Shab e Baraat used to be my favourite festival. Yes, you heard me right: “festival”.
Like all festivals, Shab e Baraat was entertaining, fun and spiritual. And for a crazy kid growing up in Lahore during the 80s and 90s, it was probably even a little unsafe!
The local marketplace would host tens of stalls selling every variety of firework known to man. All the kids in the neighborhood would save up their pocket money for months to be able to buy their fill of Patakhay (fireworks). The most popular fireworks included the Anaar (a fountain of fireworks), the Hawaiyaan (rockets) and the Bum (bombs, the kind that explode with just a loud noise without destroying half a city block, unlike the Bum in vogue nowadays).
The firework of choice for the little ones was the Phuljharri (sparkler), since it was safe and fun to just wave around. Kids who could wave the Phuljharri fast enough would be able to create a beautiful ring of fire & smoke, crackling and hissing away into the night.
The teenagers in the mohalla also had their fair share of prankster fireworks, with the most popular one (and my personal favourite) being the Chooha. Once lit, the Choocha would zip around the ground at lightning speed while emitting a high pitched scream. And if you were really lucky, the Chooha would find it’s way up the dhoti of an unsuspecting grandfather, resulting in a lot of laughter and a bit of bruised pride. Another mischievous patakha was the Klashenkoff (named after every Taliban’s favourite rifle), which would sound exactly like a burst of machine gun fire and send people diving for cover.
Many fireworks would never ignite properly, dying with a mild hiss. This is how the term “Phussi Bum” came into being, which an entire generation now uses when they want to refer to something that doesn’t work correctly.
Lighting up the house was a tradition. Some people put up candles, others put up electric lights… but the undisputed winners would always be the Safdar’s. They would encircle the entire outer perimeter of their house with beautiful oil lamps. As the night wore on, children would run out of fireworks and the candles on the walls would melt, but the flames of the lamps at the Safdar’s place would continue dancing into the wee hours of the morning. Everyone in the neighborhood, including myself, was jealous of those beautiful lamps.
Friends and family would get together to play with fireworks, admire the lighting, enjoy delicious food and end up spending time in prayer. Shab e Baraat was a fun-filled religious festival with strong influences of subcontinental and Islamic culture. It was a centuries old tradition. Shab e Baraat was fantastic.
Until it stopped happening.
I was in Lahore last Friday and someone had to remind me that it was Shab e Baraat. There were no fireworks. I didn’t see any children with Phuljharrian and noticed no dhoti-clad grandpas running for cover. There were no festive gatherings, no candles and, worst of all, no lamps at the Safdar’s. And it’s not like the celebrations were subdued or lacked fervour – there was NOTHING.
And the next day Facebook was filled with hundreds of posts about Father’s day.
I believe that values and traditions don’t have to be “defended”. If they have substance and capture the people’s imaginations, they will survive and grow. If they are weak, they will die. I would have loved to see my children enjoy Shab e Baraat the way I used to, but I don’t think that is going to happen. Even if I make the effort to find fireworks and get my kids to play with them, it will be no fun unless the whole neighborhood is involved. The tradition of fireworks, lamps and fun that made Shab e Baraat a festival has died.
I think it’s important that we take a moment to ponder over why this has happened.
There was always a group of orthodox muslims who did not appreciate the association of lamps, fireworks and fun with Shab e Baraat (“biddat” they call it, i.e., innovation in religion). Other conservatives thought the rituals of oil lamps and fireworks had their origin in the Hindu festivals of Dewali and should be abandoned. Have we been succesfully Saudi-ized? Is this departure from subcontinental Muslim traditions the price we have to pay for USD 3 billion grants?
Maybe I’m blaming the Saudis unnecessarily. Does this have something to do with banning explosive materials (hence fireworks) due to the Taliban threat?
Or have we simply traded eastern traditions for western ones, where celebrating Shab e Baraat is not important anymore while Father’s Day has become an event of consequence?
I wish someone would tell me: Where did all the lamps go?