The impossibly thin boy sits on top of a telegraph pole grinning broadly as thousands of people gather in the shabby square below him.
Summer is over but the buildings surrounding the big patch of trampled dirt in the southern suburbs of New Delhi seem to have wilted with heat exhaustion.
Hundreds of boys have climbed as high as they can, on poles, buildings and vehicles, to get a good view. Small children sit on the shoulders of fathers.
A brass band of youngsters enters the square, all in white uniforms with gold epaulettes. The epaulettes fall below the boys’ elbows, making the jackets look as if they had been abandoned by burly Highlanders in the dying days of the Raj.
This, my aunt – a long-time India-resident – tells me is how the poor celebrate, together and in great joy. Elsewhere in the city of 14 million and across a sub-continent of more than 1.2 billion, families exchange sweets, light lamps and dress up to celebrate the triumph of light over dark, of good over evil.
The big hotels play host to thousands of guests, all in their best, most colourful clothes. The women are loaded down with dull-coloured 24-carat-gold jewellery, the softest and most expensive type. Smiles are wide. Fireworks crack all night.
Diwali has been described as a sub-continental Christmas, New Year and end of financial year rolled into one. It is celebrated with more regional variation than Christmas in the West.
I ask friends and relatives in India and Australia to explain Diwali to me. No two stories are quite the same.
On a visit to Bali during a Hindu festival, Nilima, a Delhi native who has spent a lifetime studying Indian traditions, says she was starkly reminded of one key development in tradition.
“The entire island had elaborate Saraswati puja (prayer/ reverence festival) and wanted to know if we had the same in India. I was embarrassed to say we don’t. And then realised that Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, had overtaken Saraswati, who is the goddess of learning. A real sign of our times.”
Diwali, Nilima says, is different in different regions and for different communities. As with Christmas, she says, where the St Nicholas (Santa Claus) and the birth of Jesus narratives have come together, ancient Indian stories have also merged.
My cousin Kim sends an extract of a kids’ book she had used to explain Diwali to her children in Delhi. The triumph of good over evil and light over darkness is there, as is an explanation that Diwali is celebrated in the Hindu month of Kartik, which is October-November in the West.
On the original day of Diwali, the book explains, Rama returned to his capital with his wife and brother after an exile of 14 years. (The book leaves out that Rama had to defeat Ravana, king of Lanka, now Sri Lanka, to achieve his homecoming.)
The people were so overjoyed they lit lights along the route and distributed sweets, starting the tradition.
These days, celebrations are augmented with fireworks (to scare away evil spirits), people wear new clothes, employers give gifts to workers, lights of all sorts are lit and happiness seems contagious.
The Sikh Diwali differs from the Hindu Diwali which differs from the Jain Diwali. Nilima explains that in the south, Diwali makes no reference to the Rama-Ravana rivalry. Ravana, the bad guy in the north (except in kids’ books), is revered in the south as a scholar.
“It’s a different victory of good over evil and the firecrackers are burst just before dawn,” Nilima says. In Kerala, for instance, Diwali celebrates Sri Krishna’s destruction of a demon. In Gujarat, festivities start earlier than in the rest of India.
But everyone, especially boys who climb poles for a better view, agree that Diwali is about joy, reverence and hope.