Fireworks: An explosion of memories

Through the lens, lightly


Suresh Pattali

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Published: Thu 4 Jan 2024, 6:38 PM

I have this awkward luxury of watching fireworks, not the iconic Burj Khalifa ones, from my living room in Dubai. This is the show connected to the Dubai Shopping Festival, so don't expect the same pomp and circumstance as of the New Year fireworks that mesmerise millions across the world year after year. But to watch the magnificent pyrotechnic display over the Dubai Creek from the comfort of my recliner brings me a lot of pride and a blast from the past.

Back in the day, fireworks literally came home during religious occasions like Eid, Diwali, Christmas and Vishu, a Hindu festival celebrated across India with different names. Come Vishu or Diwali, loud bangs would reverberate across the country. This was way before India's apex court slapped a ban on firecrackers on account of noise and air pollutions, and climate change was not in the air. Families and temples competed against each other to put up the best fireworks displays. The louder they popped and the longer they lasted, the more the pride was.

Thousands would throng temples that traditionally invested to bring in innovations in pyrotechnics. The Chinese invasion of the market happened much later, after globalisation became the buzz word. In India, we depended on local products, manufactured in remote locations like hilltops in our own backyards. Accidents in such local units, where chemicals were stored in a haphazard way, killed hundreds but there was no stopping the show.

Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu state is still the capital of fireworks and delivers 70 per cent of the country's output, delivered in dazzling packages. Families brought home Sivakasi products for their festive brilliance, ignorant of the toils and traumas of thousands of women and children working in the brick-and-mortar cracker units. We jostled in local shops to lay our hands on the multicoloured packets thinking the hues outside signalled what's inside.

There was an explosion of democracy and secularism during the carnival time. We, the poor kids, saved up the whole year, at times selling the share of cashew crop we earned at home, to put up the best fireworks show. Muslim elders in the neighbourhood would secretly contribute to our kitty.

"Keep this son, bring home the best Vishu," they would say.

At home, we always fought a civil war to get a higher budget, pointing out soaring inflation. It was always women versus men. So, my dad and uncle would secretly allocate higher dole from their "Swiss accounts" to fund the purchase. There was never a girl member in the purchase team that left no stone unturned in bringing home the best products in town. It was a matter of pride and honour as kids would discuss the best fireworks shows for weeks to come in classrooms and on playgrounds.

Since there was a lot at stake, my cousin Feroze was even ready to lay down his life in the name of fireworks. In a year when our business as well as paddy crops were not doing good, Feroze and his father scratched their heads in our photo studio to find some firecracker fund, while I was at home making final preparations for the Vishu festival the next day. At the end of a failed brainstorming, Feroze walked out and ran to the beach in the dark which I fortunately noticed. My prompt alert to the women folk saved him from jumping into the waters.

And once Feroze even researched and coached to make a cylindrical firecracker. He was expecting the whole thing to go up but in reality, it burst on the ground, burning my hand and blinding me for a minute.

The passion was so intense I even arranged a fireworks show for my son’s wedding.

If such was the madness at home, it wasn't any different in temples that were world famous for fireworks. Different groups that make up the temple boards run different fireworks on the same property. A temple typically runs two fireworks shows during its annual festival called pooram, one in the late afternoon and one at midnight. And each show comprises sub shows put up by different groups. Come the pooram season, I chased fireworks in my hometown, from Thrissur to Nenmara to Uthralikavu.

While the world has witnessed huge advancement in Pyrotechnology, including computer synchronised pyro musicals like in the case of the Burj Khalifa celebrations, back in the day we had a crude system. Labourers from fireworks factories, mostly drunk on the day, dug holes in the earth and erected bamboo cylinders filled with black powder. Corporate flyers stuffed inside such pipes would go up along with the glittering flakes and rain down on spectators in an ingenious marketing stunt. Some companies even signed up to send white doves to be released in the skies by the fireworks. Strangely, animal cruelty was unheard of while the winged creatures fluttered around in a daze.

Today, when the festival of life rises to a crescendo, I let the magnificent fireworks in the UAE skywrite a poetry on my soul and drench me in a resplendent rain of nostalgia.

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