Of Fireworks and Other Explosions

Just like the last Hindu celebration I witnessed in Mumbai, I don’t understand Diwali, the “Festival of Lights.” It has something to do with the blue-skinned Krishna’s victory over something or other. Every street in Calcutta had a temporary shrine to Krishna built. Some were tiny modest structures. Others were grand tents several metres high. Inside was a statue of Krishna, trampling his defeated foe with a garland of severed heads around his neck.

Most exciting, though, especially for the young, were the fireworks. People set off fireworks all night long all around the city. These were not professional fireworks displays, but the festivities of individual families who bought their ‘crackers’ from the markets. I watched from the roof of my hotel as the city lit up all around me. There were so many crackers going off it sounded like a war zone. Once and a while, a burst of coloured flares would rise up in a bouquet from one street or another. Sometimes the fireworks did not have the altitude to reach over the rooftops, and one had to watch for the occasional flash of light from between buildings, or the wall of some tower suddenly light up with colour from the explosions I could not see.

The boy at the hotel said that the fireworks would end at midnight, but they went on all night long. The next morning, scraps of coloured foil and piles of ash and soot littered the street, and there was so much particulate matter still suspended in the air that flights from Calcutta’s airport had to be delayed. They call it the Diwali Effect. It happens every year.

Yesterday I left Calcutta and flew to Guwahati. I arrived just in time for the explosions. I don’t know how much play the attack got in the Western media, but northeastern India is in a crisis right now. Five bombs exploded in Guwahati. Four others blew up in smaller towns in the province of Assam. The bodies are still being counted, but up to 72 people have been killed and hundreds injured. I’ll spare you the gruesome details that the papers did not.

I did not hear the bombs go off – I must have been in my taxi from the airport at the time – and I didn’t visit the scenes of the carnage. Instead, I opted to leave Guwahati and head to Shillong, a city about a hundred kilometres south where I am scheduled to meet the governor tomorrow. Our driver had to take an alternate route to Shillong since the bombing shut down the main highway. We were lucky to get out when we did, because a curfew was imposed and the roads going in and out of Guwahati were closed.

The mood is somewhat tense here in Shillong as well, even though we are in a different province. There are police on the roundabouts, and last night, at ten o’clock, a half-dozen police knocked on my hotel room door. They were going from room to room making sure that all the guests had good reasons to be in Shillong.

Considering that most commentators blame jihadists from Bangladesh for the bombings, my research into the border fence has suddenly taken on a whole new urgency.