It was a cold winter day, the vents fanning Neil’s face with oxygen, while he had dozed off in the Earth History class and missed the topic for the last 15 minutes. “Roll No. 14, are you present in the class?”. Neil was startled, and blurted out a shameful, “Yes”. He looked around the class. All students sat on benches, looking extremely bored. 

‘Humans… still not over the classroom rite. What are the virtual education pods for when all they look like are the classrooms from Earth some 200 years ago’, thought Neil.

It was his most boring subject. Earth History. Every kid on Mars hated that subject. “What’s the use of learning about something that happened on another planet over two hundred years ago?”, they’d say. Neil was born on Mars, like all of his friends. His great grandparents were immigrants from India, Earth. 

“Then do you care to explain what day it is today?” the teacher persisted. Neil had not paid any attention at all, and Earth history wasn’t exactly his forte either. “Your family is Indian, isn’t it?” 

Neil was flustered. How would I know? Three generations of my family have never even visited earth! , he thought

The teacher asked, “Does anyone else know?”

An eager boy lifted his hand high. “It’s Dhanteras, it is considered as one of the most auspicious days by Hindus for buying utensils, silver coins, gold, and vehicles. Dhanteras is celebrated as the birth of Sri Dhanvantari God, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu as the physician of the gods.”

“That’s a great answer, Deepak! Thank you” the teacher replied.

‘Ughh what a nerd’, Neil thought. ‘He is like my dad, always excited about these Earthly things.’

“So, with this, we conclude our session. The next five earth days are celebrated as the festival of lights, traditionally celebrated by Hindus on earth. You will be getting a mini-vacation for a week, and your assignment is to learn more about this festival!”

Blink

Everything got dark. The whole classroom disappeared. A shutter opened and steam leaked out. Neil was sitting inside an education pod. A high-tech virtual classroom simulator, where kids from all over Mars attended live lectures. He stepped out of the foamy chair and stretched. He wore a radiation suit to protect him from radiation. Everyone on Mars wore full-body suits, but unlike the spacesuits of the past, these were as thin as athleisure earth clothes. He wore a mask that had some lights on it and looked rather futuristic. It was an O2 mask.

“I’m hungry”, he exclaimed.

Your today’s nutrient deficit is 36g of carbohydrates and 23g of Protein. Would you like a chocolate-flavored beverage or a hamburger flavored one? A human-like robotic sound asked.

It was Mangal, a high-tech centralized AI voice assistance.

To any Earthling, a liquid hamburger would sound disgusting, but to a Martian, it was a treat. 

His eyes slowly traveled towards his entertainment pod. He had promised his friends to meet them after school. He crept towards the glowing pod, with lights blaring from it. 

“Wait!” he heard his father’s voice. “What have I told you about exercise? Moving from one pod to another is unhealthy! You need to move a little! Come out of your room for once and spend time with us” 

Neil thought his dad was super boring, he always talked about stuff like this. ‘Earth festivals’, ‘moving around’, ‘tradition’, ‘planetary discrimination’, blah blah. Neil found all these things too boring. He didn’t see any point in humans sticking to their ‘planetary roots’. He was ten years old; he was old enough to decide what is good for himself. His parents were just too old-fashioned. He slowly dragged his sleepy self towards the common room. His father was standing there, looking rather angry.

“You need to wake up in four hours, you’d better sleep now and not hang out with those friends!”

“4 hours!?” Neil asked, “Why?”

“I told you about this yesterday! It’s Naraka Chaturdashi tomorrow! We need to calibrate our sleep cycles according to an earth day to celebrate Diwali!”

Ugh

Neil disappointingly walked towards his sleep pod, in his room.

Do you want to listen to earth bird sounds or the waves?

“Anything but not earth sounds”

The next morning, as he walked towards the common room, he saw his father, mother, and six-year-old little sister already ready, wearing their best radiation suits and masks. 

