Diwali, Deepawali, Teohar...It's all about the lights

Since arriving in India, I haven't met a single Indian who hasn't raved about Diwali. Everyone exclaims that it's the biggest and the best holiday, describing it as a one-day festival of lights that somehow extends itself to encompass 3 weeks of laughter, lights, good food, better company, and no work.
"But how do you celebrate Diwali?"
"We go to the temple!"
"But you always go to the temple...is there anything special you do only on Diwali?"
"Of course!"
"We light oil lamps and put them around the house."
"And we eat good food."
"And? Do you have presents or a specific meal you eat on Diwali?"
"Yes, you can give us a present if you want. And we eat a lot on Diwali."
For personal research about the so-called best festival in India, I delayed my trip to Nepal until after Diwali, intent on spending October 28 in India to experience the country's biggest festival firsthand. The week before Diwali, I spent my time in Ludhiana with Hemant Gupta and his family. I was spoiled by his wife Taruna, who prepared the most irresistible and mouth-watering meals, introducing me to the culinary paradise of perfectly spiced curries, a delicious version of Indian gnocchi, banana milkshakes, homemade samosas, and aloo parathas. I did my laundry in a real washing machine, read the daily English newspaper, played badminton with his daughter, learned Bollywood lyrics from his son, surfed the Internet for free, attended his sister-in-law's wedding, rode on his brother-in-law's motorbike, and entertained myself with his well-stocked home library of English books. When Hemant invited me to spend Diwali with his family, I quickly canceled any plans of leaving Ludhiana.
What a treat it was! I stumbled out of my room on Diwali morning when Hemant and his son Puru returned from an early morning shopping spree with piles of orange flowers. Misha, Taruna, and I outlined a rangoli on their balcony and filled each symmetrical section with colorful grains of sand.
The next hour was spent hanging alternating strings of orange flowers and green leaves along the gate and rails. I can't even remember the order of festivities after breakfast - I simply followed the Guptas as we shuttled from one place to the next. We visited Taruna's mother, performed puja at Hemant's office to ensure a successful year, went shopping for oil lamps and fireworks, and, once home, were visited by several neighbors and close friends.
The highlight of Diwali was, as all Indians claim, the lights. Just before sunset, we prepared dozens of oil lamps and arranged them throughout the house until each room had at least one lamp. Taruna gathered us around their temple upstairs, and we recited 3 prayers (well, they sang, while I stared at the indecipherable Hindi script) and offered puja to the gods. And finally! as if Hemant read my mind, he announced that it was time for fireworks. Earlier that day, we had stocked up on fireworks ranging from small spinners to ones worthy of being in a July 4th night sky.
We each took turns lighting fireworks, shrieking when we thought the sparks were too unpredictable and laughing hysterically when the sporadic flight of several wound up on the neighbor's top balcony. The whole night sky was lit up by fireworks erupting all over the city - and all throughout the country.
Two hours later, our pyromaniac desires satiated, we filed inside to settle down to a Diwali dinner and to watch the last episode of a Lord Rama marathon TV show. When I fell asleep that night, the sound of bursting fireworks from every direction was still echoing through Ludhiana.

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