The festival of lights

by Christine Estima

This story is part of our 'Unforgettable hotel nights' series, featuring tales from luxury hotel guests which were sent in for our recent travel writing competition.

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Udaipur, India. As Diwali, the holy festival of lights, raged on in the city below, I found myself fiddling with the remote of an ancient TV-set in my hotel room. What am I doing? I silently chastised myself. The world was convening on this small town to ignite fireworks, share sweets, and worship Gods, yet here I was holing up like a hermit inside my room. I could see the dancing, the flash of colourful saris, and the jingle-jangle of bangles from my window and longed to participate. Enough! I stepped into the glorious plunge of the unknown.

Following the joyful voices and rich scents of saffron and cardamom, I climbed the elaborate staircase with Shiva carvings to the hotel’s gabled roof. The air was balmy, dense with scents of sandalwood and gardenias. A soft music greeted me but the place was full. Through the bustle I made eye contact with Adhiraj, my tour guide. “Christine! Come!” he beckoned to me, making room for me round the dining table assembled under the cornucopia of stars and velvet-black sky.

The table simmered with rich dishes. Malai Kofta Dilbahar (potato balls stuffed with nuts and spices), Palak Paneer (cottage cheese squares in spinach sauce), Aloo Ghobi (potatoes and cauliflower curried together), Chana Masala (chick peas in spicey sauce). Tangy cucumber salads, heaps of Masala Chai pots to be drunk, coconut Parathas, sugared Naan, and hot rice. My stomach became a cauldron of delicious ingredients, brewing me back to life.

The hotel rooftop overlooked Lake Pichola surrounding the mountains of Udaipur. In the distance, amber, emerald, and gold, fireworks made the night brighter than the day. Why I had retreated to solitude away from my tour group earlier, I couldn’t remember now. Adhiraj and my group were all infected with Diwali-fever, and we began to trade giggles. Adhiraj had a face full of passion and an air of adamant sweetness. A native of Udaipur, he regaled me with stories of Bollywood-star encounters. It was easy to talk to him. His face grew brick-red with excitement as a firecracker exploded over our heads and cinders floated down onto our heads like snow. I finished off my chai and poured another. Then another. Taking a bite of the Malai Kofta that seemed to be crisping my tongue, everything I saw enraptured me.

I moved to the roof’s banister and gazed out at the bright lake. The water heaved, people shrieked over the blazing explosions, and the world around me swarmed with colour. Adhiraj moved next to me against the banister and asked, “Why do you drink so much tea?”

“It keeps me from becoming indifferent.” I answered. We smiled at each other.

Meantime the evening softened, and the water glowed. The moon sank into the ocean, leaving a fiery steak. A breeze brought in the scent of life only to be found in hidden gems of India. The India you won’t see if you refuse company. If you don’t get out and remember to smile.

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