This year, the Hindu holy day of Diwali fell on October 17th.
This year, my twelve-hour layover in Chennai, formerly Madras, fell on October 17th.
As with most religious holidays such as Eid (end of Ramadan) or Hanukkah, Diwali—the Festival of Lights—is celebrated with family. And as I had no family to speak of in India, I was destined to spend my first Diwali alone.
My plane ticket from Delhi to Kuala Lumpur cost me less than $200, but the scheduling called for a half-day stretch in the seaport on the Bay of Bengal for which a juicy cocktail is named. Knowing I’d be stationary for such a long while, I sent messages to a few CouchSurfers in the city hoping I’d have a couple of babysitters. Not knowing I had booked my flight on Hindu’s biggest holiday (though not everyone in India is Hindu, Diwali is also an official government holiday just like Christmas in the US), I had several responses to my queries, but they were all very tentative: “I might/might not be in the city,” “I may/may not be available to take you around town.”
In the end, blood proved thicker than water and my would-be CS day hosts apologized profusely and with great regret that they wouldn’t be available; the last host informing me of this after I had already arrived in lush, tropical Chennai. With most tourist sites closed for the holiday, and with the temperature being in the mid-90s, I decided to spend a couple hours at the movies.
I printed up the boarding pass for my international flight, which departed a little before midnight, and after a short stroll around the compact airport which included an abortive attempt to secure a banana-chocolate milkshake (apparently, adding banana to a chocolate milkshake necessitated consultation with the restaurant manager, restaurant owner, and airport authorities), then argued with a rickshaw driver over the price to take me to the Chennai Citi Center mall (got him down to 130 rupees, about $2.80). We arrived at the boxy, but baroque, shopping center after a half-hour of whizzing through relatively empty streets and past shuttered storefronts. I had my mind all set for something Hollywood or Bollywood. I got nothing: every showing of every film was sold out for the entire day. I guess it was for the best, as all the movies were in Tamil anyway.
After another haggling session, this time with a pack of audacious but idle rick drivers trying to finance a very merry Diwali on my lone airport run, I trekked back to the terminal.
I was sleepy and sweaty.
I still had six hours before my flight.
I wasn’t allowed through Immigration with a boarding pass printed from the website.
I wasn’t allowed through Immigration without a departure form from my airline.
I wasn’t allowed through Immigration to just sit and wait at the gate.
The airline counter didn’t open until two hours before my flight. There were four hours left.
I bought a bar of soap at the pharmacy and took a bird bath in the bathroom, changing into a clean shirt and the least-dirty of the two pair of jeans I had.
And I sat. Wrote. Sat. Ate. Sat. Whistled. Sat. Twiddled. Sat. Watched the old school departure board letters flap around, spelling the names of far-off-sounding destinations one letter at a time (very cool!). Sat. Wrote. Sat. Ate. Etc.
I checked into the flight and scored a window seat on an exit row.
I marched triumphantly, for the second time, to Immigration. “Happy Diwali,” I said to the officer who immediately frowned and gave me a defiant Indian head wiggle.
“Not everyone in India celebrates Diwali, you know,” he schooled. “We Tamils celebrate the Harvest Festival in January, called Pongal.”
I stood stunned, but I guess I would have responded the same way had I been working somewhere and was greeted with “Happy Kwanzaa.” In fact, I know I would have (I told y’all Indians were black).
The moral of this story: Stop trying to be a smart ass by erroneously invoking people’s cultures when a simple “hello” would suffice.
Happy Thanksgiving, errbody!