Diwali Festival: 900 Million People, One Party

If you didn't know any better, you'd think you were surrounded by gunfire. Explosions on the street, on the roof, on the house behind yours. Rat-tat-tat-tat on the tin that covers the neighbor's patio.

Thunderous sounds and a seemingly endless fury of booms and bangs and whistles and detonations fill the neighborhood, and light fills the sky. Red and green and white light.

The explosions, of course, are not bombs, and the lights are not produced by weapons. They are thousands of cheap fireworks set off by hand, in the front yards and on the streets of every neighborhood of New Delhi, the capital of India, in honor of one of the most famous Hindu holidays.

It's July Fourth, Indian style. It's called Diwali, and 900 million people here and around the world are celebrating.

The Diwali festival's origins can be traced to the return of a king from a long banishment. The word itself is a shortened version of the two Sanskrit words that mean "rows of light."

And the festival of light, as it is commonly known now, is celebrated by blowing up as many firecrackers as a person is capable of in one night.

Little firecrackers that make short, loud booms. Circular fireworks that look like snakes chasing their tails and spitting light out of their mouths. Triangular fireworks that create a 6-foot-tall streams of green and white. Fireworks that look like a row of cigarettes attached at the filters and sound like automatic weapons.

Across the street from us, a 15-year-old hammed it up for my camera as he lit not one, not two, but three sets of obnoxious little guys that pop your eardrum and fly in every direction. With a smile he showed me his arm -- which was covered with burn marks. He didn't seem to mind. The next time, he lit four at once.

Despite its Hindu roots, Diwali (pronounced Di-vall-ee) is a national holiday for all Indians, regardless of religion. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs celebrate by lighting candles and setting off fireworks, or "bombs," as many call them (a nod to their tendency to make noise but emit no light).

The day is also meant to make people thankful. "You feel that your life is so important. It just makes you realize that the healthy life that you have is such a precious gift," Shoaib Akhtar, one of the stars of Pakistan's beloved cricket team, told the television network IBN today

But Diwali is also a day of prayers for prosperity and toasts to the coming year. And people are expected to give presents to their friends and family and workers. Maids will ask their bosses for a "diwali gift," and landlords will give their new tenants anything from sweets to cake to new cookware.

In India, big, proper fireworks, the kind that every city in the United States displays on July Fourth, are few and far between.

The "crackers," as they're often called here, smell like sulfur and are extremely unpredictable. And because there are no regulations, no formal settings from which to watch, every family and every neighborhood is surrounded by endless explosions and thick, white smoke that gets thicker throughout the evening.

By 9 p.m., the air is absolutely filled with smoke. Visibility is probably less than 200 feet, and it was a perfectly clear night not long ago.

The smoke has actually become an issue during Dawali festivals over the years. "There's been a lot of consciousness regarding the pollution," said Sanjiv Juneja, a resident of south Delhi, as his family lights small fireworks around him. "It used to be much worse." It's hard to believe him on that.

I've probably lit 150 firecrackers tonight. My favorite is called a ghetto rocket. Despite their $1 price tag, they actually fly quite well: One we set off flew 150 feet over two rows of homes and exploded over one of our neighbor's gardens (sorry).

These are not the fireworks of Disneyland. These are flimsy, erratic, cheap, legal and bought in areas of the city like Sadar Bazar and Chandni Chowk for pennies on the dollar.

The cheapest fireworks usually sell for about 10 cents; the most expensive can cost nearly $100. Some are quite unusual. The Gudiya New Crystal Magic firecracker, which costs about $6, emits light meant to look like gold coins, and is reusable afterward as an ashtray.

Each homeowner will light candles (or hang little plastic lights) to signify the triumph of good over evil. And they will send prayers to the Hindu goddess Lackshmi, who is supposed to bring wealth in the coming year.

It's like Christmas and July Fourth rolled into one.

Even President Bush sent a Diwali message. "This festival brings together family and friends and helps ensure rich traditions are passed on to future generations. Diwali is also an opportunity to celebrate the bonds of friendship between India and the United States. The lights of Diwali remind us to work together to build a brighter future for all," Bush said in a statement.

Just two years ago, Diwali celebrations were targeted by terrorists. So this year police stepped up their presence during the day, increasing foot patrols at malls and markets. And army soldiers were deployed at railway stations throughout the city.

And of course, the fire department is out in force -- as it should be. Because the explosions continue, the smoke is getting thicker, and it still sounds like a war zone.