The faint wisp of pale smoke would curl through the top hole in our covered tin can like a weak, wavering genie, as we sucked in our breaths, impatiently waiting for the big blast. Across our mixed neighbourhoods in the villages of South Georgetown, a series of satisfying booms would echo from the small pebbles of cheap white ‘carbon’ that were soundly spat on, well shaken and then lit by jostling groups of excited children, coughing from the smog and the sharp smell of the chemical reaction.
During the hectic Hindu festival of Deepavali and in the busy weeks leading up to the next big holiday of Christmas, the city streets turned restless, hazy and noisy as we screamed over our homemade carbon “bombs” ignited in recycled cans or fresh pieces of bamboo. At night, the displays proved spectacular, when we lit easy homemade fireworks in swirling showers of glowing steel wool carefully stuck to a piece of wire, cut from a converted clothes hanger, sneaked from the musty family closet.
Gripping the empty end, we would take turns spinning the plain wads over our heads, as if our lives depended on it, knowing that we did not have much time before the flimsy filaments flared and faded. Wayward pieces occasionally dislodged, indiscriminately singeing hair and bare skin, and leaving tell-tale black holes in our precious clothing.
Determined that these wheels would bring much-awaited luck into our needy lives, our lips and faces set, we rotated our thin hands furiously, thrilled by the nationwide prospect of eternal happiness and extraordinary riches, as each light painting rained down from the heavens, chasing away in a circle of beautiful sparks, any dogged evil eye and all bad-minded spirits foolish enough to linger in our close-knit community.
Experienced pets and stray mutts disappeared to take shelter. While we eventually learnt to wear an old long-sleeved shirt or faded denim jeans prized for the protective thickness and resistance, most times we dared to dress normally and to take our chances. At the end of each performance, faces flushed, eyes flashing, we would stride away smiling with newfound bravado that we had survived yet another encounter, ignoring the fact that serious injuries were almost unheard of. When our siblings and friends frantically pointed to a twinkling ember intent on burning through not only our shaggy coats but our compromised cranium, cortex and corpus callosum, we would duck and twist, trying to throw off the live remains, without requiring obvious reinforcements.
Parents indulged us, ignoring the alarming number of disappearing hangers, the nearby pile of discarded, formerly ironed outfits, and the mounting collection of empty plastic packets left strewn in the kitchen by now depleted of all steel wool, matches and Ovaltine, Milo or milk powder. They would even generously give us a few “bob” to buy more supplies when we rushed in to complain, upset and vociferous that our “wire sponges” had all been swiped, and our carefully hoarded dollars finished. Used for cleaning blackened pots and pans, the abrasive wool made from low-carbon steel was a common staple in Guyanese households, easily obtained from any “cake-shop” although prices tended to fluctuate as the ambitions of the proprietor to make a killing one way or another, with peak demand and season. Imported fireworks were unheard of, and every child knew that the fine cross-section of steel wool made it combustible in air. For the rest of the year, it came in handy for impromptu rodent control, and plugging mouse holes.
The festival of lights has always been a festival of fabulous foods. My mother would begin preparations weeks before, cleaning the house and changing curtains, scrubbing floors and polishing furniture. She would awake early in the morning of Deepavali, to create a rich vegetarian feast of fresh sweets and savories, so that we would rise to the heady fragrance of “gulgula” the spongy, fried ball of flour and crushed over-ripened “Parika fig” called “sucrier” or “chiquito” in Trinidad and Tobago, or “lady’s fingers” in other parts of the Caribbean. Flavoured with carambola “raisins” since the imported grape version was banned in Guyana, the traditional Deepavali dessert also called “gulgule” remains popular in former colonies from Fiji and Mauritius to Suriname and South Africa. Mentioned in Delhi nearly a millennium ago, it remains widespread in areas like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Odisha and Punjab where indentured ancestors originated. But it is flavoured in India with “gul/gud” or jaggery, a non-refined cane sugar, and fennel seeds or “saumph.”
