This weekend was supposed to be special. It was the culmination of a week of religious and cultural celebrations across India. Different parts of the country celebrate in slightly different ways, so one expected to find oneself at any odd celebration - whether it was Navratri, celebrated by the Gujuratis, or Durga Puja by the Bengalis, or Ashtami, by folk from Delhi and Punjab - but I forgot to mark the start of the week.
It was only after a text message arrived from my mother that I realised that I had a) not bought a new dress to mark the occasion (one of my favourite childhood memories surrounding Durga Puja); b) not cleaned my flat to prepare for the festivities; and c) forgotten to call my parents and relatives.
I ignored the first two and got to frantically typing good wishes (a far cry from actually visiting the homes of relatives and sharing in the festivities). And then it was back to work, which led me right into the heart of the celebrations. At the Varma family home in Abu Dhabi, I showed up and sat cross-legged on their floor with hundreds of expatriates who had made their ways from across the country to join in the celebrations. There was singing, dancing and plenty of good food. For a moment, I put down my notebook and listened to two engineers sing devotional songs. Neither had any formal training in music but as they sang, those gathered joined them and clapped along, celebrating Ashtami.
The songs sounded familiar. They transported me back to a year I spent in Delhi, sharing a flat with three of my friends and living frugally. Come autumn, the entire area would come alive for weeks and even in the middle of the night, strains of music could be heard from nearby homes, where people gathered to sing through the night. The streets were lit up with lights strung from homes and small shops that lined the streets. There were children running around in their best clothes, and neighbours insisted on sharing sweets. We ate with gusto, filling our bellies each evening with whatever the neighbourhood had to offer. The home-cooked feats were always vegetarian delights, much like the ones on offer at the Varma household.
All the fretting from earlier in the day about being so far away from home and my culture evaporated as I bit into a mini samosa dipped in tamarind chutney and chatted with young couples who had made the trek from Dubai to join in a simple but delicious meal. The Indian festive season was upon us, and even thousands of miles from home, there was more or less the same jubilation in the air.