I walk quickly down the stairs, pausing only to switch the lights on in the basement. The house is unnaturally quiet. The kids are in bed and Saathi rocking Laddu to sleep. The LED string lights are almost invisible under the glare of the overhead recess fixtures. I look around. There are brown bags clustered on one table. Another table has plastic cups and spoons and a bunch of paper napkins. In the far corner I spy additional cutlery, a jug of water and a wilting bunch of flowers. There are potted plants, floating lamps and the dying embers of an oil lamp. I pick each LED tea light, turn the switch off and collect them in a paper bag. I remember the turn the light off in a lamp that boasts gently falling water with the silhouette of a tree. I look up and realize the rest of the clearing and cleaning will have to wait a day. I remember to put the wooden marapaachi dolls to their side and walk quickly away, turning out the lights. In the inky darkness, the string lights take on a new force and glow, outlining the golu steps. I whisper a prayer of thanks and walk upstairs.
It has been ten days of celebrating Shakthi, the female power. The Goddess has been in residence, showering her blessings on us as we soaked and boiled lentils for her, garnished them with a mix of coconut and green chillies, slowly simmered a thick golden syrup to make vella sundal and prepared rice noodles and kesari. Each day saw us don Indian finery, adjust jewelry, take a dozen selfies as we hosted or visited other homes boasting better displays than ours. Each day, I went to bed feeling curiously sated. Each evening as I bowed my head in prayer and rang the bell announcing food fit for gods, I felt the sense of a duty fulfilled.
The kids ran around, re-arranged the dolls, fought over who got to wear which pavadai and stuck bindis on their foreheads. They stacked bangles on their slender wrists and twirled as they saw themselves in the full length mirror in my closet. Each day I held their precious faces in my hands, drank in their pure radiance and hastily warded off evil eyes. My eyes sought them out in crowds and asked a little too often if they were OK.
Navarathri ends today and with it packs away a whole bunch of memories to be pulled out next year. When I started the tradition, I had little idea of what it would come to mean. Year after year, as I pull out the dolls from their bubble wrap, dust them off and set them on satin steps, I also pull out memories. Memories of the year we bought each doll, memories of moms, grandmas and great grandmas. Memories of friends who visited us once and are no longer with us. Memories of long outgrown pavadais and pigtails. As each family visits us, I gasp over children who have grown, greying hair, older, wiser friends. We hug and air kiss and pose in groups and as we do, I realize I have pictures of the same people in albums from a year ago and the year before that.
Festivals have become ways to mark time, to measure growth and distance, to marvel at how much children assimilate and absorb. They are occasions to gather our dear ones nearer and celebrate new friendships. They are occasions to have neighbors over and expound on recipes that are not commonly heard of. They are reasons to dab that perfume, break out the new jewelry and line those eyes with kohl. Most of all they are reasons to love and forgive, to live and rejoice, to celebrate all that is good and bright.