attempts by Dadaji to cover Caesar’s ears for him were of any use. The sparkling lights played havoc with his eyes and an amalgam of noxious fumes conspired to wreck his sense of smell. He howled; a long, sad sound that caused many to look up from their sparklers and feel some guilt. It would not have been possible to believe that a sentient being could undergo such agony.
The family returned late in the night, and now their voices seemed highly muted to Caesar. A concerned pair of eyes located him and a hand reached out to scratch him in the dark. Caesar could smell those fingers like they’d spent years in a tannery, and as they drew close, his jaws obeyed the command of a distraught brain and clamped down ferociously on the hand in a desperate expression of fear, confusion and pain, and his dry tongue was swathed in thick blood.
Ravi climbed the stairs to the terrace, wearing a foolish smile and a little-too-small red kurta that hadn’t seen light in ages. He was fifteen and fighting. Diwali had failed to excite him at all this year, until he had seen a few magnificent rockets that had warmed his heart a few minutes ago. He carried a bag that was half-filled with a medley of crackers. They hadn’t bought much at all this year. Of course, like any respectable middle class family, there was some flame left over from last year. It all added up to a gormless compromise between Ravi’s green ideals, festive tradition and common sense.
He reached the terrace and was dismayed to find two families already there, and with them an entire generation of little kids. He also noted, with a shapeless burst of hormones, the presence of a girl, thankfully shorter than him. He walked on, painfully self-conscious, and claimed his territory, an entire quadrant of the terrace. He looked around at all the families zealously guarding their distinct territories like threatened dogs. It would not have been unreasonable to believe that inter-family conversation had recently been declared a punishable offence, Ravi smirked to himself. He thought himself rather shrewd.
Presently his parents arrived, and they set about with the candles and the sparklers. An hour of light, sound and repeated warnings from a worried father followed. Ravi was pleased to see that the special Parachute Rockets he’d recommended this year worked well, drawing healthy exultations from all present.
After all that could burn was burned, the parents made their way back downstairs to their flat, and the other families filed out soon after. Ravi chose to stay back for some more time because it gave him opportunity to sit and look into the distance, contemplating deep truisms. He shamelessly did so, and having observed a good many bursts of light, he decided that he had demonstrated ample coolness and got off the parapet. He ruminated about the festival of lights and what it meant to different people as he walked back, and thought he really must write a story about it. Then it occurred to him that everybody did that.
The pigeon fluttered haplessly, sure of destination but utterly unsure of path. It was trying to return home after having duly collected fodder for the chicks, but was thoroughly confused about whether the sun had set or not. All the usual currents were missing. It seemed like the sky had been seized and shaken until all semblance of order was battered out of it. Dazzling suns appeared out of nowhere and vanished immediately, and the sky was filled with burning missiles. Everywhere there were excruciatingly loud sounds and blinding lights. The pigeon’s reflexes were tested ruthlessly from all directions in a Pavlovian experiment gone dangerously wrong, and were numbed in no time. It wanted to land, but no longer knew where the ground was. All this trauma had the bird’s instincts effectively disabled.
It was flapping its wings very erratically now. The pigeon’s small brain was ill-equipped to handle such all consuming chaos, and was simply unable to decide whether it was the world or the bird that moved. In this disorienting delirium, it was struck by a rogue rocket and fell out of the sky. It fell like a stone, helpless and lost.
It crashed into the boughs of a large gulmohur and, having managed to grip a branch in time, righted its posture with effort. Baleful eyes loomed out all around as a silent flock of lost birds kept vigil over the night. The clouds screamed out to them, but no one chirped in return.