“Neil! Go to the O2 room and get your mask recharged. Traditionally, Hindus from earth used to bathe early in the morning before sunrise on this day, but using water is not feasible, so we just recharge our masks once a year and scan for radiation traces.” his mother said

Neil slowly removed his mask and plugged it in using a weird looking plug. It seemed almost alive and green – reminiscent of plants from the earth. These O2 machines were indeed alive, genetically modified plants on Mars, whose sole purpose was to recharge the O2 supply in masks. This model was particularly old. The most recent models had flowers and the most expensive ones even produced fruits – although inedible, that didn’t stop the richest brats from showing them off. 

Mask Fully charged. Please remove the branch 

Neil walked into the common room, feeling fresh and lively. 

“Dada! Uncle Vinit is going to call us today!” his little sister Arya excitedly screamed. 

“Uncle Vinit is calling from Venus!?” Neil was excited. He always wanted to be like his uncle. Vinit was an astronaut, and his job was to travel all over the solar system and find human-habitable places. His Uncle was his role model. He had talked with his uncle only a couple of times when he was small when his uncle had visited Mars. Interplanetary calls were not cheap.

His father and mother gave him loving glances. 

Blink. 

Receiving a call from Vinit Earth

Neil was star-stuck 

Vinit Earth? Not Venus? Why would he go back to that pollution infested planet! Neil thought.

The common room changed. The familiar living room layout changed to futuristic machinery and on one wall, a face loomed. It was so large that it looked a bit funny and Arya giggled. 

“Hi Kids! Happy Diwali”

“Uncle Neil! What are you doing on Earth! I thought you were an explorer and liked finding new habitable environments! I thought you hated earth!”

“Neil, that’s so rude!” his mother interrupted. 

Vinit smiled, “Neil beta, I have visited all the planets in our Solar System and over twenty moons, but do you know what my favorite place is?”

“Earth?” Neil asked weakly 

“Exactly! Do you know why?”

His parents gave Neil an ‘I-told-you-so’ look. 

Vinit continued, “It is because all other planets that we have landed a foot on had to be artificially terraformed and modified to be made habitable, but the earth was a God’s gift to us. We made all other planets human-habitable, but it was the earth that made humans in the first place!”

Neil pondered quietly. 

“He is just a kid”, his parents laughed off, while they drank ‘chiwda-flavoured’ smoothies with ‘ladoo-flavoured’ pills. Neil looked at the ‘pizza-flavored shake’ he had every day and he loved it. 

“May I have one?” he pointed towards a ladoo pill. 

“Why what happened to your brownie pills?” his father asked. Arya stuck out her tongue to tease him. 

Neil got red with embarrassment and they all laughed. Vinit smiled and winked.

The day earlier had gotten Neil deeply excited for the day that followed. It was Amavasya, a no moon day according to the Earth Hindu Calendar.

Neil was out of his sleeping pod even before Mangal woke him up. He was ready with zeal, unlike his routine, as per his Dad’s instructions. He was now old enough to accompany his Dad on the most auspicious ritual… bringing home the Indian currency of the twenty-first century from the Abotwine Bank of Mars to be worshipped in the Laxmi Puja. 

Now he knew what Laxmi Puja meant. Laxmi, the goddess of money and prosperity, would bless them on the day.

The living room was embellished with an artificial plethora of flowers and the O2 vents were sprayed with the fresh fragrance of mogra. Neil’s Dad had put up the lights the night before and the Team of two was ready to bring home the Indian notes.

“Dad, what about the new clothes? I’m tired of my old radiation suit. It heats up too soon these days. I want the new cirrus 720 coat.”

His Mom chuckled from the corner of the kitchen. “We’ve saved that, now, haven’t we?”

“Yes!” and that made his day.

The Abotwine Bank of Mars was a 170 storied building, one third the floors underground and the remaining floors above. The radiation reflectors draped to the magnanimous building made it look horrendous but it did maintain the temperature above and below.

Their family dorm was on the 97th floor and on the way to the floor, Neil saw many families gathering earth currency for the day.

“Dad, why don’t we use the earth currency over here?”, asked Arya.

“The earth money was an outcome of the forest massacre. I hope you remember your speech from the Environment Day.”

“And thou shalt not harm the specimens of trees saved at the sanctuary or break the rule of a Green Massacre!”, Arya recited.

