x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A bonfire in Dubai to celebrate Lohri

A teenage gathering for the Indian festival of Lohri includes fun with making fire.

What teenagers want to do most of the time is, quite simply, party - and they will make sure they find any pretext to do so.

When I was invited to a party at a friend's house to celebrate the north Indian festival of Lohri, I was only too pleased to attend. Masses of people flocked together, some of them not Indian nor having the slightest inkling what Lohri is, but content to eat good food and socialise all the same.

Its popularity is understandably enduring: the idea is to collect wood, make a bonfire, sit around it, talk, sing and eat. A balmy Dubai night does somewhat take away from the atmosphere, as Lohri is meant to fall on the coldest day of the year. There's nothing quite like gathering around a welcoming fire on a freezing, foggy night, especially if you live somewhere as chilly as the northern parts of India in winter. Working up the ambience was admittedly a bit harder here, since most of us were clad in shorts. But happily our host, Tara, had everything we needed to get a bonfire going.

We debated over whether we should start building our pyramid of twigs in the grass, but hazarding a guess that Tara's parents wouldn't look kindly upon a burnt patch in the middle of their manicured lawn, decided to do it on the patio instead. The firewood, it turned out, was unwieldy branches from a tree from her garden that had been trimmed a few weeks ago. "Do we take the leaves out?" someone asked with uncertainty. Loud arguing ensued, which caused a neighbour to ring the bell and fix us with a steely glare. Stammering out apologies and promising to keep the noise level down, we turned our attention to how we were going to divide the branches into manageable twigs that we could make into a fire.

Surprisingly enough, chopping wood was no one's forte, and we spent about an hour trying to pull the ridiculously strong branches apart. "How about we skip the fire and just have dinner?" Adrian suggested, and Tara quashed him with an incredulous look. Muttering to himself, Adrian expressively and meaningfully aimed a kick at the nearest branch, immediately yelped, and hobbled off to nurse his sore toe.

Finally, we had just about enough wood, and with none of us left with the energy to continue on our quest for the perfect Lohri bonfire, we left Tara to bend the twigs into shape and light them. The twigs refused to catch fire. With every obstacle, we only felt more determined, though, so the whole of the day's paper was ripped up, scrunched into balls, lit and pushed through the twigs.

We did manage to get a fire crackling merrily, and soon we were all seated around it. We were supposed to do some community singing, but everyone ended up singing different songs extremely raucously and extremely tunelessly. Decorative drums were brought out from the living room and mercilessly pummelled while someone initiated a few Punjabi numbers. Their driving rhythms tend to go well with the party atmosphere, cutting across nationalities. Few understood the words but everyone bawled along anyway, inventing lyrics as they went along. Eventually, tired of listening to what sounded like a particularly nasty cat fight, an iPod was plugged into speakers and the dancing began. It would have been a wonderful party if someone trying to breakdance hadn't attempted to stand on his head and wave his legs about because his hair ended up singed from the fire and he was ushered, sniffling, inside.

If this was a traditional Lohri we would be gorging on peanuts, popcorn and Indian sweets made of sesame seeds - and throwing some into the fire for good luck every few minutes - but for a lack of Indian sweets we deigned to content ourselves with Frosties bars. Someone had the brainwave of roasting marshmallows but not finding any after raiding the cupboards, we roasted some low-calorie breadsticks instead and munched on them rather forlornly for the rest of the evening.

When dinner (takeaway pizza) was finally served, everyone tried to stick a fork through their slice and dangle it over the bonfire, and as would be expected, all the cheese melted and dripped into the blazing fire below, much to the chagrin of the diners who couldn't quite digest the idea of having to eat cheese-less pizza.

Although everything was going beautifully, we had to end the party inside the house with the doors firmly shut. In a matter of hours the whole area had turned thick black with smoke, and, of course, we noticed it only when Diana was asked why she was crying. She wasn't - her eyes were tearing up, and with a start we realised that ours were too. Too much green wood in the fire, apparently - bit of a damper. We retired home early next morning, and I didn't stir from my bed until noon. Tara wasn't as lucky - I expect she had a bit of answering to do about the charred black area that was once her patio.

The writer is a 15-year-old student in Dubai.