Saturday, November 10, 2007

Toxic Fog

Aliyah was reaching out to pet the puppy when the machine gun fire started.

The pup -- an adorable little stray too young for the typical Indian canine affliction of mange -- ran. We screamed. "Tat-a-tat-pat," went the machine gun.

Of course, the machine gun was not really a machine gun -- something we realized when we saw a handful of Indian tweens laughing near the source of the noise and smoke. These were simply firecrackers -- or crackers, as they're called here -- being set off in celebration of Diwali, a holiday which, as far as I can tell, commemorates the return to India of an ancient murderous god after his rout of an island king. Or something. I think the myth also includes a bit about the god getting a group of flying monkeys to build a bridge from India to Sri Lanka. Or something.

We spent the day of Diwali simply (a run in Lodhi Garden and lunch at the All-American Diner), and were on our way to dinner at a friend's when the kids began shelling Kalindi Colony with war-like sounds and explosions. I started making lots of bad jokes about how I felt like we were in Baghdad/Dresden/Grozny/etc.

The street in front of the kids' house was literally covered for tens of meters with ash and other remnants of hundreds of exploded crackers. The air was heavy with poison. As we passed the boys, I coughed loudly on purpose. Then I hurried by before they could fire at us in retaliation.

After a delicious Diwali dinner, we decided to go native and do our part in violating the Kyoto Protocol. We stopped at a roadside cracker stand. This was not like sneaking M-80s across the U.S.-Mexico border. There were racks upon racks of industrial-strength explosives, all of them being eagerly purchased by pyromaniacs-in-training. There were grenade-shaped explosives the size of cantaloupes. Rockets the size of my arm. And one piece of merchandise disturbingly called a Weaponized Nuke. Many of the cracker packages prominently displayed half-naked white women in the foreground.

With a huge sack full of ammunition, we headed back to Kalindi Colony. Meeting up with a couple dozen Indians, most of them our age or older, we staked out a spot in the middle of a wide residential street and began blowing things up.

Being a coward (and notably one that was particularly concerned that his beautiful, beautiful hair might catch fire), I hung back as several twenty-something Indians gleefully launched showers of colorful flame into the air, and set whirling galaxies of sparks spinning at our feet.

I was soon dragged forward, handed a sparkler (the firework's gay cousin, as it's been said), and nearly taken by the hand to the middle of the street, where I skittishly lit a few crackers of my own.

"Aiieee!" I screamed.

Around this time, the noise and the smell became overwhelming. The air was so thick with smoke, ash and innumerable pollutants that it was difficult to see more than a few meters ahead. It smelled like a lethal bonfire, and toxic fog hovered all around us.

"I feel like we're in downtown Baghdad!" I shouted to no one in particular.

The shouting was necessary because of the near-damaging level of noise. Every second or two, the trees shook with a booming explosion, or with the automatic-fire of several small crackers exploding in sequence. Half our crowd had their hands covering their ears at all times. The blasts were constant, deafening and a bit scary.

"I feel like we're in downtown Baghdad!" I yelled to the guy next to me.

"Yes, you've said that," he replied.

"Oh," I said. "Right."

Soon I started wondering about the very real danger of Delhi burning down. One guy in our crowd began lighting crackers that he held in his hand (Brilliant!) and throwing them onto someone's front yard, where they burst apart with a shower of fiery sparks that landed on grass and bushes. A couple other guys began shooting off fireworks that, once they reached their apex in the sky, opened into a burning ball of green flame attached to a parachute. The parachute slowly lowered the fireball down, often into a tree. I hoped our house would still be standing when we got home later.

After a couple hours of cracker attacks, we were finally out of ammunition. One of our new friends invited us over to his place for a quick Indian nightcap. Juice boxes were served. I had a sweet lime and a mixed fruit. About 10 adults stood in a circle sipping juice from little boxes through small straws. Outside the circle, someone's four-year-old son searched desperately among the juice boxes for more firecrackers.

Check out the photos here.

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