“So, cutting trees is a punishable law. Hence, we can only use our ancestors’ treasury for Puja Day.”

“But-”, Arya was about to blurt but Neil knew better and prevented her from asking any more questions.

 Out of the Bank with a copper box in hand, Neil and Arya smiled from ear to ear. The smallest of the rituals brought this massive ecstasy and hailed the real joy of Diwali in the depth of his heart.

They later went to the Bersox market city to buy the Cirrus 720 suit. “Old heirloom and new apparel… I love this festival” thought Neil.

“Grab the camouflage mask as well, my boy” threw his father, a mask at him which took the color of his hand as soon as he held it.

“And before our little Arya asks…” his father lifted Arya on his shoulder, “There was a pandemic in the year 2020 called Covid-19 which evolved masks as inevitable apparel of the human beings. Good old tales about the years before are still a lucid dream for us, Martians!”

Blink

The eve was exuberant and the pooja was set near the diner pod. The ambers of the flowers from earth were arranged along with the notes. Some flowers from the Samuel botanical garden were spread around the idol of Goddess Laxmi. Neil’s mom had made kheer flavored shake for the offering and Arya had already drunk half her share.

While Neil and Arya were fighting over who would eat the last brownie pill, their Dad sneaked out of the entertainment pod. He slithered his way out and said, “I found you a surprise from the twenty-first century.” he smirked.

The family found their lousy corner in the entertainment pod when their Dad said, “Mangal, play my Diwali playlist.”.

The entire wall glowed with the lights and diyas from the era of their ancestors. The footage was improved to an extent but the ethos of the night had come alive. It was just perfect.

The next day was ‘Bhau Beej’. Neil had now started to see why everyone enjoyed Diwali so much. Just four earth days ago, he used to think that all ‘earth-festivals’ are boring and old. He had now started to realize that this was, in fact, his favorite festival. 

When his father told him that it was the last day of Diwali, he felt disheartened. 

He had planned a surprise for his sister. His father called him in the common room. Neil saw his sister eagerly waiting for him. His father narrated the story of Yamraja and Yamuna. 

“Yamraja visited his sister Yamuna on this day. Pleased by her love and affection, Yamraja gave his sister a Vardhan (boon) that whosoever visits her on this day, shall be liberated from all sins” he said, “That’s the reason, this day is celebrated as Bhau Beej”

His sister came up to him and hugged him, “Happy Bhau Beej, Dada!”. His sister gifted him a new game for his entertainment pod. 

Neil held his sister in his arms and said, “I have a surprise for you as well.” He walked her towards his room. “Come inside the entertainment pod”

His sister was surprised. “Inside your entertainment pod!? You never allow me near it!”

Neil smiled.

He and his sister stepped into the pod. It was pitch dark inside. Suddenly, there was a loud noise, a bang, followed by a bright flash of light. His little sister looked at the virtual sky in awe. Mars didn’t have any firecrackers – detonation was not even possible on Mars the same way it was on earth. This is the first time either of them had ever seen a ‘rocket’ firecracker. The first detonation was followed by a plethora of lights, that turned the black sky into bright flashes of red, yellow, green, and white. Their noses tingled with the fake burning smell. 

“Didn’t these fireworks cause pollution on earth?” his little sister asked

“They did, increasing pollution was one of the reasons humans left earth in the first place! However, by the year 2030, people realized this and stopped bursting firecrackers completely!”

“It’s so sad – they were so beautiful”

“Yes, we can experience them now too – virtually, without harming our precious planet!” 

After the light show in the sky, their attention turned towards the floor, where ‘chakras’ and ‘fountains’ burned up. 

Suddenly, there was a loud noise – it was a ‘Lakshmi Bomb’. Neil was startled and his sister hugged him tightly, scared. Both of them closed their eyes. The burning smell slowly subsided and was replaced by a sweet aroma of ‘Earthly food – Farhal.’ When they opened their eyes, they were greeted by a never-ending row of Diyas. 

Neil smiled as he looked back and realized how silly he had been to dislike Diwali. This Diwali on Mars was something that he would never forget.

– Bansi and Yash