Mithi is usually a stopover for tourists visiting Tharparkar in the Sindh province of Pakistan. It has a dull district capital feel that pales against the burnished gleam of the neighbouring Nangarparkar, a mystic border town surrounded by the majestic Karonjhar range and dotted with Jain architecture. Through the year, Mithi is a side note in itineraries – except during Diwali.
For the five days of the autumn festival, Mithi celebrates like no-one else in Pakistan. As soon as the evening pooja finishes, the sleepy desert town of over 25,000 turns into a carnival of lights.
It was to witness this transformation that I travelled to Mithi last year with a writer and a business student. The writer was working on an assignment and had visited Thar a few times in the past, while the student had volunteered to assist her in the project. Our outlooks and ambitions were very different, but somehow experiencing Diwali in Mithi was important to all of us.
Mithi, after all, is among the few towns in Pakistan where Muslims are not in majority, a place where both Hindus and Muslims have lived together harmoniously. Its Diwali is a symbol of this amity, an experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Our trip didn’t get off to a great start.
In Mithi’s Bazaar, my room had a rotten smell. When I opened the tap in the washroom to freshen up, instead of warm water, I got a cold yellow fluid. Thar has its own set of problems and clean water is there on top on the list. It has frequent spells of drought and even when it rains, the higher concentration of salts and minerals make groundwater unsuitable for consumption.
I closed the tap and went out in the lounge, where I found the writer trying to make a call. It turned out that our local contact was not answering his phone. We looked at each other helplessly, but she assured us that she knew the city enough to explore it on our own.
The sun had set by the time we stepped out. We asked our driver to take us to the main bazaar, close to the town square, Kashmir chowk. The bazaar was bustling and the shops were adorned with colourful plastic flowers. Candles flickered on some shop counters. The writer told me the bazaar usually shuts down around sunset, but during Diwali it’s a different story.
We stopped at some crowded fireworks shops, fighting at first for space. But then people realised there were women amongst them. Out of respect, they let the writer and the student select fireworks. It was then I noticed that there were no women in the bazaar. The writer, as if reading my mind, turned and told me that the women must be busy at pooja. We closed the deal and made our way to Krishna Mandir at the other end of the bazaar.
The temple’s entrance was decorated with fairy lights. It seemed to have undergone many renovations and, in places, I could see fragments of old colourful Belgian tiles below newer gaudy ones. I walked in anxiously, fearing that people may not appreciate an outsider filming them. The writer sensed the hesitation and led me to the inner portico, striking the temple bell while crossing it. No-one seemed to care – people were busy lighting diyas, performing pooja, taking selfies and setting up fireworks.
As another wave of people came in, the writer said that perhaps the pooja was over.
Next, we drove through well-lit and reasonably clean lanes to a Shiv Mandir some distance away. To our dismay, it was closed. A passer-by told us that temples are usually shut on Diwali night in Mithi because most people celebrate the festival in their homes.
We walked around randomly and immediately attracted attention. With our big-town attire, we stood out as outsiders. A few people lingering outside a house asked us if we were foreigners. As I politely answered that we were from Karachi, I found the writer and the student disappearing into the house. The women of the house had invited them for a cup of tea and conversation. I followed them and we all sat on charpais.
The humble house had low walls and there were only a couple of rooms. There was a small barn on the other side. Children kept circling us with curiosity. One of them asked if I wanted to see fireworks and, before I could reply, he ran off and brought some. All of us took a break from the conversations to watch his daredevilry.
Bidding our hosts farewell, we stepped out into the streets again to resume our walk. By now the festivities were in full swing in Mithi. There were fireworks all around, some shooting in the air and leaving a trail of light, others just creating noise. We saw families on bikes visiting their relatives. Nearly all the women were dressed in sarees, while the men were clad in starched shalwar kameez.
After a few more stops, and invitations to a few more houses, we drove to the most popular landmark in Mithi – a viewing point called Gadi Bhit. It is a mound on one side of the town that gives a panoramic view of Mithi. When we reached, the viewing deck and tower were already full of people, most of them locals. Again, there were no women.
We settled on the deck and admired Mithi. There is no one big public space in Mithi where people gather to celebrate Diwali. In every gully, someone celebrates it in their own way and we witnessed all of it at the same time.
The writer told me she was happy she decided to make the trip. For a long time, she said, she had been celebrating conflicts – joining and documenting protests in Karachi – and it was purgative to celebrate something positive. She then took sparklers out of her bag, lit them up and swirled them around.
All photographs by Farooq Soomro