Family favourites included “kheer” the slow-cooked creamy rice pudding accented with cardamon that is a ceremonial staple, the Persian-derived pair of delicious “sawine” – the delicate cinnamon and clove-scented strands of vermicelli reduced in milk – and the dense brown “halva,” termed by Hindus, “mohanbog,” dotted with preserved cherries and nuts, and made from parched wheat flour, “suji” or semolina and ghee, usually offered with thin, transparent “puris” as sacred food or “prasad.” Collectively known as “mithai” Indian confections or local variations that are still made by descendants for Deepavali include the “lakdi mithai” or “shakkarpare” of Marwar, southwestern Rajasthan consisting of crisp, slim dough strips, literally translated as “sweet sticks” covered with crystallised sugar; and the plumper, softer crumbly version of spiced grated coconut and cream named “kurma.”
Famous for her smooth, silken “peras” the white, mouth-melting circular cakes of painstakingly stirred, thick cow’s milk slowly evaporated over a low flame, my mother lovingly crafted too, the delectable crescent shaped-coconut packed pastries, the fluted-edged “gujjia” of North India, or the regional “karanji” of Maharashtra, the “ghughra” of Gujarat, the “kusli” of Madhya Pradesh, and Goa’s “neuri.”
Said to be derived from the Arabic word “zulabiya,” the sticky, syrup-soaked spiral of “jalebi” comes from the souks of the Middle East, and it is a regular street food as well in several parts of Asia and Africa, where some Christian communities serve it on the Feast of the Theophany/Epiphany, often with powdered sugar. Believed to have been brought to India by Persian-speaking Turkic invaders, “jalebi” in Iran is known as “zolbiya,” an ancient sweet served to the poor during the holy month of Ramadan. Jalebis are irresistibly chewy and juicy whether eaten warm or cold. Comprising a bubbly, fermented batter, slowly poured into hot oil from a cloth bag, they may be accented with citric acid or lime juice and rose or “kewra”/pandanus water.
I would help with making the enticing “sal sev” the famous crunchy snack which took hours to hand cut in the absence of a “sev” press. Sardonically known to most Guyanese as the vegetarian substitute, “chicken foot” for its obvious similarity in shape to the bird’s toes, it is really fried noodles, the recipe for which came with migrants from places like Bhojpur. The base dough is kneaded from mashed, overnight-soaked channa /chick pea or split peas, blended with an optional mix of hot peppers, herbs, turmeric, curry powder, salt and spices like “ajwain” or carom and “geerah” or cumin. Trinis consume countless bottles of it in “chiblo” and “chivda.” Endless varieties of “sev” have emerged in India and overseas, including in the United Kingdom (UK) where the “Bombay mix” of “sev” highlighted with nuts, lentils and pulses is sold.
Deepavali would be incomplete without the powerful “pholourie” the seasoned globes of ground gram particularly yellow split peas, that millions of Bengalis rush for daily, in the native form of “fuluri.” Potato cakes dipped in the batter became “aloo chop” while slices of coated eggplant emerged “beguni” or the Caribbean’s “baiganee” after the Hindi for the purple fruit. A version with chopped eddo or dasheen leaves evolved into the Guyanese delicacy “bara” and the Trinidadian intact leaves rolled into “saheena.” Necessity fueled the creativity of those who came and had to adapt in a challenging environment.
As the wheels of time turn and we light our rows of “deeyas” on the “Amavasya” regarded as the darkest night of year, we must remember those who have left us an enduring culinary legacy, as they followed an almost century-long quest across the dark oceans, clinging to their fare and seeking their fortune. A Bhojpuri folk song remembers, “I shall go to the country of Magh, the pretty, tearful wife husks “chura” (flattened rice) and (bravely) shows a smiling face.”
ID mourns how rare certain foods have become, such as “chura,” and the nourishing “satwa/sattu” or ready-made mix of roasted grams or “dhals.” The Gangetic duo helped stave off hunger and save lives aboard immigrant ships.