The Sound and Fury of Diwali

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Last weekend, India celebrated the Hindu holiday of Diwali, the Festival of Lights. It celebrates the triumph of good over evil and remembers, among other things, the return of Lord Rama following his epic and victorious struggle with the demon king Ravana. Grateful followers, the story goes, lit oil lamps to show Rama's way home in the darkness. Perhaps they also whooped and set off loud explosions, because the Festival of Light could just as easily be the Festival of Noise.

The main source of the cacophony is fireworks. In the twisting streets of Old Delhi, dozens of shops stock everything from thumb-sized "bombs" tightly wrapped in green string to huge cardboard tubes with names like "Galaxy" that shoot hundreds of colorful balls into the sky. Store fronts are hung with banners for "Cock Brand" fireworks promising "sparklers, crackers, rockets and fancy fireworks." On each banner a proud rooster stands amidst an orange and red fireburst. The trade is brisk in the buildup to Diwali, with thousands of stores across India selling hundreds of tons of firecrackers.

Anil Jain has been selling fireworks for 30 years. "I can't talk to you I'm too busy selling," he mumbles while chewing a mouthful of paan leaves when I stop by. Jain sits beside a display of boxes bearing names like "Star Circus" and "Silver Rain," their lids peeled off to reveal an assortment of small incendiaries: cones, wheels, pellets, some of them wrapped in paper, others in shiny silver foil like exotic candy.

Jain slips a few boxes into a plastic bag and hands them over to a customer, then spits a stream of paan juice onto the pavement. Red Rain, perhaps.

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